If nothing else, the Cubs are the world champions of drama. After a rough 6–1 loss to the Nationals on Tuesday night, catcher Miguel Montero ripped starting pitcher Jake Arrieta after Washington logged seven stolen bases in just four innings. The veteran catcher aired out his starter on the rash of thefts, telling the media, “It really sucked, having those stolen bases go to me. And when you look at it, the pitcher doesn’t give me any time…. My pitchers don’t hold anybody on.”
It didn’t take long for Montero’s comments to earn him some blowback. On Wednesday morning, Chicago first baseman Anthony Rizzo blasted his teammate while doing a radio interview, telling ESPN 1000, “When you point fingers, you’re a selfish player. We have another catcher [Willson Contreras] that throws everyone out.” A couple of hours later, the Cubs made their displeasure fully known by designating Montero for assignment, ending the backup backstop’s tenure with the team after two-plus seasons.
Did Montero deserve to get the boot? On the one hand, publicly calling out a teammate is a quick way to end up in the unemployment line especially if, like Montero, you’re a bench player. But on the other hand, it’s still surprising to see a productive player get axed, and despite running his mouth, that’s what Montero has been for the Cubs. This year, he’s posted a .286/.366/.439 line in 112 plate appearances—good for a 112 OPS+—as Contreras’ backup; his 0.4 WAR isn’t much to write home about, but it’s still a sight better than what most reserve catchers can produce (and even tops that of a few big-name starters, including Travis d’Arnaud, Jonathan Lucroy and Matt Wieters). Montero is also a capable defender behind the plate: He’s graded out as one of the league’s best pitch-framers in three of the last four seasons, according to Baseball Prospectus’ numbers.
But as a member of the Cubs, Montero has thrown out just 26 of the 187 runners who have attempted to steal off him—a meager 13.9% caught-stealing rate. He’s hit rock bottom this year, too, having successfully nabbed only one opposing base stealer in 32 tries. And he does deserve some blame for that: His pop time—the amount of time it takes him to receive a pitch and throw to a base—is 2.12 seconds, which ranks dead last among the 52 qualified catchers; the MLB average is two seconds. (Contreras, for what it’s worth, clocks in at 1.93 seconds, eighth-best in the league.)
Catching base runners is a two-way street, though, and it’s here where Montero’s post-game comments carry weight. Arrieta usually takes just over 1.5 seconds on average to get the ball home; pitchers should be somewhere in the 1.3–1.5 range, and preferably below that. On the whole, the battery wants to take no more than 3.3 seconds between pitch delivery and throw in order to stop would-be base stealers; on Tuesday night, the combination of Arrieta and Montero was nowhere near that time. Arrieta also gives up more steals than virtually any pitcher in baseball: Since he joined the Cubs in 2014, 89 of 105 runners have swiped a base off him—an 85% success rate that is the highest for any starter with 600 or more innings thrown (he’s currently at 671 2/3) in that span.
So to some degree, at least, Montero has a valid complaint: It’s hard to throw runners out if your pitcher essentially lets them run at will thanks to his slow time to the plate. But the problem here is the combination of Montero and Arrieta, who are both below average in terms of preventing stolen bases; there’s a reason that opposing base runners are 31-of-35 against that battery. It’s a marriage that was always going to result in problems against teams with speed, which the Nationals very much are.
Would this move have happened, though, if the Cubs were in a better place? After all, they tolerated Montero’s struggles throwing runners out last season. Then again, at this point in 2016, Chicago was 50–26 and 10 games up in the NL Central; entering Wednesday’s action, the Cubs are just a game over .500 at 39–38 and trail the Brewers by one game for first place in the division. Individual issues like Montero’s inability to manage the running game are easier to paper over when everything else is working, and comments like his about Arrieta are more easily dismissed when the team is winning.
Montero’s release, then, is as much about timing as anything else. Had he called out Arrieta for being slow in the middle of a win streak or with the Cubs running away with the division, any ire over his remarks would’ve likely blown over without anyone losing his job or cool. But as both Rizzo’s retort and Montero’s subsequent dismissal show, Chicago doesn’t seem to be in a very happy place right now—or at least, not one where that kind of public airing of grievances can be ignored.
Perhaps there was other stuff going on with Montero and the Cubs in the clubhouse; he did make some waves after the World Series with complaints about postseason playing time, and Rizzo’s remarks on the radio hinted at some ongoing unhappiness. “It’s the second time barking in the media and not going to his teammates,” he said. “As a veteran like he is, you’d think he’d make smart decisions about it.” Montero, though, seemed to harbor no ill will after being told of his release. “I really thought maybe something was going to happen,” he told MLB.com’s Jesse Rogers. “I understand, I totally understand. If I’m going to take the blame and the team takes off from now, I’ll feel much better.” Montero also said that he had apologized to Arrieta, who reportedly agreed with his catcher’s assessment of Tuesday’s debacle.
All told, dumping Montero is unlikely to have any real effect on the Cubs’ performance on the field. He’ll be replaced on the roster by 23-year-old Puerto Rican prospect Victor Caratini, who was tearing up Triple A to the tune of a .343/.384/.539 line in 271 plate appearances. Montero, meanwhile, is likely to land with a catcher-needy team thanks to his bat. The hope for the Cubs, then, has to be that this episode isn’t exposing any fault lines in the clubhouse. Chicago still has an unbelievable amount of talent and plenty of time to figure things out, but a turnaround will be that much harder with players sniping at each other along the way.