When the Yankees elected this offseason to trade away Jesus Montero in an exchange that revolved around Mariners right-hander Michael Pineda, the deal looked like a relative win/win. The Yankees were getting a good young pitcher who they expected to slot in right behind CC Sabathia and help solidify their rotation. The Mariners, who were trading from a position of strength, were adding a young, right-handed power hitter to fortify the middle of a lineup that desperately needed a power bat.
Shortly after the deal was completed, Pineda was diagnosed with a torn labrum and was done for the year. At this point, the Mariners had dodged a huge bullet and the trade was looking like a big win for the Mariners. Nearly four months into the season, however, the deal has been a virtual wash in terms of on the field production; Pineda hasn’t thrown a pitch, but that’s still better than Montero’s -0.1 WAR to this point. The Mariners would still prefer Montero, I am sure, but he has yet to display the skills at the plate that had baseball fans excited at the end of last year.
With questionable defensive skills, Montero needs make up for it with his bat. His .258/.298/.393 line, however, isn’t what Seattle had in mind.
Montero is not a patient hitter; he is walking just 5.6 percent of the time, which is a problem. He is chasing pitches outside the zone at a rate of 39.9 percent, ninth most in all of baseball. This is also a problem. Both of these are things that Montero needs to work on, but hitters with low walk rates—Adam Jones—and hitters with high chase rates —Josh Hamilton—can succeed without a perfect approach. Montero’s biggest problem, the reason he is struggling to produce at the plate, is because he can’t hit right-handed pitching.
In 102 plate appearances so far this season, Montero is destroying lefties to the tune of a .373/.409/.588 line, good for a 174 wRC+. Against righties, however, he is hitting an anemic .204/.246/.301. Only Clint Barmes has a lower wOBA against right handed pitching than Montero this year.
Part of the problem is that he is struggling against the pitches with glove side movement, sliders and curveballs. And pitchers are throwing him a lot of these breakers. Montero has actually seen more sliders than fou- seam fastballs against right-handers and is getting either a slider or a curveball on 45.5 percent of pitches from righties. His whiff rate on right-handed sliders is 39.0 percent and on curveballs he is whiffing on 31.0 percent of his swings.
Here is a PITCHf/x plot of Montero’s swings against right-handed sliders.
It is easy to see why pitchers are throwing him so many sliders, because he is very eager to chase them. Some of these pitches are close, but a lot more are not close. And those four pitches toward the bottom/right of the graph are pretty close to two feet outside and one foot low, or one foot outside and two feet low.
Now a plot of his swings against right-handed curveballs.
Pitchers aren’t throwing him quite as many curveballs, but that doesn’t mean he is any better at judging their position in relation to the strike zone. He has swung at 21 curveballs inside the zone and 17 curves out of the zone.
For comparison, this plot shows Montero’s swings against all pitches from lefties.
Like any hitter, Montero is still chasing a few pitches against lefties, but he is keeping a much tighter zone than he is with right-handed breaking balls.
Right-handed pitchers will keep giving Montero a steady diet of low- and-away breaking balls until he can prove that he can lay off of them, because it is obviously working. Montero currently sits with an enormous short-side platoon split in which he is hitting .169/.163/.287 better against lefties than against righties.
Maybe some of this can be attributed to the AL West’s contingent of strong right-handed pitchers. Names like Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, Yu Darvish and Colby Lewis aren’t overly yielding adversaries, and Oakland’s surprisingly good staff with right-handers Brandon McCarthy, Bartolo Colon and Jarrod Parker has been strong this season as well, but by no means is that enough to explain such a large platoon split.
We are obviously dealing with a pretty small sample of at-bats, but its not like balls two feet outside are likely to turn into hits given a more significant sample. The problem is not so much the large gap between Montero’s production against righties and lefties as it is in his inability to lay off bad pitches. And plate discipline statistics become reliable far, far quicker than platoon numbers do.
Montero won’t continue to be the worst American League hitter against right-handed pitching, but he is going to have to change his approach if he wants to hit them well. When the Mariners traded for him, they presumably felt they were trading away a top of the rotation-type pitcher for a middle of the lineup-type hitter. So far, Jesus Montero has only proven to be a work in progress and more of a risk/reward project than a sure thing. It’s way too early to put any permanent ink on what he is as a hitter, but he will need to learn how to lay off of right-handed breaking balls if he wants to develop into an offensive threat.
Following the Michael Pineda injury, many were claiming the deal a win for the Mariners, but this is just round one, and so far, in terms of on-the-field value, the Yankees might be ahead.