Toby Hyde, ContributorRafael Montero has an ordinary arsenal, but has blazed a very rapid path to the big leagues.
Three years ago, Montero was a 20-year-old beginning his professional career in the Dominican Summer League. Now, fewer than three years after leaving the island, he is about to make his big league debut on Wednesday night against the Yankees.
Montero works with a three-pitch mix: fastball, slider and changeup. His fastball sits 92-93 mph over most outings, but he can range from 89-94 in a given start. Starting at Citi Field in the MLB Futures game in 2013, he threw 94-95 in a one-inning appearance, but he does not work at that velocity over the course of another start. Montero thrived in the minors because he could command the pitch, moving his fastball in and out, and up and down to both left- and right-handed hitters.
His slider sits around 81 miles per hour – about average velocity. While he’s made progress with the pitch, it is at best big league average right now. One National League scout said Montero’s slider, “doesn’t have power to it, but it’s usable.” If that sounds like faint praise, it is. A different scout who saw Montero in 2013 was more blunt, calling the pitch “inconsistent.”
In the low minors, Montero’s primary off-speed pitch was his changeup. One American League scout thought it was his second best pitch, and labeled it “solid-average” for its deception and sink.
Montero threw 130 1/3 innings over 24 starts in the Pacific Coast League, averaging 5.43 innings per start. To some degree, that was by design. However, do not expect Montero to work past the sixth inning often. In 2014, in his eight starts in Triple-A, he threw 41 2/3 innings total, averaging 5 2/3 innings per start. He averaged 91.4 pitches, topping out at 98 in his last two starts.
All told, he averaged strikes on 63 percent of his offerings, although that is buoyed by his early season results when he threw 70 percent strikes in both of his first two starts. He did not surpass 64 percent in any of his next six outings. For whatever reason, Montero threw fewer strikes as this season progressed, which resulted in his highest walk rate as a professional. Major league average is 62 percent.
Once Montero got on the mound, he made up ground in a hurry, despite his entry into professional baseball being unusual. The Mets signed Montero for $80,000 in January of 2011 when he was already 20 years old. The best Dominican amateurs sign on their 16th birthday, and many have deals in place as 15-year-olds. Montero was four, or maybe five years behind. Back in 2011, he made four starts for the Dominican Summer League team, four for Kingsport and then hopped up to Brooklyn where he made seven appearances and four starts.
That was enough to earn a promotion to full-season ball Opening Day 2012. He started as a 21-year-old in Savannah and after a 2.52 ERA (19 percent strikeout rate and a 2.8 percent walk rate) in 71.1 innings, he was off to St. Lucie and advanced Single-A. He was dominant in advanced Single-A with 2.13 ERA in eight starts (a 29 percent strikeout rate and a 5.7 percent walk rate) down the stretch for the playoff-bound st. Lucie Mets. At the beginning of the 2012 season, Montero relied primarily on his fastball command to retire lower level hitters. His primary off-speed weapon was his changeup, which he threw with good arm speed, but without great movement. He improved his slider as the year went on, but it remained below average.
The Mets promoted Montero again to start the 2013 season, this time to Double-A Binghamton. After 16 good starts there 2.43 ERA (K: 28 percent and BB: 3.8 percent), the Mets rewarded him with a ticket to Triple-A Las Vegas to test him against the minors’ best hitters in one of the worst environments for pitching.
Montero was better in 2013 in Triple-A than he has been in 2014. His walk rate jumped from 6.9 percent in 2013 to 10.6 percent in 2014. His strikeout rate ticked up as well, and he is allowing two fewer hits per nine innings, but batters are still walking far more against Montero than ever before. In 2014, National League average is an 8.2 percent walk rate and a 20.5 percent K-rate, while the PCL average was 8.9 percent and 19.7 percent respectively.
Do not expect Montero to be a star without an above-average second pitch, instead he has three pitches he can use: a fastball that plays up thanks to his command, an inconsistent slider and an average changeup. He will throw strikes and should settle in at the back of a big league rotation. To be better, he will have to command his fastball not just well, but brilliantly. He will likely post a few seasons with average production and some below. The best case scenario for the Mets is a Dillon Gee-like advance with his slider and changeup to move towards a No . 3 starter level in his first few years in the big leagues.