Rafael Montero by the Numbers: Why He Should Replace Zack Wheeler


While most of the Mets community is still reeling over the announcement that pitching phenom Zack Wheeler will undergo Tommy John surgery to repair a torn Ulnar Collateral Ligament (no, it has not yet been announced but take it from someone who has seen way too many TJSs over the past decade--a fully torn UCL doesn't magically heal. He will have to go under the knife), Terry Collins has announced that Dillon Gee will take his spot in the rotation.

This makes sense. Gee is the veteran and has been an average if not effective back end starter for over 600 major league innings. In fact, when Gee has been healthy, he has had stretches in which he is quite good. Some even believe that concerns over Wheeler's elbow kept Sandy Alderson from trading Gee this past winter. No matter the case, I understand the reasoning behind using Dillon Gee.

However, it should be Rafael Montero.

Dillon Gee is an okay pitcher. Montero could be a very good one. Before Jacob deGrom was Jacob deGrom, fans thought Rafael Montero would be the sleeper prospect who would take over New York like a young Pedro in Montreal. Like the Matt den Dekker/Juan Lagares story arc, deGrom won the job, performed well, took home hardware, and cemented his spot on the team. That does not mean that Rafael Montero all of a sudden stopped being a good pitcher. Like most young starters, he merely had growing pains when he pitched in the majors for the first time. I wrote about this topic early this winter.

Here is what Rafael Montero brings to the table:

- Incredible command.

- Throws a plus four-seam fastball, a plus two-seamer, a plus slider, and an average changeup that was actually more effective in the majors last year than his slider, statistically.

- Beautiful mechanics. Possible the best I have ever seen from a prospect. If Rafael Montero needs Tommy John Surgery at any point in his career, you can demand I never write for Mack's Mets again and I will honor that request. It's just not going to happen. He neither has the strain on his arm from insane velocity nor anything close to wrong with his delivery to predict any throwing-related injuries.

- The best minor league numbers of any of our starters--including Harvey, Wheeler, deGrom, and Syndergaard. The only prospect who has performed anywhere close to Montero in the minors is Steven Matz who has only thrown 71 innings above A-ball.

- By great minor league numbers, here is what I mean:

  • 2.69 ERA in 434.1 innings. 
  • Only 102 walks, for a rate of 2.1 BB/9.
  • 413 strikeouts, for a rate of 8.6 K/9.
  • A 4.05 KK/B ratio, a mouthwatering number for any pitcher in any role at any level. 
  • The above three rates would have ranked 32nd, 21st, and 19th out of all qualified starters in 2014. 
  • A career 10.0% Infield Fly Ball rate. 
  • Only 20 home runs allowed. For a fly ball pitcher (perhaps even an extreme fly ball pitcher), 20 home runs in 434+ innings is undeniably good. 
  • A career 1.066 WHIP. This is a WHIP only seven qualified major league starters bested in 2014: Hisashi Iwakuma, Garrett Richards, Adam Wainwright, Chris Sale, Johnny Cueto, Felix Hernandez and Clayton Kershaw. That is in reverse order from 7-1. No Nationals pitcher kept runners off of base at that rate or better. 
  • 7.5 hits/9 innings. For a pitcher who limits walks as well as Montero does, this is also an excellent rate. 
In fact, instead of continuing to list all of the accomplishments of Rafael Montero in his brilliant time in the minors, consult this chart instead. After the category and Montero's performance, I have his rank if his average performance were accomplished during the 2014 season--a season that had very strong pitching, for the record. There were 88 qualified starting pitchers in Major League Baseball last year. 

Statistic Montero’s Minor League Numbers Rank amongst 2014 ML Starting Pitchers
Walks per 9 
Strikeouts per 9
Strikeout-to-walk ratio
HR per 9
2nd (tied)
Strikeout %
19th (tied, with Zack Wheeler)
Walk %
36th (tied)
Line Drive %
Infield Fly Ball %
HR to Fly Ball ratio
2nd (tied)

If I were analyzing this data, I see a pitcher who does a great job limiting baserunners, one who generates soft outs in the air that rarely leave the yard, and a pitcher who does all of this while striking out batters at a strong rate as well. It blows my mind that a fly ball pitcher can limit homers that effectively. 

