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June 18, 2012 at 10:20 AM

Forget the catching for now, Jesus Montero improving as a hitter for Mariners

There has been this great pre-occupation so far with how Jesus Montero has been doing behind the plate. But for me — and the Mariners as well, judging by their actions — the greater concern was how Montero would perform as a hitter this debut season.
Folks tend to take that for granted. I mean, what we have here is essentially a 22-year-old prospect thrown into the middle of the order of one of the worst offensive teams in history over any multi-year period. You don’t have to subscribe to “lineup protection” theories to realize how difficult that is. When any lineup lacks a fear factor presence at some point up and down the starting nine, opposing pitchers will attack that lineup at will. There is no 30-homer behemoth lurking in order to make them pay for putting a runner or two on base. Talk to any pitcher who has actually played big league ball and they will tell you that lineup presence is real and will influence how they pitch to a team.
In Seattle’s case, we have some candidates emerging, like Kyle Seager and Michael Saunders. But neither truly represents what we’re talking about. Montero might be the closest thing to a fear factor presence this team will have the next few years. In other words, at age 22, he’s possibly the glue holding this entire offense together.
Which is why — duh — we keep seeing him in the middle of the order.
But folks have taken for granted he’d be able to hit right away in the majors. Well, that hasn’t quite been the case. For too long this season, his on-base-percentage has been firmly rooted below the .300 mark. And forget home runs and power. If you can’t get on-base at a greater-than-.300 clip, you’ll never be an above average hitter in terms of overall value.
For too long in Seattle, we’ve accepted sub-.300 OBPs all over the lineup. On any given night, the Mariners will roll out four or five guys below the OBP “Mendoza Line” when most teams will tolerate one or two. That’s one reason why the M’s have been so historically inept at scoring since 2010.
As of right now, the Mariners are the worst team in the league in OBP with a .297 mark.
And that’s why, for me, it’s encouraging to see Montero finally get his OBP over that .300 hump, which happened on the past homestand.

Going into tonight’s road series in Phoenix — where it was a beautiful, sunny 109 degrees yesterday (thank God they have a roof and aren’t afraid to use it in uncomfortable weather, hint, hint) — Montero has an OBP of .308.
Still nothing to write the folks back in Venezuela about, but it’s a start. Let’s not forget, he’s only a 22-year-old rookie dealing with this whole catching thing.
And part of the encouraging thing for me is that the right-handed hitting Montero was able to build on his OBP the past week at Safeco Field. Yes, the same place that’s billed as a right-handed hitter’s graveyard.
Montero had flirted with a .300 OBP before and actually reached that exact mark the final game of the last road trip, where, as you know, the Mariners went a bit crazy at the plate. But he had not been above a .300 OBP since reaching a season-high .303 back on May 1.
Then came the homestand. Beginning with the Padres series, he’s gotten on at a .400 clip and had five hits in the weekend series versus the Giants — including a home run. The reason I’m excited about this is that many of his teammates saw their numbers head the opposite way on this homestand instead of up.
Montero has an on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) of .778 on the road compared to .680 at home. The OBP part of that is .333 on the road against .278 at home.
So, having built up his numbers at home, he now gets to beef them up a bit on the road.
The further he can distance himself from that .300 OBP “Mendoza Line” the closer he will be to developing into that anchor-type hitter the Mariners were looking for when they traded Michael Pineda to get him. If he can do it as a catcher down the road, then great. But even if he becomes a more full-time DH, the team will still have what it was looking for if he becomes a true middle-of-the-order hitter.
Another positive sign? It’s not just home runs Montero hit in order to boost his OBP. He had nine hits the past week and seven were singles. Sure, you’d love nine homers, but the point is, he isn’t an all-or-nothing power guy. He’s showing an ability to hit the ball where it’s pitched and sometimes, you just aren’t going to hit every pitch out of the park.
Final interesting thing? His OBP for the month is .333 compared to .324 last month.
The difference is, he’s walked only once this month compared to 10 times last month. His OBP in June is being influenced by hits.
Some will view that as a negative. I see it more as Montero buying in and succeeding at the team’s directive to go to the plate in attack-mode and swing at hittable pitches. As i’ve mentioned, the lack of a fear factor guy in the lineup means opposing pitchers are going to attack the strike zone at will on Seattle’s hitters. The only way that will change is if more guys start to do something with those pitches.
This is the way baseball has been played for a long, long time. It changed a bit about a decade ago during the “Moneyball” era when the Oakland A’s put a heavy interest on guys who achieved their OBP via walks because they couldn’t afford to pay for hitters who got on via singles, doubles and home runs. In the years since, through popularization of their plan in a best-selling book and now, a movie, a new generation of fans has been conditioned to view the ability to “work a walk” as the true form of plate discipline.
But that isn’t really the case. Prior to the Moneyball era and — I truly believe — going forward the past couple of years, true plate discipline was and is seen as hitters capable of doing something with hittable pitches and laying off bad ones. On good teams that frequently punish pitchers over time, the walk rates will go up as a by-product of this approach because pitchers will fear working the strike zone too often.
On this Mariners team, I don’t expect to see a whole lot of walks. So, I’m not concerned about Montero generating his recent OBP via hits. As long as he isn’t swinging away foolishly and striking out.
He isn’t. Right now, his strikeout rate is down over what it was in May.
We could focus on a bunch of other guys individually, but for me, Montero the hitter really is a key to this team’s future success. The closer he gets to becoming a true fear factor presence in this lineup, the quicker opposing pitchers will stop taking liberties both with him and the other eight guys in the order.
For now, getting over .300 in OBP was a start. The next step is to move that OBP further north so that we never have to discuss the .300-mark again.

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