Keith Law ranked Jesus Montero 4th among all prospects in his recent prospect rankings, and made a very interesting comment about Montero’s future that struck me as fodder for discussion:
There’s also a concern about the long-term effects that catching will have on Montero’s knees. He is listed at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, and only five players in MLB history have caught 200 games at or above those numbers, three of them (Joe Mauer, Chris Snyder, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia) have had knee and/or back problems.
With a bat this potentially strong, why risk injury or give up the 20-25 games a year when your catcher has to rest? Montero could solve the Yankees’ DH problem for the next 10 years if they commit to it, a move they are unlikely to ever regret.
Brian Cashman recently stated that the Yankees believe Montero is better defensively than some catchers currently starting in the majors, which is faint praise but does suggest that they believe he can handle the position. Assuming for a moment that this is true, Law’s premise that they might be better off just sticking him at DH depends on the answer to the following question: would the health benefits of sticking him at DH AND the defensive benefits of getting him out from behind the plate outweigh the fact that having his bat at catcher is a major positional advantage for the Yankees? There are other considerations, such as the fact that A-Rod may need to DH soon, but I am leaving such issues out of the analysis at this point and focusing solely upon Montero.
Let’s look at the numbers, while noting that Law’s point seemed to focus primarily on health, something that we are unable to quantify. When determining replacement levels, a catcher is credited with 12.5 runs while a DH is debited 17.5 runs (which addresses the fact that similar offensive performance at those positions have widely disparate value). The Fangraphs glossary item on positional adjustments (h/t @alskor) addresses this issue directly:
Essentially, the width of the spectrum of major league players being used at their best positions is about 30 runs – if you have a league average defensive catcher and you make him a full time DH, you’ve whacked about three wins off of his value.
Now, let’s assume for a moment that Montero is terrible defensively, but just competent enough to remain at the position (if he is not at all competent, then it is obvious that he must be moved). According to +/-, the worst defensive catcher in 2010 cost his team 10 runs with his glove. Being that moving an average defensive catcher to DH would cost the club 30 runs, doing so to an atrocious defender would slash 20 runs, or two wins, from the player’s value.
Playing time is another issue that needs to be factored into this analysis. As Law notes, everyday catchers need frequent rest, such that Montero’s bat would be removed from the lineup regularly were he to remain a catcher. The catcher who played the most innings last year was Yadier Molina, who started 130 games. As a DH, Montero would likely be able to start in most games, meaning he would lose 20-25 games as the starting catcher. Now, let’s make another assumption and believe that Montero would be a top DH (again, we assume this because if he is not a great bat, it is almost certain that it would make more sense to try him at catcher, because the club can go out and obtain a solid DH fairly easily). Judging by my Twitter poll of some sabermetric folks, the value of those 25 games is somewhere between .5 and 1 win. Being that we are assuming that Montero will be an excellent hitter, let us go with 1 win gained as a DH. This means that the switch from catcher is costing the Yankees two wins defensively but gaining one win due to extra playing time, for a net of one win lost per season.
One other factor that needs to be raised is the idea that Montero may hit better if he is not getting beaten up behind the plate on a daily basis. I do not have access to the research on this issue, and from what I have heard it is fairly murky. As such, I will simply note that intuition would tell you that it should be easier for a player to focus upon hitting without the physical and mental burden of running the game as the catcher weighing upon him.
Obviously, the numbers can be fiddled with by altering the assumptions that were made in the course of analysis. If you maintain the assumption that Jesus will be a great hitter but peg him as a -5 defensive player, the loss becomes 1.5 wins. Similarly, if you maintain the assumption about his defense but think we are being overly optimistic about his bat, you again end up with a loss of 1.5 wins. I think it is fair to say that statistically, moving Montero from catcher to DH would cost the Yankees somewhere between 1 and 1.5 wins of value on a yearly basis, possibly closer to 1.5 at the start of his career and then dropping closer to 1 as he ages.
Now that we can put an estimated number on the value side of the equation, we need to address the health issue. First, we need to make one last assumption: assuming that they want to, the Yankees can keep Montero for his entire career, such that we can conduct this analysis while considering the value he might provide at the end of his career. If catching costs Montero enough playing time over his career to outweigh 1-1.5 wins a year, it would make sense to move him off the position to save his bat. This is where we get into areas that are tough to quantify. Looking at the history of catchers in MLB, they seem to decline quicker than other players. If Montero’s size makes him a strong candidate for injury and early decline, the Yankees would be best-served by moving him off the position to preserve his bat. If the Yankees do not see him as a particularly high risk for injury, and believe that he unlikely to lose 15-20 wins of value over his career due to the physical strains of catching, they should keep him behind the plate for as long as they can.
The inability for us to evaluate the injury risk makes it impossible to reach a firm conclusion on this issue. I will say that when I first read Law’s comment, I thought that he was mistaken, and now I am not nearly as certain. Montero’s purportedly great bat and awful glove narrows the value gap between catching and DH’ing considerably, and the possibility of injury might close the gap entirely.