The New York Mets signed Bartolo Colon in part to help fill the void left by Matt Harvey’s injury at the top of the rotation, but his most important role could be how he mentors prospect Rafael Montero.
Colon has been around seemingly forever, and at his peak was a power pitcher that racked up big strikeout totals.
However, despite his overpowering offerings early in his career, he didn’t produce ERA totals expected of an elite pitcher. Prior to last year, he pitched to an ERA below 3.40 on just one occasion (in 2002, when he had a 2.93 ERA).
As his career progressed, Colon was met by both health issues and suspensions for using performance-enhancing drugs, and has had to adapt his style of pitching drastically as he’s aged.
His fastball could no longer overpower hitters, so he started pitching to contact, throwing his low-90s fastball and not much else. In 2013, he pitched to an outstanding 2.65 ERA using this strategy for the Oakland Athletics (despite resembling a bowling ball).
The scout quoted by the New York Post's Mike Puma sums up why Colon has remained an effective pitcher into his 40s.
An AL scout on Colon: "He's got a superb feel for pitching, above average command and will do whatever the team wants. A winner."— Mike Puma (@NYPost_Mets) December 11, 2013
So where does Rafael Montero fit into this equation?
The young right-hander, who will likely make his debut this season, is a much different pitcher than Colon was for most of his career. Montero has an average to above-average fastball, sometimes touching 95 but usually sitting around 91-93, along with a flat slider and fringy changeup. Both of his secondary offerings still have room for improvement although neither flashes plus potential.
Montero’s calling card as a pitcher, and what makes him a likely major leaguer, is his outstanding command and pitchability—the same traits that led to Colon’s successful 2013 campaign.
Scouts have either pegged Montero’s best-case scenario as being a No. 3 starter but becoming a back-end starter more likely, or as a reliever due to his small frame and max-effort delivery.
While Bartolo Colon wasn’t always a control pitcher with fringe-average secondary offerings, he is an example of a pitcher who has overcome a lack of size, poor frame and imperfect mechanics to become an exceptional pitcher at the major league level.
Colon is listed at 5’11”, 265 pounds and Montero is listed at 6’0”,170 pounds. The two pitchers share a lack of height but are on opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of a pitcher’s ideal frame.
Colon is well overweight, and it would seem that his lack of athleticism and conditioning should harm him on the mound. Montero is seen as too small, a pitcher who puts his entire body into his pitches and who therefore could wear down under a starter’s workload as a result.
Both Colon and Montero also have flawed mechanics, as both use high-effort deliveries causing them to max out on all their pitches—another trait that can lead to injuries given a starter’s workload. Colon puts an unnecessary amount of strain on his arm during his delivery, failing to capitalize on the force he could generate from his large body.
Montero’s delivery is quite different than Colon’s. Like Colon, Montero puts plenty of strain on his arm, but unlike Colon, he has poor balance while approaching the plate.
Doug Thorburn of Baseball Prospectus specializes in pitcher mechanics when evaluating prospects, and he explained his displeasure with Montero’s mechanics in a chat in November:
I think that Montero's mechanics are a big problem. The blatant over-the-top might overcome the height restrictions of his size, but his delivery is definitely not built for a big workload. Besides, I would prefer that a pitcher have extension at release point rather than downhill plane (which is often overrated) - and such egregious spine-tilt actually robs him of that extension.
As explained above, there is a reason Montero is not among the best prospects in the game despite his high level of performance. However, there once was also plenty to dislike about Colon, who probably generated the same concerns in his earlier days.
The Mets would love for Colon to repeat his 2013 performance for the next two years. But they will also be pleased if Montero can pick Colon’s brain and utilize his best asset (pitchability) on the way to becoming one of the best control pitchers in the league if he can avoid injury.
Montero is generally overrated by Mets fans because of his numbers at the minor league level, since his success is due in large part to his ability to not only hit spots, but also his knack for generating weak contact.
While prospects such as Zack Wheeler are hyped because of their natural ability and easy mid-90s heat, Montero is much more advanced in the nuances of getting hitters out. However, getting outs at the minor league level is a much easier task than it is in the big leagues, where hitters are much harder to get off-balance.
With Bartolo Colon’s advice, Montero can potentially take the next step in terms of learning how to pitch to big league hitters while getting away with his flat slider and fringe-average changeup. As evidenced in the below video, Colon has mastered the ability to get the ball over the plate and to force hitters to beat him.
Throwing strikes should not be an issue for Montero, as he has exhibited throughout his career the ability to put the ball wherever he wants to.
There is a difference, however, between the ability to throw strikes and the ability to get hitters out, with which Colon can help Montero. This is especially an issue specific to both Colon and Montero, who are both fastball-heavy pitchers with smaller statures.
Shorter pitchers often have trouble with giving up home runs as their fastballs lack the downward plane of taller pitchers, making it easier for hitters to lift pitches they square up.
Colon had the benefit of pitching in a massive ballpark in Oakland but took full advantage of the expansive outfield by pitching to weak, fly-ball contact. Citi Field is smaller, although still sizeable, and Colon will need to adapt his strategy slightly in the coming years.
It is this type of nuance that Montero can learn from Colon, being able to adjust to the ballpark, hitter and situation in order to generate the desired contact from the hitter.
Even if Montero is able to paint the corners of the plate with his fastball consistently, he will still need to win the chess match against the hitter to avoid long balls and short outings.
What do you think Rafael Montero's future role will be?
Montero may always be held back by health problems and forced to the bullpen due to his size and mechanics, but up to this point in his career, he has proven his doubters wrong at every level. If Montero continues to work hard and to master the art of pitching under the tutelage of Bartolo Colon, he could be a very good pitcher for a long time.
I wouldn’t bet on Montero ever becoming a front-line starter, but based on his track record and feel for pitching, I wouldn’t bet against him either.
If Montero truly wants to be successful at the major league level, he should listen to every word Bartolo Colon says about pitching.
All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.
You can follow Sean on twitter: @S_CunninghamBR.