Before you glance past this chart, look at it again. Pay careful attention to just how rare this is--Montero is a control pitcher. He only walks 2.1 batters per nine innings. Pitchers who work around the zone often get hit around a bit more than strikeout-first pitchers, yet his line drive percentage is epically good. Okay, so he is limiting hard contact and does not walk many. However, he gets most of his outs through the air and that's more dangerous than being a  ground ball pitcher, right? Typically, yes. However, pitchers who work up in the zone with a well-located fastball can be very effective--Max Scherzer has a similar FB% to Rafael Montero over their careers and nearly identical Infield Fly Ball percentages. 

To clarify what I'm trying to get you to realize with this is the following: This data does not tell us the whole story, but it gives us clues. Two similar fly ball pitchers could be remarkably different based on how the ball comes off the bat. When we see a 33% OFB (outfield fly ball) rate, we have no idea if those balls are wall-scrapers or pop ups that barely make it to the outfield. However, if we see a 33% OFB rate (which is on the higher end) along with a very high infield FB% as well as a low home run rate, or HR/FB rate, we know that the contact through the air is soft and typically harmless. 

Now take a look at what Montero has done. His line drive rate is elite. It would have ranked fourth behind just Doug Fister, Edison Volquez, and Alex Cobb in 2014. Nice company. He generates 10% of his outs from infield fly balls. Not nearly as elite as his line drive rate, but still in the upper half of what major league starters did last year. Now, look at his homers/nine and his HR/FB ratio. Both would have been tied for second. The same player would have beaten Montero in both categories: Garrett Richards. Richards had a 2.60 FIP and a 4.3 WAR in 2014. In the past 10 years, a Met starting pitcher has had a WAR that high only four times: Matt Harvey in 2013, R.A. Dickey in 2012, Johan Santana in 2008 and Pedro Martinez in 2005. 

To take an earlier comparison further, Max Scherzer over the past two seasons (seasons in which Scherzer has been very good) Rafael Montero and Max Scherzer have similar K/BB ratios. Max strikes out more batters, Rafael walks fewer. Montero's minor league BAA (batting average against): .223. Max Scherzer's over the past two years: .219. Montero's OPS against: .584. Scherzer's: .624. Rafael Montero's OFB%: 32.3%. Max Scherzer's: 32.3%. Yea. 

Apart from strikeouts and strikeout rates, Montero beats Scherzer in most every other relevant metric. In fact, in the above chart, the only categories in which Scherzer bests Montero are strikeouts/9 and strikeout percentage. 

Of course, it must be stated that minor league numbers do not equal major league numbers. Max Scherzer has had to handle Mike Trout and Robinson Cano. Montero hasn't. However, Montero has pitched 166.2 of his 434.1 innings in Las Vegas--a place where the air is so thin, the park so small, and the league so hitter-friendly, that most scouts and evaluators subtract a full run off the ERAs of the pitchers there to account for the conditions. Montero spent 38% of his minor league career in the PCL/Las Vegas and still put up the numbers above.

Montero needs to be slotted into the 5th starter spot with Zack Wheeler out for the year. Gee is the veteran, Syndergaard is the hot prospect ticket, and Matz is the hometown hero, but Montero very well might be the best pitcher out of all of them. We've just forgotten about him. 

And no, I don't think it's ridiculous that I just compared a guy who got a 210 million dollar contract to a 24-year-old Dominican prospect who signed for $80,000 a few years ago. 


Zozo said...

Great job writing this up. I couldn't agree with you more. I would still trade Gee if a good enough package comes calling. After Montero we have plenty of 5th starters to cover any other injuries.

Reese Kaplan said...

You're preaching to the choir. Unfortunately the team stands to position Dillon Gee as a more marketable commodity if he indeed is the starter every 5th day. That is going to dictate the decision making process more so than talent will.

Anonymous said...

Great writeup - and timely - when I heard teh news about Zack - I kept thinking about gee, Noah & matz - i sort of forgot about Montero. So thanks for this interesting assessment.

Mac for Mass

Anonymous said...

I agree with you 100%. But as we have seem in the past, this is an organization that always chooses the veteran over the promising prospect. Lets not forget that the only reason deGrom got a chance was because of Gee's injury.

As soon as I heard about Wheeler, Montero's name came to mind because of all the reasons you listed above. But unless Gee either gets hurt or lay an egg, Montero will not get his chance to start.

Is a shame because such a plus arm should not be wasted in the BP. There is no reason to think about Syndergaard or Matz when you have a more advanced arm ready to take over.

Thomas Brennan said...

