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Catcher in the Rye: Miguel Montero's difficult 2013

Jason Kubel's fall from grace this year was widely noted, before his ignominious exit. But was Miguel Montero's campaign an even bigger disappointment?

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Norm Hall
"I’m not going to change anything. It happened. It’s baseball. Everybody has one or two of those years. I’ll just come back with a fresh mind and see what happens."- Miguel Montero

There's certainly a case to be argued that Miguel Montero was the biggest single disappointment of the 2013 season for the Diamondbacks. If we use fWAR as a measue, while Jason Kubel was worth 3.3 wins less than last year (going from 1.6 to -1.7), and Ian Kennedy 2.3 wins (2.9 to 0.6), Montero slumped even further, going from 4.6 fWAR in 2012 to a mere 0.9 this campaign, a drop of 3.7 wins. It's not exactly the first full season we wanted to see, after Miggy signed a $60 million, five-year deal in May last season. Given a certain ESPN pundit's track record, should we have been more worried after he said this was, "Not a contract they're likely to regret"?

2013 Expectations

There wasn't much to separate Montero's 2012 numbers from the ones posted the previous year: one additional game and nine points of OPS. There wasn't an All-Star appearance for Miguel, and he did almost drop off the back end of the MVP voting results, coming in with a single tenth-place vote. But there was no doubt that he'd be our everyday catcher again, and most fans were expecting similar offensive production: hitting around .280, with home-runs somewhere in the teens. Even neutral systems were there or thereabout; the Zeile projection consensus came up with a figure of .273, 15 home-runs and 73 RBI.

Defensively, there was little reason not to imagine Montero would remain among the best in the league at throwing out base-stealers, nailing 40% or more of them. All told, his 8 bWAR over 2011-12 was behind only Yadier Molina, Buster Posey and Matt Wieters. Of course, health could always be an issue for catchers, but even his right knee, a potentially tricky area for a catcher which required surgery early in 2010, seemed to be holding up nicely. Having appeared in 140+ games both of the last two seasons, there didn't appear to be any concerns. even as Miggy moved into his thirties on July 9 this year.

Offensive indifference

The opening couple of series, against the Cardinals and Brewers, went well enough, Montero going 7-for-23 and getting his first home-run in the second game versus St. Louis. But April 7 was his last multi-hit game of the month; between there and his next one on May 3, Montero hit .157 and slugged .186, to drop below the Uecker Line. He'd remain there for the bulk of the month, and headed into June still batting .199 for the year. June was better, as Miggy hit .278 for the month, and though his average dipped back to .234 in July, he did rediscover some of his power strike with four home-runs.

Injury meant he missed 24 games in August, and there we hopes he'd return to form after coming back, as he had 11 hits in his first eight appearances. But that proved a false dawn, and he ended the season on an 0-for-19 streak, which dropped his overall line for 2013 to .230/.318/.344, a .662 OPS which was 167 points less than the previous year. Overall, his strikeout rate increased, going from 22.7% to 23.2%, while Miggy walked less often, that figure dropping from 12.7% to 10.7%. Left-handed pitchers in particular gave Montero fits, as he managed an OPS of .492 against them, with a K:BB ratio of 32:9 and only one home-run in 105 at-bats.

Thrown off

Perhaps even more surprising was the decline in Montero's control of the running game - one wonders if the departure of fellow Venezuelan Henry Blanco, who had been backup catcher and mentor to Miggy in 2011 and 2012, perhaps had a negative impact? After throwing out 32 runners in each of those year, Montero nailed less than half as many this time (15): part of that was due to him playing fewer innings, but his rate took a sharp hit as well. Last season, he threw out 42%, good enough for third among catchers with 500+ innings played; this time, it as 33%, only seventh, though I should note, still significantly above league average of 28%.

There was another area where Miguel seemed to struggle: wild pitches and passed balls. All told, Arizona totaled 94 of those, the most in the National League and thirty more than average. It's also more than 50% up on the 2012 total (61), and while our pitchers obviously bear some of the responsibility, I tend to think much of that increase can be attributed to Montero. Miguel allowed 59, the most by any catcher in the major-leagues. Yes, more even than Wilin Rosario (56), and you know how much he sucked defensively.

Taco Well?

"They told me, get four Advil every six hours. Advil? I get Advil for breakfast."- Miguel Montero

Montero wasn't able to reproduce his iron man performance (by catcher standards) of the last couple of season, though his 111 games started at the position trailed only four in the league, with Yadier Molina's 128 leading the way. The main issue was a lower back strain which sidelined Miguel entirely at the end of July, after causing him to sit out a number of games over the previous two weeks. Inflammation led to stiffness and spasms, and an MRI revealed a minor bulging disk. He had an epidural injection to reduce the swelling, but rest and ice bags were the prescribed cure.

Montero seemed content to take things cautiously, saying, "The last thing I want to do is hurt it again and be out for a longer time. I'm going to try to take my time rather than hurting it and going out for the rest of the year. Backs are a really scary situation, and as a catcher it is even worse, because I have to lay down, blocking balls and all that." He came back on August 26, but that wasn't quite the last of his injuries. He had an infected index finger at the end of the season; while it didn't cause him to miss significant time, it did require surgery to clean up things, carried out by the D-backs' hand specialist, Dr Don Sheridan. TIL the Diamondbacks have a hand specialist...

So, what happened?

"My timing has just been on and off, and I want to be consistent on it. My hands are good. My bat speed is good. I know I’m fouling off pitches that I’m not supposed to foul off, and what does that tell me? Probably that my timing is just a little bit late. So I need to start a little bit earlier. It is something I am working on. Hopefully we’ll see the results." -- Montero, May 24

"I'm starting to feel better at the plate, and I really have to take advantage of that. I never want a day off, period, but now I'm really asking him not to give me one, because I feel better at the plate and I just want to continue that. If I get a day off, I might go backwards a little bit. I'm feeling better and better and better -- and hopefully it stays there." -- Montero, June 19

"I think he's gotten away from the approach part because he's not happy with his mechanics and doesn't feel like he's on time. So you start to analyze and look at your film and what can I change and you try a lot of different things and I think that's where he's at. Sometimes people have years like that and you don't really get connected," Gibson said. His swing is longer, so it looks like he's over-swinging." -- Gibson, Sep 4

"I started out on the wrong foot at the beginning of the season. The first month I felt good but numbers wise it didn’t show. I felt like I was hitting the ball hard everywhere but they were making plays. It was frustrating. When that happens as a hitter you want to stay the same and don’t change anything but you start to change. … All of a sudden in late April I didn’t have a clue what I was doing at the plate. That lasted a month and a half." -- Montero, Sep 12

Can he bounce back?

I take comfort in the fact that, looking at Montero's stats overall, this year looks like the aberration. His OPS was 100 points lower than any he has put up since his rookie season as a 23-year-old in 2007. As he pointed out, just about every player has down seasons: it's just the nature of things, and Miggy still possesses a career line of .267/.345/.431. The resulting OPS of .776 is good enough for seventh among all active catchers with 2,000+ PAs, so it would certainly be foolish to start writing him off at this point.

However, we don't have to look too far to find the last example of a man in the mask getting a contract extension, whose performance went south thereafter. In December 2008, the club agreement on a three-year, $14.25 million deal with then-catcher Chris Snyder. He got barely half-way through that period before being, effectively, salary-dumped on Pittsburgh, having hit .217 for Arizona over the previous season and a half. It's a sobering thought that Montero's deal commits the D-backs to more than four times as much...

Here's Fox Sports Arizona's Cup of Coffee show, in which Steve Berthiaume sits down with Miggy to discuss... Well, everything. :)