There’s nothing overly exciting about Jordan Montgomery’s game. And yet, he sure is competent. The tall lefty made 30 starts, tossed 157.1 innings, and recorded a 3.83 ERA (112 ERA+) in 2021. He did miss a couple of starts because of COVID-19, but otherwise, he was about as dependable as it gets.
In spite of Monty’s strong year, some were left unsatisfied, mainly because of a brutal final performance. In fact, he picked the worst time to have his worst start of the season: Game 161 against the Rays. The Yankees still hadn’t clinched a playoff spot and Monty’s bad game (knocked out in the third inning) forced the Yanks into a pivotal Game 162.
Don’t let that clunker cloud your memory of Montgomery’s 2021 campaign, though. There’s no denying that it was awful timing for a miserable game, but the fact of the matter is that the southpaw was instrumental to one of MLB’s best rotations this year.
Model of Consistency
If you look at Montgomery’s game log, you’ll find a lot of starts between five and six innings (19 starts). He fell just short of four more outings in that category because of starts that Aaron Boone lifted him with two outs in the fifth inning. Additionally, you’ll also see that Monty gave up no more than four runs in 24 of his 30 starts. In other words: there weren’t a ton of dominant outings, but the team had a very good idea of what to expect each start from the soon to be 29 year old.
For all the talk of consistency, things were a bit of a mixed bag in the early going. On May 16th, Baltimore tagged Montgomery for five runs in three frames, which bloated his ERA to 4.75 in his first eight starts. However, in his next outing, he responded with a gem against a much better White Sox club:
This was the beginning of a terrific run for the team’s former fourth round pick. He shut out Chicago over seven frames and struck out 11 while doing so. From there on out, Monty rolled.
Montgomery posted a terrific 2.89 ERA from May 21st (the date of that start against the White Sox) through September 4th. He made 17 starts during that stretch and allowed no more than three runs in 16 of them. The one blip: five runs (four earned) in a June start against Toronto.
If we shrink the endpoints to June 20th through September 4th, we’ll see that Montgomery went 12 consecutive games without surrendering more than three runs (2.66 ERA). He didn’t pitch too deep into his starts, never lasting more than six frames. That said, the Yankees knew what they were getting from him every time he was on the mound.
Now, September wasn’t as kind to Montgomery. There were two duds mixed in: the aforementioned final start of the season against the Rays, along with a rough outing against the Mets on the 10th. Even so, Monty recorded three straight starts of at least five innings pitched and no more than one run allowed between the Mets and Rays matchups.
All this talk of Montgomery’s consistency reminded me of the hitter volatility post I wrote early last month. I may try to revisit that with pitchers. Considering the preceding paragraphs, I’d bet that Montgomery was one of the least volatile pitchers in the league in 2021.
A minor tweak to his arsenal
Montgomery doesn’t have a Statcast page that makes anyone’s jaw drop. His fastball velocity (20th percentile, 92.6 MPH), spin rates (53rd percentile fastball, 21st percentile curveball), and movement aren’t anything to write home about. And yet, he has a history of inducing soft contact while generating above average whiff rates. This year was no different.
The lefty’s soft contact skills are a big reason why I believed he was unlucky in 2020, and thus portended a better year in 2021. That panned out. And yet, even if things weren’t broken, Montgomery did make one noticeable pitch tweak. He altered the usage, speed, and shape of his cut fastball. It’s not clear if it was for the better, but it is something that happened.
Monty entered the majors with a slider, but he gradually eschewed that pitch (or morphed it into what’s now classified as a cutter). Technically, his slider dropped off after 2019 and he first introduced a cutter in 2020, at least per Statcast. This year, he doubled his usage of the cutter, going from just under 7 percent to nearly 14 percent.
That’s not all, though. He also took a couple of ticks off his cutter. It sat a hair below 90 MPH in 2020, whereas this season, it clocked in just north of 87 MPH. Here’s a look at an example of the pitch in 2020:
And in 2021:
It’s impossible to tell the difference of 3ish MPH via the naked eye, but one thing that I do think is noticeable (after a few viewings) is a different shape. The pitch now gets a little more drop than it used to: roughly 6.5 more inches according to Statcast.
Why more (and different) cutters in 2021? One guess: to combat his struggles against right handed hitters. He does throw the pitch to lefties too, but it’s more of a go to offering against righties. Other than his rookie season, Monty has had a pronounced batter handedness platoon split.
Perhaps the organization liked what they saw from 2020’s small sample of cutters (50 total, 42 to righties) and figured there was something to work with there. The four batted balls against the pitch averaged just 77.8 MPH exit velocity, but the team assuredly did not make judgements based on that alone. Maybe after seeing how righties crushed his four-seamer (.397 xwOBA) and sinker (.363 xwOBA) in 2020, Monty and the team wanted to see if a more frequently used (and tweaked) cutter could help in 2021.
Righties wound up hitting his cut fastball fairly well in 2021 (.329 xwOBA), but perhaps mixing that pitch in more often helped his four-seamer (.305 xwOBA). Then again, righties destroyed his sinker (.498 xwOBA), so it may not have been all that helpful. But hey, at least it was one more offering that opponents had to consider. As a whole, Monty limited righties to a .256 batting average and .395 slugging percentage this season, far better than last year (.278/.489) and easily his best since his rookie season (.244/.386).
Overall, there’s no real indication that Montgomery’s cutter is a good pitch — his curveball (-9 run value) and changeup (-10 run value) are by far his best offerings — but that he’s trying to incorporate the cut fastball (+6 run value, his worst pitch in fact) more often is worth monitoring. It’s possible that it made his other pitches look better against righties that he’s historically had trouble with.
Monty is currently the team’s projected number two starter in 2022, but he’s better off as a mid-rotation guy. That’s not an insult to him, by the way. Perhaps the now healthy Luis Severino can take hold of that second spot behind Gerrit Cole, but the Yankees may tread carefully with Sevy. In any case, acquiring one more starter to push Montgomery into the three or four spot would be ideal.
The Yankees have control of Montgomery for two more seasons. I fully expect a 2022 campaign similar to what we witnessed this year. There’s no indication of stuff decline, and based on his age, he’s right in the midst of his prime. Projection-wise, Steamer anticipates some regression next year, but it’s a good projection nonetheless. The system calls for 29 starts, 164 innings, a 4.08 ERA, and 4.13 FIP. As more systems release their 2022 projections in the coming weeks or months, I’d anticipate similar forecasts.