Three points:

We need to take anything Collins says about pitchers' arms with a grain of salt, but he has referred to Montero as having a rubber arm - I'm sure he'd never have said that about Wheeler.

Second, Montero's major league #'s ADD to his readiness - this is not some kid who still has to cross the major league threshold. I believe he has 44 innings in - that's a LOT.

Third, why has he only thrown 1 1/3 innings this spring? Everyone has thrown more. Is he hurt? Off on the side working on something? Did I miss something in the news about him?

Stephen Guilbert said...

Thomas, I think they're working him into a relief role which is why his innings are low. The starters (Harvey, deGrom, Matz, Thor, Niese, Colon) are the first or second pitcher of the day. Montero hasn't been in that group.

Thomas Brennan said...

Maybe Steve, but Alvarez and Leathersich have both had 5 outings, Montero just one - maybe he is due to throw in today's game after Jake

Herb G said...

I too am on the Montero bandwagon. Last winter, I penned a piece comparing Rafael's minor league performance favorably to Masahiro Tanaka's JBL stats. My opinion of Raffy has not changed. I only hope that Alderson sees things as most of us seem to, and opts to give Montero a legitimate chance to compete for that rotation spot during the balance of spring training. I strongly believe he could open management's eyes and become a fixture, giving Thor and Matz a run for the money in the race to join Harvey, deGrom and Wheeler as long term members of the Mets' rotation.

Stephen Guilbert said...

Herb, I did quite a bit of research for this one and tried to find comparable seasons to Montero's average minor league rates. I could write an entire separate post on it (maybe I will) but the three closest 2014 seasons I found to Montero's rates (mainly fly ball pitchers who strike out a lot, walk few, and have good home run, HR/FB and IFFB rates) were: Drew Hutchison, Julio Teheran, and Max Scherzer.

In fact, Hutchison and Montero are remarkably similar pitchers. Both throw the same pitches (two-seamer, four-seamer, slider, change), their minor league numbers are uncannily similar, both were considered top-ish prospects in their own organization but weren't all that nationally known, both had less than stellar major league debuts, heck they're even within two months of one another in age.

Thing is, Hutchison is considered a lock for Toronto's rotation and people are excited about him. Despite being an identical pitcher, Montero is lost in no man's land as a reliever/long man/Quad-A/trade bait sort of guy. It certainly says something about the depth on the Mets but I have this unsettling feeling that we're either going to mess Montero up, under-utilize him, or trade him and watch him become Johnny Cueto for another team. Or worse, Pedro.

Anonymous said...

Interestingly, Montero has the fewest IP of any pitcher in Mets camp.

No news on why.

Is he nursing an injury?

James Preller

Thomas Brennan said...

Herb and Stephen,

Montero is not the only one getting squeezed by the talent here. Two years ago, Colin Cowgill and Sean Marcum made this team. The threshold is so much higher now (unless you are a lefty pitcher).

I wonder if Montero may get traded for Matusz. LHRP is the one hairy spot on this team.

Stephen Guilbert said...

If Matusz nets Montero then that's highway robbery. Huge difference in talent there, even though I do like Matusz and we obviously need him. I would never make that trade, though.

I have no idea about Montero. I'll look into it.


Anonymous said...

Very well detailed article. I do agree on your points, but alson think it's a sham that he's pitched but so little this spring.

Anonymous said...

100% agree!

Anonymous said...

Who is Edison Volquez (and does he have electric stuff)?

Why did you write "yea" (as oppossed to "boo") at the end of a paragraph? Did you think you'd done a really good job on it? Perhaps you meant to write "yeah" (as opposed to "nah") to emphasize your point (as if someone asked "Really?" after it and you answered "Yeah").

I hope you're right about Montero (and if so, that he'll be performing for the Mets in the bigs), but the single most important thing you wrote was "minor league numbers do not equal major league numbers." He's just a 4A pitcher until he proves he can carry his triple A success to the major leagues.

Anonymous said...

nice article. i fully agree and have felt for quite a while that this is the pitching prospect with the track record. de groom was an amazing surprise but i would not overlook and under value this guy. je has done it at all levels. so what if he doesnt hit triple digits. bfd. same for gee. you dont give successful sp's away just because they are not flame throwers.

MJM said...

Good stuff here Stephen. I could not agree more. Look forward to reading your posts the rest of the season.

--Marty M. in Hightstown

Mack's Mets © 2012