Rafael Montero’s 2017 season is a fantastic example of how a brief stretch of success can change perceptions. After being his usual mediocre self in April and May, Montero was sent to the minors. He returned on June 15 and had the best run of his brief career over the next month; in six games (three starts), he tossed 25.1 innings of 3.55 ERA ball, supported by a 2.01 FIP and a greatly improved 2.84 BB/9. It seemed like Montero might have turned a corner, and fans (myself included) scrambled to explain why this brief sample was going to portend future success for the young right hander.
The most common refrain was that Montero had finally overcome his yips and had learned to attack hitters more effectively. Instead of nibbling as he had always done at the major league level, Montero was throwing more strikes, going after hitters and drastically lowering his walk rate as a result. This wasn’t a terrible theory, as the following zone profiles from Brooks Baseball Show:
There’s a noticeable shift there. He still wasn’t throwing pitches in the strike zone, but Montero was at least keeping the ball over the plate. With the growing prevalence of the called low strike and Travis d’Arnaud’s aptitude for stealing strikes from below the zone, this is a real adjustment.
Of course, we started this review off with a bit of a warning, and that hammer has to drop sometime. Montero’s stats for the season were just as abysmal as they always have been, as he ran a 5.52 ERA and a 4.37 FIP to go with a horrendous 5.07 BB/9. His stats post 7/18 (after his 25 inning surge post-recall) were basically identical to his whole season numbers as well, and his zone profile slipped back to career norms:
It seems like Montero took two steps backwards after his earlier step forward, throwing an even lower percentage of his pitches in the strike zone and insisting on nibbling glove side and low to nearly every batter he faced.
Maybe if you’re an optimist, you can spin this in a positive light; Montero had a clear change in strategy that worked for a brief but noticeable stretch, then reverted to his old ways and went back to getting shelled. It’s a nice thought, and it’d be great to have another potentially viable starter on the roster heading into an offseason where the Mets’ pitching staff is in shambles and their budget is extremely limited. I think there’s a non-zero chance this is actually this case.
More likely is that we just witnessed a prime example of Voros’s Law (any major league hitter can hit just about anything in 60 at bats). We have 192 innings worth of data showing that Montero either cannot or refuses to throw strikes, and that’s led to a career BB/9 over five and a career ERA of 5.52. If the Mets style themselves as contenders next season, that’s simply not a piece that can be relied upon.
If the Mets share that same line of thinking, it’s possible we’ve seen the last of Rafael Montero as a Met. With no options remaining, Montero will have to be on the 25 man roster in 2018, and management will hopefully bring in some stronger options for bullpen and rotation depth. With the Mets’ budget and stubbornness when it comes to losing players, it’s quite possible he’ll stick around, however, in which case we should expect more of the same frustrating, nibbling pitcher.