Anthony McCarron of The New York Daily News had a good piece yesterday on Jesus Montero‘s extensive work on defensive skills over the winter. In it, McCarron spent considerable time exploring Montero the prospect and also Montero the person, giving fans a glimpse of the young phenom’s demeanor and off-field interests–particularly building race cars–in addition to his development in learning the finer points of defense. If McCarron’s typically fine reporting rings true in this instance, Yankees fans should gravitate to Montero’s personality nearly as much as his prodigious bat once the top-notch catching prospect reaches The Bronx.
A few items stood out in the article and, to me, are things on which McCarron could have spent more time. The first is Montero’s work ethic. McCarron rightly discussed Montero’s diligent work in myriad drills:
About 10 yards away, a coach with a thin fungo bat swats a ball at him, simulating the unpredictable nature of throws from the outfield, as rain drops fall. The young catcher’s mitt flashes out to snare the ball and he applies a mock tag, then he jogs to the side as another catcher takes a turn in the drill…
He flops side to side in the bullpen, honing his skills at blocking errant pitches. He pores over the rudiments of receiving, learning how to handle different pitches and the myriad ways they can break, and he works to shorten his throwing motion to take better advantage of a powerful arm.
Not to be overlooked, this is a kid who just turned 20 who is learning the craft and laboring in the off-season in February. That says a lot about Montero’s work ethic. He doesn’t appear a slacker who takes his talent for granted, and is devoted to learning a craft–catching–that others have doubted he will eventually perform on a full-time basis in the majors. He appears to share that ethic with Derek Jeter, who by the way committed 56 errors in A ball in 1993.
Montero also appears quite coachable, as this segment illustrates:
Montero had not practiced blocking balls much before turning pro and early in one camp his arms and hands were covered with purpling bruises, many of which could have been avoided with better technique, [Yankees minor-league catching coordinator Julio] Mosquera says. “You beat me up, are you mad at me?” Montero asked Mosquera.
“I said, ‘The beauty of this, we gotta block again today,'” Mosquera says. “He did it the right way and he said, ‘Alright.’ Sometimes, you’ve got to let them try to figure it out. He’s doing a really good job of it.”
It isn’t just that Montero is making progress in his technique, but especially that he’s willing to literally suffer to learn the craft. Bear in mind, too, that Francisco Cervelli, who is slated to be Jorge Posada‘s back-up in 2010, originally came up as a middle infielder before being switched to catcher. That is, Montero might be switched to a different position in the next couple years, at which he might thrive. More to the point, learning to be a good defensive catcher–and Cervelli was a pleasant surprise in handling pitchers and throwing out runners last season–takes time, and Montero needs to be afforded the kind of time and patience that Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes have to hone their own skills.
Lastly, Mosquera–who works with Montero on a daily basis–has characterized the Yankees’ top prospect as “an outgoing guy. I call him fresh – fresh in a good way. Not timid, going to go after it. If you have fun, you’re going to develop faster.” He may appear more gregarious than more serious predecessors such as Thurman Munson and Posada, who have become past and present Yankee catching legends. At the same time, the common denominator between them and the rest of the five great Yankee catchers (with Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, and Elston Howard) included being, to some degree, outgoing. Perhaps the shyest of the legends, Yogi was nonetheless affable and willing to approach his battery mates, even when they didn’t respect his grasp of the game. He developed a quiet but unquestionably commanding persona, especially under the tutelage of Dickey as catching coach, and the wing and praise of the great Casey Stengel, and eventually earned the respect of hard-nosed peers such as Vic Raschi and Allie Reynolds–no easy feat. [For detailed, harsh examples of all this, see David Halberstam‘s masterful Summer of ’49, 82-90 (HarperPerennial edition, 2002).]
The point is that the great Yankees catchers from Dickey to Jorge, were not wallflowers. Montero’s personality might change along the way, especially the more he deals with talented and strong-willed pitchers. But his ability and willingness to approach them, as he approaches learning to catch, is a crucial element to his comportment and potential leadership that bear as much watching as we track his grasp of the myriad skills of the position.
Through McCarron, we see that Montero may well have the comportment as well as the physical skills to become a top-flight catcher. Time will tell, but Montero’s work ethic and demeanor afford him a good shot at it.