Jordan Montgomery’s return [2020 Season Review]

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Technically, Jordan Montgomery made it back from Tommy John surgery at the end of the 2019 season. But really, his return at full bore came this season. He didn’t get the opportunity to make 30 starts, but maybe it’s not a bad thing that a shortened season allowed the Yankees to take even more time to rebuild his workload. The lefty made ten starts and tossed 44 innings, and though his 5.11 ERA wasn’t pretty, his 3.87 FIP and 4.48 DRA point to some bad luck.

Added velocity

There was palpable excitement about Montgomery way back in Spring Training. The soon-to-be 28 year-old was able to reach 94 MPH on the radar gun all the way back in February. He’s been able to touch that number in the past, particularly in 2017 when he topped out at 94.7 per Statcast. Now, nobody mistakes Montgomery for a power pitcher, but there was a notable dip in velocity after rookie campaign. The southpaw maxed out at 92.1 in 2018 before the surgery cut his season short.

This year, Montgomery threw 29 fastballs at a velocity of 94 MPH or greater, including one that hit 95. He had thrown just 20 heaters at the speed in his entire career before 2020, all in ’17 of course. Keep in mind that Montgomery made just 10 starts this season vs. 29 in 2017, so he would have absolutely shattered that mark in a full season. And to no surprise, his average fastball velocity was way up compared to past years:

More fastball velocity is good, no doubt. But the biggest takeaway here? That Montgomery’s elbow is feeling strong. I don’t think the Yankees were too concerned about Monty’s performance this season. Rather, it was being able to start every fifth day and finish the season in good shape. Mission accomplished with a better fastball to boot.

Great underlying numbers…

I already pointed out that Montgomery’s ERA was way higher than his FIP and DRA. Part of that might be small sample size whereas another piece of that is undoubtedly a terrible start he had against the Rays on September 2nd, which I’ll note in the next section. Let’s focus on the underlying metrics here instead, because there’s a lot of good to appreciate.

Monty was elite at limiting walks (4.7 percent BB rate) and hard contact (84.6 MPH avg. exit velocity). That’s very, very good. Being able to pitch in and around the strike zone without giving up too much strong contact makes life a lot easier. Plus, the conventional wisdom is that post-TJS pitchers take a little bit longer to rediscover their command after returning. Doesn’t look like that was a problem for Montgomery.

Another standout part of Montgomery’s game in 2020: his strikeout rate. The southpaw fanned 24.4 percent of batters faced, a tad higher than the 22.4 percent league average mark. I’m sure part of that jump was as a result of his harder fastball keeping hitters honest, but he also had great success with his curveball and changeup. Let’s compare those two pitches from 2020 to his previous complete season in 2017:

Metric2017 (CH)2020 (CH)2017 (CU)2020 (CU)
Usage %18.925.626.122.1
Whiff %29.638.542.835.3
Exit Velo84.579.785.284.1
xwOBA.314.238.218.262

Monty’s changeup was fantastic and he knew it. He threw it more often, got more whiffs, and induced more soft contact against. Additionally, Montgomery’s curveball was still really effective even if he used it a little less frequently.

Yet, for all of this good, Montgomery still finished up with a 5.11 ERA.

…but not as good results

As great as his inputs were, all that really matters at the end are the results. A 5.11 ERA and 84 ERA+ leaves a lot to be desired any way you slice it. Yet, I am going to cut things up anyway by removing that one disastrous game against Tampa Bay. Montgomery couldn’t complete the first inning and was lifted after 39 pitches. In total, he allowed 4 runs in 2/3 of an inning, including a couple of homers surrendered to Randy Arozarena and Mike Brosseau. Take that start away from his season line and you get to a much nicer 4.36 ERA, which is better than the league average mark of 4.45.

Nonetheless, that start still counts and can’t be ignored. If everyone could erase one bad game from their season stat line, they would. Now, that doesn’t mean we can’t be satisfied with how Monty pitched this season. After all, the underlying numbers I pointed out earlier were excellent. Even so, it’s not just the ERA that wasn’t great in terms of the lefty’s results.

Montgomery allowed 7 homers in 44 innings this season, or 1.43 per nine. He also allowed homers on 16.7 percent of fly balls allowed. That’s a good chunk of homers to surrender, but it’s not that much worse than the league average marks of 1.34 per nine and 14.8 percent, respectively. The problem? Montgomery had a propensity to surrender the long-ball with runners aboard. 5 of the 7 taters given up came with runners on base. That’ll put a dent in the ol’ ERA.

On the bright side, I want to point out a couple of good things results-wise.

For one, Montgomery was pretty efficient. Yes, he only threw 44 innings in 10 starts, but keep in mind that not only does his terrible Rays’ performance skew things, but he also had one start curtailed due to a rain delay. Overally, Montgomery averaged 3.9 pitches per batter faced and 17 pitches per inning. Both marks are very slightly better than league average.

Additionally, the southpaw pitched well against the Rays in Game 4 of the ALDS with the Yankees on the brink of elimination. He started the game and threw four innings of one run ball on 62 pitches. He didn’t necessarily dominate as he scattered three hits and three walks, but he held the Rays at bay thanks to four strikeouts and one double play ball. It was a marked improvement over that dreadful performance against Tampa Bay earlier. The Yankees would go on to win that game and force a Game 5, which we will not discuss.

What’s next?

The Yankees will tender Montgomery a contract before the end of the day. It’s his second time through the arbitration process even though he has fewer than four seasons of service. He was a Super Two player last winter. MLB Trade Rumors projects that he’ll earn between $1.2 million and $2 million through the process.

ZiPS likes Montgomery a good deal entering 2021. It calls for a 4.15 ERA (108 ERA+), 4.12 FIP, and 1.5 WAR in 93 1/3 innings. Essentially, ZiPS sees what I wrote about: his underlying numbers portray a better pitcher than his results showed for. As for the innings projection? Well, that low total will happen for someone who’s barely pitched since 2017 and had Tommy John surgery.

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1 Comment

  1. Mungo

    TJS is more difficult on command-and-control pitchers such as Montgomery compared to hard throwers. As we all know, command is the last to return post TJS, so Montgomery-type pitchers often struggle as they learn new release points with their surgically repaired arms and can’t compensate for spotty command by overpowering hitters with plus fastballs. The results from those type of pitchers first year back can be uneven, as we saw with Monty. Good news is Montgomery showed increased velocity. That’s a plus for him long term. He now has a recovery season behind him to shake the rust off, even if it’s an abbreviated one, so he’s set up nicely for a full rebound in 2021.

    I know many fans like to, or used to, think of Montgomery as the second coming of Andy Pettitte because he’s a tall lefty starter, home grown, and they throw with a similar velocity. It ends there. Pettitte had better command of his pitches and a real out pitch with his cutter. Pettitte is a borderline HOFer, Monty is a #4/5 starter who will have long been forced into retirement before he reaches age 40 when Andy was still pitching in the majors. Monty will need to improve his command to move from a back-end starter to mid-rotation pitcher. I’m not sure he can do it as his command has always been a bit iffy. At least in 2021 he’ll be set up nicely to build off his rookie season. No shame in being a back-end starter, but it would be great if he could step forward. For now, the Yankees have a front-end starter in Cole and a back-end starter in Montgomery. They have three key slots to fill.

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