Jordan Montgomery was a steady hand [2021 Season Review]

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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.

What’s next?

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.

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7 Comments

  1. Greg

    Just an FYI: Two outs in the fifth inning is literally between the fifth and sixth inning:

     “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. “

  2. Brian

    I remember quite a few times Boone took him out 2 outs into the 5th after the infield made an error letting someone on 1st. Some of those were let in by middle relief. I think the kid gloves come off and they let him get deeper into games when he’s cruising next year being further removed from TJ surgery. Too many soft grounders eluded Gleyber’s range or were thrown past the 1B. Monty was better than the stats showed.

  3. Monty’s curveball is just so good. When nothing else is going well for him, he can drop the curveball in for strike after strike. I approve.

  4. MikeD

    I view Monty as more a backend starter for a good team. Yes, I know someone who starts 30 games, tosses close to 160 innings with a 3.69 FIP and a 3.4 rWAR is not a #5 starter by any stretch. My point is the Yankees should view him as a #4. They have a clear #1, and they should build out #2 and #3. Severino is going to fill one of the 2/3 roles, so ideally bringing in another solid pitcher who can eat some innings would be great. Hal’s Yankees seem to be stuck in the luxury tax threshold hell by their own doing, so I don’t have any idea what they’re going to do here. Oh, Cashman will do something, and it will look interesting, but my fear is they will once again take a good or even very good team and leave it short of its goal.

    They should, btw, explore the trade market for Montgomery. I don’t want him to go just for change sake, but he’s one of those guys that might land a nice package that could overall help elsewhere. Thing is, he’s still cheap for his production, and that will resonate with the Yankees Chief Accountant Geek.

    • John

      Maybe not for the whole season, but if you could make a deadline pickup that pushes him into the 4 slot for the rest of the year and playoffs – that would be ideal.

      Someone like Castillo so you get him for 23 as well – that’s a Cashman trade.

  5. dasit

    imagine if he was a free agent in this market. he might end up with 5/100

  6. Feliz Navideddard

    He reminds me a lot of Andy, Derek. Crafty lefty who consistently puts up 3 ERAs every season seemingly under the radar. He’s not as dramatic as that diva Cole, he’s not as flashy as Sevy or as nasty as Nestor. I sometimes forget he’s even on the team that’s how much he blends in. He’s one of the few guys who will throw to Gary. I think with a better catcher he might have a 2 ERA. It worries me that the Rays got Kluber because you just know they’re going to turn him into a Cy Young again. Blake was a nice add as pitching coach but the Rays know pitching and they just always seem to be a step ahead of the Yankees. They know something we don’t about Kluber. They invented the shifts which we stole, they invented the opener which we stole and last year they employed the four outfielder alignment which I’m sure we’ll steal next year. And the reason the four outfielders worked was because Joey Gallo can’t hit a damn baseball. Can you imagine them doing that to Boggsy or Donnie Baseball or Teddy Ballgame? They woulda carved that up like a Christmas Goose. I just wonder why the Yankees can’t be on the forefront of these innovations instead of just stealing everybody else’s ideas. Where is this analytics department we’ve heard so much about? Is it just a bunch of pale interns in a dungeon building algorithms in exchange for Mountain Dew and cheetos? These people think the game is played on a spreadsheet and haven’t seen a game of baseball in their lives.

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