I was just down in Arizona with a lot of the rest of the FanGraphs crew, and as such, I found myself involved in a number of baseball conversations, with people from the crew and with others as well. One of the many conversations turned to Jesus Montero as a defensive catcher. One person who covers baseball on a daily basis for a newspaper couldn’t believe that Montero managed to throw out Mike Trout as a would-be base-stealer. One respected baseball talent evaluator referred to Montero as perhaps the very worst defensive catcher in the majors. Immediately, I knew this would be something worth exploring in greater depth.
The newspaper guy actually made the mistake of saying Montero threw Trout out twice. That didn’t happen, but it did happen once; Miguel Olivo managed to throw Trout out twice. One other time, Trout stole successfully off Montero, meaning for the season Trout was 1-for-2 with Montero behind the plate. He was nabbed on October 3, in the final game of the regular season.
First, some background: when Trout stole successfully against Montero, in August, this is how safe he was.
I wouldn’t say he was safe by a mile, but he was safe by such a degree that there was no question about the call. Trout clearly had the base stolen, which is what you’d expect with Trout running against Jesus Montero, what with Mike Trout being Mike Trout, and Jesus Montero being Jesus Montero.
Trout, in the majors, has stolen 53 bases, and he’s been caught five times. That’s a success rate of 91%, making him one of the greatest threats in the league. Some of it is instinct, some of it is ability to read, and some of it is pure foot-speed. It’s no secret that there aren’t many players who’re faster than Mike Trout at full speed, or getting up to full speed. It’s one of his unfairly countless strengths.
Montero has thrown out 12 of 70 would-be base-stealers. That’s a kill rate of 17%, below the league average of 26%. Against average catchers, Trout has been successful 91% of the time. Against Montero, we’d expect that rate to be even higher, since Montero isn’t what one would consider “fundamentally sound” or “adequate”. A lot of stealing is actually against the pitchers, and not against the catchers, but catchers do make a difference, and Montero makes a negative one.
So. On October 3, 2012, Mike Trout led off against Blake Beavan. The fourth pitch hit Trout in the body, and he took off for second shortly thereafter. Jesus Montero was having none of it, and here’s a .gif in case you don’t feel like watching the highlight:
An alternate angle:
Montero’s throw was just about perfect, and Trout was unquestionably out. The play was close, but of course it was close — it was Mike Trout running, and Trout doesn’t get thrown out very easily. Montero was rather pleased with himself in the aftermath:
…as he should’ve been, considering. Said one of the Mariners broadcasters during an instant replay:
“…good jump by Trout…”
According to the Mariners broadcast, Trout got off to a good start, but Montero gunned him down with an excellent throw. Now for selected quotes from the Angels broadcast:
“…little bit of a late start…”
“…didn’t have a very good jump…”
“…and you can see early on it’s always difficult for a base-stealer to get a good jump in that first-base area, the infield itself has been watered down…”
According to the Angels broadcast, Trout got off to a poor start, and Montero gunned him down with an excellent throw. Each side has its biases, but it’s the Angels broadcast that would’ve seen the most of Trout running over the course of the summer. One of the broadcasters pointed out that Trout appeared to stumble as he tried to accelerate, and:
It’s not much, but it’s there — Trout’s foot slipped a little as he turned to sprint to second. The first step isn’t everything for a stolen base, but it’s critically important, and Trout’s first step took up some dirt. That cost him some fractions of a second, which ultimately cost him an out.
But wait! There’s so much more. As noted, this was the final game of the regular season, for both teams, and the Angels had just been eliminated from playoff contention. The Angels wound up losing to the Mariners 12-0, and while players seldom admit to mailing it in, here’s Jered Weaver:
“I wanted to win a World Series,” Weaver said after a 12-0 Mariners rout that instead ended the Angels’ season with a third straight playoff absence. “Once we found out we were out of it, I was kind of out of it, too. [...] It’s tough to turn it on for games like this.”
And Mike Trout himself, from the same link:
“These last two games, when Oakland knocked us out, it was tough to stay concentrated,” Trout said, hours after the A’s won their sixth straight game to stunningly take the AL West away from the Rangers. “It’s tough to get motivated. It’s a long year, you work so hard, and all of a sudden you’re out of it, it’s tough.”
Players on the Angels admitted to diminished focus, and regardless of whether that’s right or wrong, it’s what they experienced. Trout would go 2-for-3 on October 3, but in the first he was thrown out stealing, and in the sixth he was thrown out trying to score on a fly ball. It isn’t like Mike Trout to make outs on the basepaths, so one has to consider that something else might have been going on.
Half the time that Mike Trout tried to steal against Jesus Montero, he was thrown out. Montero seldom throws runners out, and Trout seldom gets thrown out, so this was an event of significance. How did it happen, with Trout being an unparalleled talent and with Montero being a defensive catcher who is at least considerably below-average? Montero had to make a nearly perfect throw. And Trout had to stumble out of the block, and Trout had to be less focused than usual with the Angels having recently been eliminated. With reduced investment, a stumble, and a great throw, Mike Trout was gunned down by Jesus Montero. It did prevent Trout from collecting his 50th steal, to go with his 30 home runs. That would’ve been a neat and unusual statistical profile. But as for how much this had to do with Jesus Montero, the answer is: only a little bit. Montero did catch Trout stealing. He might very well never do it again.