Despite winning their second World Series title last November, the Astros had a bit of a turbulent offseason. Again. Somehow, James Click wasn’t offered anything other than a one-year contract extension as the club’s general manager, which made for an awkward breakup. Instead of quickly filling the vacancy with free agency knocking on the door, Jim Crane, Jeff Bagwell, various advisors, and a trio of assistant general managers were running the show for a little over two months. Not exactly the most optimal of circumstances for the defending champions, even if the eventual hiring of Dana Brown is a net positive for the organization.
However, that power structure in baseball operations didn’t prevent the Astros from re-signing one of their best relievers from last season, Rafael Montero, to a three-year, $34.5 million contract the day following Click’s official departure from the club. At the time, Montero’s new contract, with its $11.5 million AAV, looked like an overpay, especially as it pertains to the third year of the deal. But the degree of the overpay may depend on your perception considering the subsequent spending last offseason around Major League Baseball.
Regardless of the spending elsewhere, the primary concern with Montero for his new contract lies in how infrequently he has experienced sustained success in the past. While his performance last season, mainly in the regular season, was highly positive, the veteran right-hander has never had consecutive sub-4.00 ERA seasons. The only other time he had a sub-4.00 ERA campaign before last season (2019), he followed it up with a 4.08 ERA in 2020 and a 6.39 ERA in 2021. We all know about volatility in relievers and a three-year contract for Montero, even coming off a highly successful season, was still a risky arrangement.
If you were to only look at Montero’s ERA this season (6.89), those concerns about his contract now appear justified. If you were also to view his game log, one would think the wheels have come off for Montero as he has surrendered nine earned runs in his most recent four appearances. While I don’t necessarily care about wins or losses in the aggregate, it is telling he has picked up three losses in May and we’re only halfway through the month.
If ERA and losses were the only numbers that fans cared about nowadays, then we could say Montero is a disaster and the Astros royally messed up by re-signing him. But baseball, much like life, isn’t nearly as cut and dry as those less-than-reliable figures indicate. There is additional context to consider and I think Montero deserves a bit of relief himself. For example, by BABIP, Montero hasn’t been lucky. Rather, you could argue he is due for some better results shortly on the batted-ball front.
Based on his 15-game rolling average above, Montero has seen his hard hit rate remain relatively stable in recent appearances while his medium hit rate declined. Out of all of my concerns about Montero, the frequency of his hard hits to close last season ranked the highest. That area is why I was reluctant to re-sign him to a contract like the Astros ultimately did. But his BABIP rolling average in 2023 has actually increased, indicating that while he is limiting medium-to-hard contact — a good thing — opposing hitters are still doing damage. We can joke all we want online about how soft contact trumps hard contact when we see our favorite hitters do it, but it makes for an excruciating existence for a pitcher when it actually happens. See that game against Seattle on May 6 as a prime example; the primary culprit for that implosion, in my opinion, lies more with the lackluster defense from Alex Bregman and Jeremy Peña than Montero. While I think Montero isn’t completely blameless in these situations, I think the bulk of the blame has been disproportionately applied to him.
Montero’s .444 BABIP thus far in 2023 would best his career average (.328) by a wide margin. While a repeat of his .260 BABIP from last season was always unlikely, a .444 mark isn’t sustainable either. I’d expect his BABIP to hopefully regress into something a bit more reasonable for a leverage reliever. Also, we can’t ignore that his strikeout and walk rates are roughly on par with what it was last season. While there have been some harder contact, and already two barrels on the season compared to only five last year, Montero appears fine under the hood. A 3.55 FIP indicates that he hasn’t been nearly as terrible as his ERA may show. Regression from last season’s high was expected, but these early struggles against primarily soft contact aren’t worth the long-term concerns. Yes, there are legitimate concerns, especially as this contract ages, but this latest blip isn’t one of them.