There was a palpable sense of deflation among Cubs fans the day news broke that free agent catcher Russell Martin, whom the Cubs pursued aggressively, had signed with Toronto to a five-year, $82 million deal.
At the time, the Cubs’ pursuit had the feeling of a foregone conclusion. The organization and its fan base were still riding the high of having landed one of the game’s premier managers, and it had been no secret that the club was fixated on upgrading the catcher position, especially defensively.
Martin was going to be that immediate fix. The ex-Pirates backstop represented a chance to acquire not just exceptional pitch framing, but the potential for legitimately productive offense. After roughly five seasons of solid but unspectacular offensive output, Martin broke out the stick in 2014 like he hadn’t since 2008. He posted a terrific .370 weighted on-base average last season, definitely inflated by BABIP, but not to a ridiculous degree.
To put that wOBA output in context, the only catchers who topped Martin’s production in 2014 were Cincinnati’s Devin Mesoraco (.387) and San Francisco’s Buster Posey (.371). Not even MVP candidate Jonathan Lucroy of Milwaukee (.368) topped Martin in that regard.
But the vision of Martin saving countless runs with his framing and offering offensive output for the Cubs never materialized, killed for good when the Blue Jays pushed their offer to a guaranteed fifth year in which Martin will make $20 million. The Cubs backed away, and it was time to move on to Plan B.
For a couple of expendable pitching prospects, the Cubs did just that on Tuesday. His name is Miguel Montero, and he’s what the front office is looking for in a catcher.
The conversation on the value of Montero starts with his pitch framing. According to Matthew Carruth’s StatCorner Catcher Report, Montero was the best in baseball last season in terms of runs above average (24.0 RAA). By comparison, Russell Martin accumulated a 2014 RAA of 11.7, good for 10th in the league.
How does Montero’s pitch framing compare with that of Welington Castillo? There really isn’t a comparison. Castillo’s -24.3 RAA in 2014 was the second-worst in baseball, bested (worsted?) only by Miami’s Jarrod Saltamacchia and his -24.4 RAA.
There shouldn’t be any surprise that the Cubs front office prioritizes pitch framing. The organization doesn’t talk simply about defense, but about run prevention. A catcher’s impact on run prevention can be massive, not just in his ability to block pitches and throw out base runners, but to “reframe” as many balls into strikes as possible. To that extent, Montero’s one of the league’s best.
But what about his hitting? A cursory glance says Montero was flat-out bad at the plate the past two years. His .307 wOBA last season ranked just 21st among catchers with at least 250 plate appearances. He was even worse in 2013, posting an atrocious .295 wOBA that ranked 27th among catchers with at least 250 PA.
So is that it? Is Montero simply a terrible hitter with no value to a ballclub outside of his framing skills? That’s possible, but it’s also very doubtful. For one, his career wOBA is .333. While that’s not excellent by any stretch, it’s significantly above his dead-end output the past two years, which were only his age 29 and 30 seasons. It’s possible that Montero began experiencing a major age-related offensive decline before ever turning 30, but again, it’s unlikely.
Moreover, he’s not that far removed from two genuinely terrific offensive seasons; in 2011, he posted .353 wOBA, which he followed in 2012 with a career-best wOBA of .364. Those are very good rates for any hitter. For a catcher, though, they’re just a shade below top-tier.
Why should anyone hold out any hope that Montero sees a rebound, though? Well, that reason could be hiding in the relationship between his line drive rates and BABIP. Montero posted a solid 20.8 LD% last season, which should have translated roughly to a .310 BABIP. But that wasn’t the case, because that final 2014 BABIP settled in at just .275.
How about 2013? Same thing. Montero’s line drive rate was solid again, at 21.4%. That again should’ve translated to a BABIP somewhere around .310, but it didn’t. He concluded 2013 with a .282 BABIP, well below where a typical player with his LD% should have settled.
So, what we have here is a catcher in the back end of his prime, who had put up terrific offensive numbers in 2011 and 2012, with a case of two years’ worth of significantly and unusually low BABIP. That’s a lot of fly balls that, earlier in Montero’s career, would have fallen for hits rather than caught for outs.
This leaves us with the question: was it bad luck, or something else? There’s a very reasonable chance that Montero has pulled a Brian McCann offensively, and was unable to adjust after seeing the league blanket him with defensive shifts. The fact that he’s “under-hit” his line drive rate over two full seasons suggests that this is a sample big enough to point to something other than bad luck.
Has he failed to adjust to the shift? Surely, the Cubs already know the answer to that. But it’s entirely possible that prolonged, maddening bad luck has been the story behind Montero’s recent failure offensively, at least in part.
Would the Cubs have traded for him even if the offensive decline has been real, and not simply a product of bad luck? Entirely plausible. They didn’t give up much to get him, and the Montero who’s an offensive also-ran can still offer good value through framing alone.
The main takeaway from the acquisition, though, should be this: the Cubs traded for a relatively durable catcher who, at the very least, will save the defense significant amounts of runs. He’s also had a history of quality offensive output over the majority of his career.
There’s chance that Montero’s offense never fully comes back, that he has been “solved” by advanced scouting and the now-ubiquitous shift. But there’s just as good a shot that Montero has a few good years of hitting left in him, and that the right coaches and right ballpark can bring that out of him.
We’ll find out soon.