Astros Player of the Day: Rafael Montero

Nov 3, 2022; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Houston Astros relief pitcher Rafael Montero (47) pitches against the Philadelphia Phillies during the eighth inning in game five of the 2022 World Series at Citizens Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

Astros Player of the Day: Rafael Montero

Welcome to Gallery Sports’ Houston Astros Spring Training player spotlight: Astros Player of the Day. We will look at a different Astros player each day throughout the spring.

Today’s Astros Player of the Day is reliever Rafael Montero.

Acquired by the Astros as part of the deal that saw Houston pick up reliever Kendall Graveman from the Mariners in exchange for reliever Joe Smith and infielder Abraham Toro, Montero was originally considered a throw-in.

Montero has always had good stuff, but his command has historically been shaky. Walks and homers have always conspired to undermine Montero, going back to his early days with the Mets as a 23-year-old in 2014.

Originally a starting pitcher, Montero tore through the Mets’ minor league system by producing nearly one strikeout per inning and keeping the ball in the park. When he arrived in the majors, his ability to avoid home run balls seemed to disappear.

Montero played parts of four seasons with the Mets, going 6-16 overall with a 5.38 ERA and 1.71 WHIP over 192.1 innings. He was considered a huge disappointment.

In 2018, Montero underwent Tommy John surgery and missed the entire 2018 season. After that season, he became a free agent and signed with the Texas Rangers.

Montero rehabbed his way through the Rangers system and returned to the majors July 22, 2019, but was used strictly as a reliever. He saw his greatest success in the majors to date, finishing the season 2-0 with a 2.48 ERA and 0.97 WHIP over 29 innings. While over a smaller sample size, these numbers looked much better than his numbers in New York. He improved his strikeout rate from 8.8 to 10.6 per nine innings and dropped his walk rate from 5.2 to 1.6 per nine innings. While his home run rate was still high, there were far fewer runners on base, which limited the damage.

Montero served as the Rangers’ closer during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, finishing 0-1 with a 4.08 ERA and 1.02 WHIP while going 8-for-8 in save chances. Montero’s hit rate fell from 7.1 the season before to 6.1 per nine innings in 2020, but his walk rate climbed back to 3.1 per nine innings.

Montero was traded to the Mariners before the 2021 season and struggled. Originally thought to be able to handle the closer’s role, Montero got torched. He was giving up a career-high 11.6 H/9 innings, his strikeout rate plummeted, and over 43.1 innings in Seattle he posted a 7.27 ERA and 1.64 WHIP. Seattle actually designated him for assignment before he was included in the Graveman deal.

The move to Houston appears to have been the best thing for Montero, who has looked like a new pitcher since being acquired by the Astros.

In 2021, he made just four appearances for the Astros before going down for the season with a lat injury, but his presence on the mound and his command were incredibly improved from his time in Seattle. He didn’t allow an earned run in six innings over four appearances, allowed only three hits, walked two, and struck out two.

The Astros kept Montero for 2022 as a low-cost veteran arm, and he responded with the best season of his career. Like many pitchers before him, Montero seemed to be a guy the Astros pitching coaches helped reach his true potential.

Rafael Montero became one of manager Dusty Baker’s most trusted relievers and became the backup closer to Ryan Pressly. Montero finished 2022 with a 5-2 record, a 2.37 ERA, and 1.02 WHIP, and earned 14 saves. His strikeout rate was back up to 9.6 per nine innings after being down to 7.7 in Seattle. His hit rate dropped from 11.6 per nine innings in Seattle to 6.2 in Houston, which helped make up for his walk rate remaining mediocre. Montero pitched 68.1 innings as one of Dusty Baker’s most dependable relievers, his highest tally in the majors since 2017, when he started 18 games for the Mets. His home run rate plummeted to a career-best 0.4 per nine innings, turning what had previously been a weakness into a strength.

Houston rewarded Montero with a three-year, $34.5 million deal in November. He is expected to remain in his role as the primary setup man and alternate closer behind Ryan Pressly. While it seemed like Houston overpaid at the time, the market for relief pitchers since has made Montero’s deal look like a bargain.

If Montero can maintain his command and avoid the long ball, he should be able to repeat his 2022 production level. If he cannot, Bryan Abreu is waiting in the wings to fill the role.

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