Montero takes on extra load while trying to lighten up
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Miguel Montero’s plate is full, more than ever. In addition to a catcher’s normal longer-than-most work day, one of the D-backs’ initiatives this year is to get their catchers more involved in directing the pitching staff, and that means daily meetings with pitching coaches.
It is the busiest spring of Montero’s life, and he loves it.
"Vintage Miggy," manager Kirk Gibson said earlier in spring.
"He is totally engaged."
Part of that includes broadening the catcher’s role this season. The D-backs want to expand the dialogue between pitchers and catchers, a method pitching adviser Dave Duncan found so successful in Oakland and St. Louis. Daily sessions with Montero, the other catchers, pitching coach Mike Harkey and bullpen coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. are part of the process. Opposing hitters are dissected, and plans of attack are discussed.
"It’s communication. Pitch selection. Getting to know our pitchers better," Montero said. "Trying to build up pitcher-catcher relationships. Make the pitcher believe in what we are calling and why we are calling it. We talk about the hitters, how we are going to attack them, how we are going to work on certain things. We try to figure out plan that will work for them and get them to have success, so we are all on the same page."
Immersion is nothing new for Montero, one of the most dependable catchers in the major leagues since becoming a regular in 2010. Despite a back injury that cost Montero a month after the All-Star break last season, he is second among NL catchers in innings caught since 2011. With playing time has come production. He led major league catchers in innings caught and RBI in both 2011 and 2012.
It goes without saying that the D-backs could use a bounce-back year from Montero, even with the addition of left fielder Mark Trumbo and the presumed health of Aaron Hill. For Montero, all it would take would be a return to form from the outlier that was 2013, in which he hit .230 with 11 home runs and 42 RBI, the least productive of his five seasons as a starter. The D-backs believe it will happen, as does Montero, although he does not want to frame it in terms of expectations.
"I don’t want to think about it that way, because then it is putting pressure on yourself," Montero said. "I don’t want to put pressure on myself. All I’m thinking about is how I want to go out there and have a good time and do what I know how to do. If things work out fine, if it doesn’t work out, just keep battling until they do. I’m looking forward to getting the season started, getting ready, and going back to where I have been."
Montero fell into an offensive funk late last April and could not find his way out. Some speculated that he may have tried to play through the lower back injury that forced him to the disabled list on July 29, but he said the back issue only cropped one day after the break.
"It was not because my back. It was my bat that was hurt," Montero said.
Montero did not say it, but it may have had something to do with trying to fill a void in the offense. Paul Goldschmidt started as well as he finished, and Eric Chavez was a valuable contributor early, but the offense struggled at times after Hill went down with a fractured left hand the second week of the season and Cody Ross opened the season on the disabled list.
"I started out the season pretty good and I was hitting the ball really hard and it would get caught," Montero said. "After that, I would go 0 for 4 with four bullets. You start thinking about what you can do so those bullets are not caught. That is when you start creating bad habits, trying a little harder. That ball they caught in the gap, you might want to hit it out. So you try a little bit harder to try to hit it out. It’s natural. It’s human nature. You are trying harder to get better.
"Probably tried to muscle it up a little bit, so I got myself tied up a little bit too much. I was trying to swing too hard. When you swing too hard, you grip it (bat) super tight. You muscle up super tight. The next thing you know, your swing is slower. It was a tough time. I was never the same after that. Even if you don’t think about it and you try to be positive, it was hard because nothing works out. Next day, you keep working, doing your thing, and you didn’t see any results. So you get a little frustrated, because it seems you worked so hard for nothing. It’s tough.
"I wanted to help. I probably tried to do too much to help. It ended up, I was digging myself in a hole and putting myself in a bad position. When I realized that, it was too late."
Since Gibson placed an added emphasis on curtailing an opponents’ running game when he became the manager full time, Montero been a constant behind the plate. He is fourth in the major leagues, third in the NL, in percentage of runners caught stealing (32.8 percent) since 2011.
"I take a lot of pride in that," Montero said. "I really want to be good at that. The pitchers give me a chance to do it, and that makes it easier."