The New York Yankees have seemingly realized that their quest for a title will only come after acquiring more pitching. General manager Brian Cashman has acknowledged that the rotation and the bullpen could use reinforcements. To Brian Cashman’s credit in the previous two winters, he did acquire the best pitchers on the market in Gerrit Cole and James Paxton. In the 2019-2020 off-season, it was figured that Luis Severino would fill the shoes behind Cole, but Severino will still be recovering from Tommy John surgery and the rotation behind Cole could use some help. That help may be closer than people realize in Jordan Montgomery, who made some changes during 2020 that may lead to some success.
A New Arsenal
Montgomery barely pitched in 2018 and 2019 due to his Tommy John surgery, so a big question for him would be how his pitches looked and moved in comparison to previous years. In 2017, Montgomery had five pitches: a sinker, a curveball, a changeup, and a slider. He mixed his pitches a lot and didn’t throw a single pitch more than 30% of the time. Montgomery’s most effective pitch then was his curveball. He registered a .218 xwOBA and 42.8% whiff rate on the pitch that he threw a little over a quarter of the time. It also registered -6 runs of value according to Baseball Savant.
Coming back from Tommy John surgery, Montgomery changed his arsenal and how he uses it a bit. He ditched the slider for a cutter, threw his sinker and changeup more and his curveball less. He didn’t throw his cutter often and mainly attacked hitters with an even amount of his other four pitches. A big reason is that Montgomery’s curveball doesn’t move as much as other curveballs. He doesn’t get a great spin rate on the pitch or good active spin on the pitch. So why is it so effective? He relies heavily on location and command of the pitch. In 2017, he gave up four home runs on the pitch all year. In 2020, he gave up three in a little under a third of the pitches. His curveball’s whiff percentage fell but his other pitches whiff percentages went up, so Montgomery adjusted.
Montgomery also gained some velocity on his fastball. He was consistently able to hit 94 mph with his four-seamer and would locate it at the top of the zone. Montgomery’s average velocity on both his fastball and sinker increased to around 92.5 mph, while it was under 92 mph in 2017. That extra punch with his fastball was able to get him some more swings and misses. It also makes it more favorable for him to set up other pitches. Look at this sequence from Montgomery vs. Kevin Pillar starting at a 1-1 count. Here’s the 1-1 pitch.
The 1-2 pitch:
And the 2-2 pitch:
Montgomery’s curveball doesn’t need to have a dazzling spin rate or movement profile if he can sequence his pitches as he did there. He got Pillar to be conscious of the fastball up and in, and as well think that the changeup low and away—Montgomery’s best swing and miss pitch—would set up that high fastball again. If the Yankee southpaw can sequence his pitches like that, he could have a bright future ahead of him.
In the future, Montgomery should drop his sinker usage. I know I preach this a lot but as I mentioned with Jonathan Loaisiga, his sinker just doesn’t move enough to create separation between his fastball. It does move more than the average sinker, albeit barely, so he doesn’t have to cut the pitch out of his arsenal entirely, and it was his most valuable pitch by Savant’s runs measurement in 2020. He could throw his cutter more as it gets a lot of vertical movement on the pitch and could be an effective look off his fastball, sinker, and changeup. If he can have hitters thinking that a pitch could move in four different directions out of his hand based on tunneling, Montgomery becomes hard to predict. His biggest strength is his ability to throw multiple pitches in multiple situations, there’s no reason for him to deviate away from that.
The way I’ve talked about Montgomery’s change in arsenal and approach might make you believe he had great success in 2020. Well, you’d probably be surprised to see his 5.11 ERA in 44 innings last year. He only averaged four innings a start too, which isn’t uncommon for guys coming off Tommy John surgery in today’s game, but that means if Montgomery makes mistakes, it’ll cause his ERA to balloon. Every single one of his estimators was under 4.0. His ERA estimators are comparably similar, if not better, than a certain MLB All-First team pitcher, Max Fried.
|Statistic||Jordan Montgomery||Max Fried|
Montgomery having strong estimators on its own should be a sign enough that the Yankee pitcher should be able to move beyond that high ERA. Having comparable statistics to Fried shows that Montgomery is capable of much more. Montgomery was able to get those peripherals from improved command. Montgomery’s walk rate was just 4.7. He threw a career-high of his pitches inside the strike zone, granted in a much smaller sample size than his 2017 season. He also had the lowest zone contact percentage of his career while getting close to his career-high in “zone swing” percentage. This is reflected in that Montgomery was getting whiffs on about 28% of the swings against him. He was just missing more bats in 2020.
Monty’s new pitch mix was also able to help him get hitters to swing at more pitches outside of the strike zone than ever before. He had a 34.3% chase rate, well above his 30.9% mark in 2017. Missing more bats and getting the hitters to swing at the pitches that are outside of the strike zone is going to help lead to some success. Hitters did make contact with about two thirds of their swings outside of the strike zone, but Montgomery was good at limiting hard contact. His HH rate was 29.9, nearly two points below his 2017 mark and good for the 88th percentile in the league. His AEV was 95th percentile as well. If Montgomery can keep up his ability to limit hard contact and his improved command, the Yankees can feel good about trusting him in the rotation.
The Opportunity to Pitch
As the Yankees rotation currently stands, Jordan Montgomery would likely be making the second start of the year behind Gerrit Cole. That’s a cause for concern for the Yankees but not the major concern most people have made it out to be. What it does mean, though, is Jordan Montgomery is going to be given the chance to pitch every fifth day. Montgomery is going to have to provide innings in those starts as well. As already mentioned, he was only going about four innings a start in 2020. He’s now a full year removed from Tommy John and will hopefully have a full spring training to get himself warmed up, which could make a big difference for him. In 2017, he averaged about 5.1 innings a start which in today’s game is considerably better. The Yankees aren’t afraid to pull starters early and go to the bullpen. That same bullpen isn’t as strong as it normally is and they may have to run the risk of leaving guys out there longer, which may or may not be a problem for Montgomery.
Montgomery’s career numbers against lineups the third time through are pretty much like everyone’s, they are worse than the other times. He isn’t a power pitcher who blows hitters away with his fastball but then loses that ability as the game goes on. He can change his approach when he starts facing lineups the third time through and clearly, he will need to do so if he wants to last deeper into games. This all comes back to sequencing his pitches. It also may be where he relies more on his sinker and changeup, to get ground balls and contact deeper in the game.
Montgomery showed improved velocity in 2020, and if he maintains that or even improves on it some more, that could also help determine how deep he can go into games. From 2017-2020, among starting pitchers with at least 200 innings during that span, the average starting pitcher went about 5.1 or 5.2 innings per start. Not a single starter worked above 7 innings a start during that period. If Jordan Montgomery can give the Yankees his 2017 length or a little bit more, he will be giving the team the length they need. He will also be helping his fantasy value if he can get more quality starts.
The Yankees are going to need Jordan Montgomery to step up, and I think he can meet that challenge. His change in his pitch mix will make me pay attention to what he does in 2021 to see if he makes more adjustments. He will need to keep the improvements in his command and miss as many bats as he did before. He’s going to get the opportunity to pitch in 2021—let’s see what he can do.
Photo by Keith Allison/Wikimedia Commons/flickr | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)