On The Bump: Rafael Montero

As the season progresses (and sadly, as more and more starters succumb to Tommy John surgery), many a young pitcher will be called up to make his ML debut. To introduce some of the more intriguing first-time starters then, I’ve a new segment: On The Bump. Consider these posts your cliff notes, a cheat sheet if you will, for looking good at the local sports bar in front of your friends, annoying your significant other at home, or purely for feeling smug whilst sneakily watching MLB.tv on your iPhone at work. Whatever floats your boat, you’ll be prepared at least. 

Who is this guy? The Mets’ No. 2 prospect behind Noah Syndergaard, that’s who! Out of the Dominican Republic Montero signed with the Mets at the relatively late age of 20 back in 2011. Despite his late introduction to professional ball stateside however, the diminutive righty has shot through the farm system to become one of the more polished pitching prospects in the game. 

What has he done? Montero split the 2013 season between Double-A and Triple-A, compiling a total of 156 innings and 150 strikeouts to go with a combined 12-7 record and 2.78 ERA in his 27 starts. Pitching in one of the most hitter-friendly ballparks in Triple-A, Las Vegas’ Cashman Field, Montero greatly aided his prospect status with 88.2 innings of sub-3 FIP ball – he had a 2.87 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and surrendered only two homers in nine home starts. Having started 2014 back in the PCL, the 24-year-old has done nothing but impress once again; prior to his promotion he was 4-1 with a 3.67 ERA and 41 strikeouts in 41 2-3 innings, and tossed 5 1-3 hitless innings (98 pitches) in his last start – a win over Salt Lake. He also started the 2013 Futures Game at Citi Field for the World team

How has he done it? Though slight of build, he possesses as close to a perfect delivery as any in the game, an easy and repeatable motion from a three quarter arm slot that truly benefits his performance. According to Marc Hulet of Fangraphs ‘[Montero’s] strengths as a pitcher are his above-average command and control, which help all three of his pitches play up. He possesses a low-90s fastball, slider and changeup.” Sounds dead-on: while he doesn’t overpower batters (though he can reach back for some 95 mph heat if he needs it), thanks to his sound mechanics, that great command of his fastball and slider in particular has allowed him to dominate his minor league competition thus far. 

Why is he pitching in the majors? Primarily because Jenrry Mejia, after a couple of decent enough starts to begin the season, has lately proven he can’t work through a big league lineup effectively more than twice (he can ‘moonwalk’ off the mound after striking out a batter to end the inning however). To wit, Mejia was limiting opponents to a .193/.258/.246 line in their first plate appearance of the game, a somewhat-palatable .245/.365/.415 triple slash the second time around, but a disastrous .405/.500/.595 clip the third time through. Combine his dicey injury history (the 24-year-old has already undergone two operations on his right elbow, including Tommy John surgery in 2011), with the Mets’ horrific relief corps (they’ve deployed both Jose Valverde and Daisuke Matsuzaka far too plentifully for a team with any self-respect), and a trip to the bullpen was log in the cards for Mejia – opening up a rotation spot.

What they’re saying: Las Vegas 51s manager Wally Backman gave his departing stud a nice endorsement on his way out the door – “With Rafael, he’s able to locate to both sides of the plate, commands his off-speed stuff. He throws every pitch over the plate for strikes. If he falls behind in the count, he’s capable of throwing his changeup, his breaking ball over for strikes at any time. He’s always ahead in the count and the kid really knows how to pitch.” But c’mon, what was he really going to say? The objective Hulet, in his pre-season write-up of New York’s top 10 prospects deemed that “Montero cannot challenge the ceilings of Zack Wheeler or Noah Syndergaard but he has the potential to develop into a solid mid-rotation starter.” That’s a darn sight better than Mejia anyway.

Worth a follow on Twitter? Unfortunately not. As far as my not-so-extensive search indicated, Rafael Montero does not have Twitter, or even Instagram. He does however, have a very poorly maintained fan page on Facebook – which has so far garnered a whole 23 likes. Go Rafael!

Anything else? He’ll be squaring off against Masahiro Tanaka, who is currently the proud owner of a 2.57 ERA and perfect 5-0 record, so is unlikely to pick up the ‘win’. If he manages to notch a hit and break the Mets pitchers’ collective 0-63 streak though, he’ll be a winner in my eyes no matter what he does on the mound.

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