Second-year hitter Elehuris Montero, a potential power bat for the Rockies, revealed a simple key he used during the club’s last six-game homestand to reduce strikeouts and show signs of increasing production.
Montero, who celebrated his 25th birthday on Thursday, has struck out in 39.8 percent of his plate appearances this season, highest among players with more than a handful of at-bats. He is hitting .220 with five homers and 25 RBIs in 177 at-bats.
But as the Rockies went 3-3 against the D-backs and White Sox, not only did he strike out six times in 21 plate appearances (28.5 percent, more than 10 percent below season average) but he was 9-for-21 (.429) with a home run, two doubles, a triple and six RBIs. A key was a 3-for-9 performance on at-bats that ended with a breaking ball in the strike zone. He was 2-for-8 on the same pitch outside the zone.
Don't take that as a sign that Montero is purged of wild swings or outside breakers from righties. He made contact on five of the eight breaking balls in the zone, but just six of the 14 benders out of the zone.
Such progress could be a sign that Montero is transferring some of his Triple-A production over the last three seasons (.317, 36 homers and a .982 OPS in 580 plate appearances). The improved week-long sample came after Montero took all the information on his swing and its flaws and made a simple physical adjustment.
Keeping Montero’s head “right on home plate” came after much study.
Hitting coach Hensley Meulens needed to counteract Montero’s tendency to attempt to make contact with breaking pitches too far in front of the plate. Meulens rolled through data from Montero's stride from his naturally open stance to the angle of his shoulders and everything in between. But he knows that addressing every single flaw (and most appear minor) merely leads to confusion.
“We’re trying to tell him to keep his hat to the point of contact, so he’s not pulling his head,” Meulens said. “For me, we’re asking that through the swing, the chin starts at the front shoulder and ends at the back shoulder.”
To illustrate, here is a third-strike slider against the Brewers’ Freddy Peralta on Aug. 7. This was a night when Peralta fanned all the Rockies -- 13 Ks in seven innings. The swing comes before the ball arrives, and the neck finishes craned awkwardly.
Here is a double past third base on Saturday night on a slider from White Sox righty Lane Ramsey. Note Montero’s head and eyes right on the pitch, and his on-time movements.
Meulens and the Rockies addressed Montero’s head in more ways than one. Montero began the season as the starting third baseman, was sent down the third week of April, and returned a first baseman -- a position he plays better, although he is still learning. All the while, he has struggled to hit in the Majors.
During a meeting of hitters in Milwaukee in early August, Montero opened up to coaches and teammates, which alerted Meulens that his confidence was down.
“Montero was at a low ebb at that point,” Meulens said. “He was like, ‘I’m sorry I’m not playing well. I feel really bad that I’m not helping.’ I said, ‘All right, we need to pick him up.’”
Veteran Charlie Blackmon, on the injured list at the time, spoke with Montero directly.
“We don’t talk about hitting a lot, because we’re very different hitters from different sides of the plate,” Blackmon said. “I think he swings really good. Sometimes he just needs to hear that.
“I’m sure that had nothing to do with it, but you see him battling, grinding, and [Sunday] he did what he had to do with two strikes. Dylan Cease threw a slider and he got it in the hole and got a hit -- something he might not have done two weeks ago.”