Setting expectations for Jordan Montgomery’s potential return

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We all know that the Yankees’ rotation could use a lift. Everyone is eagerly awaiting the return of Luis Severino, and rightfully so. However, there’s another arm on the mend: Jordan Montgomery. It’s been a long road, but the southpaw appears to be on track to return next month after a 15 month hiatus due to Tommy John surgery. As much as the Yankees could use the help, it might be too much to thrust him into the rotation immediately.

Montgomery made his first rehab start last weekend and felt good thereafter. Next, he’s expected to pitch with Double-A Trenton. The Yankees can keep Montgomery on this assignment for up to 30 days, though that timeline isn’t definite. For one, the Yankees are permitted to extend the assignment because its Tommy John recovery. Additionally, the minor league season ends very soon which could throw a wrench into plans. Complications aside, let’s just assume that Montgomery is able to return in September. What should we expect?

First and foremost, we can’t just pencil Montgomery into the rotation. The timing might not work out, leaving him as a relief option only. And, though he looks like a solid back of the rotation arm, it’s hard to imagine him being of much use as a reliever. The Yankees badly need help in the fourth and fifth starter spots, but not to the extent that Montgomery should be hurried along. The division lead is too big and assuming Severino gets back, the Yankees postseason rotation will be set anyway. It might be nice to let J-Mo start a meaningless game once everything is clinched, but that’s neither here nor there.

It’s not like the Yankees can just “set it and forget it” anyway. Montgomery returning to his pre-surgery form immediately is uncertain. Jeff Zimmerman and Brian Cartwright did some good research on this subject for The Hardball Times. They found that a pitcher’s first season back from surgery is their worst in terms of major stats like ERA, strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed. Depending on the stat, pitchers perform between 4.4 and 7.2 percent worse than projections. Speaking of projections, let’s take a glance at a few:

SystemERAFIP
PECOTA4.605.03
ZiPS4.374.33
Steamer4.905.09

Those forecasts are pretty pessimistic in the first place, as Montgomery has a 3.84 ERA and 4.09 FIP in over 180 big league innings. Not all of those projections are aware that Montgomery had surgery, too. I know for sure that PECOTA doesn’t account for it, though it’s not clear for ZiPS or Steamer. Either way, if Montgomery were to follow in the footsteps of the aforementioned research, he wouldn’t be much of a help in the rotation anyway. And that’s ignoring all of the obstacles he still faces just to get back to the mound.

Performance aside, we shouldn’t expect Montgomery to regain his velocity. It’s a myth that pitchers throw harder after having their UCL repaired. Per the same HBT article, the typical pitcher actually loses a very small amount of velocity in year one of returning. The 26 year-old isn’t known for being a hard thrower anyway, but it’s worth noting.

Clearly, we can be pretty doubtful of Montgomery having any impact in 2019. But what about the future? Well, even if he pitches in the majors this year, 2020 is still essentially year one of his return. And based on the research, things don’t bode particularly well for Montgomery. He’s not someone I’d be confident having break camp in the rotation next spring.

Jon Rogele, who documents each and every Tommy John surgery, also has interesting findings on pitcher recovery. Within Montgomery’s age rage (24 – 27), Rogele found that the median pitcher post-repair appears in 70 games and 137 innings through the rest of one’s career. That’s not exactly the most hopeful sounding news for Montgomery. Interestingly though, there’s a bit more upside if a pitcher’s recovery time is between 14 and 20 months, which Montgomery currently sits. We’re talking about as many as 129 appearances and 254 innings pitched.

Given the information available, the odds of Montgomery sustaining a long and effective career seem low. It’s a bit of a bummer considering the promise he showed as a high floor starter when he first donned pinstripes, but not all hope is lost yet. Now, I wouldn’t count on anything this season, and not because of the research out there. There’s just not a enough time to get him fully back.

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10 Comments

  1. RetroRob

    Good article, although I have issues. Well, I definitely have issues, but I mean in this case one issue with the research. 🙂

    To begin, when I heard Montgomery was having TJS, I noted back on RAB that not all pitchers returning from TJS should be treated equally. I had a cautionary view of his chances being effective again, so in that sense I share the questioning view of this article and the underlying research.

    As you noted, Montgomery is not a hard thrower, and that type of pitcher can suffer more. High-velocity pitchers, on the other hand, have greater room for error. Montgomery was on the lower end to begin with, but still enough for a starter, particularly a lefty. I often see him referred to as a “command” pitcher, but I always thought his command was more on the average side, in the 50 range. Acceptable, but not a significant strength…yet.The long-term positive though was if he could improve his command to a 60 range he’d be an even better starter. There was that possibility. That’s the real concern I have here. He can be successful losing a tick of velocity; I’m not sure he can be as successful with a reduction in command. TJS pitchers often deal with command issues their first year back, but the pitchers with higher velocity can compensate until the command returns. Montgomery will not have that luxury. That was and remains my concern here.

    Now, on the positive side as it relates to this research, the quantity of pitchers having TJS in their career is not insignificant, but the quality of those pitchers vary. In order for the studies you quote to have greater meaning, we’d need to compare Montgomery to starting pitchers not just in his age range, but also handedness and quality. The last is the most important. Montgomery was a higher quality pitcher than most TJS recipients.

    I’m anxious to see what he can do in 2020, He may not be all the way back next year, if ever, but he likely can out pitch what the injured CC has given the Yankees, and certainly what Happ has given the Yankees.

    I suspect the Yankees will go into 2020 building a five man rotation that doesn’t include Montgomery, starting the year in AAA and then being the first call ups as soon as a starter is needed. He can help next year, but we may not know for sure what he is moving forward until 2021.

  2. There’s a reason they play the games.

  3. V

    I always dislike ‘studies’ that don’t account for the quality of the pitchers pre surgery.

    Ambiorix Burgos (4.94 ERA in 144 games as a reliever), Anthony Reyes (5.12 career ERA), Macay McBride (4.35 ERA in 132 games as a reliever), Bill Simas (3.83 ERA as a reliever from 1995-2000) weren’t the types of pitchers teams are clamoring to get healthy. Certainly not the way AJ Burnett, Adam Wainwright, Michael Pineda, Nate Eovaldi, etc. are coveted.

    Victor Zambrano was terrible before his Tommy John surgery, and terrible after – there’s a reason he didn’t throw more than 100 innings after. BJ Ryan was a reliever – 100 innings is a season and a half. He was actually good immediately after recovering, and didn’t fall off the cliff til he was 33. Taylor Buchholz had a career 4.30 FIP so it’s certainly possible teams weren’t buying his 2008 as legit. Bill Bray was similar to BJ Ryan – a reliever – great a year after TJS, terrible the year later. Relievers come and go, and I don’t think we can draw conclusions about TJS from their performances.

    • RetroRob

      V, agreed. I noted similar in the closing of my note.

  4. Dan

    Such a rich article Derek. Fantastic job!

    I hope Gumby can be the outlier and come back strong, he could be a very valuable piece next season.

  5. Sam Aaron

    I’m a big believer in one time through the order pitching. Take Gumby, CC, and Happ and have them each go 9 batters for one game every 4 days for the time being. Then do the same with Sevi, Green, and Cortez. That leaves German, Masa, Paxton to start the other three with Otto, Chapman, Kahnle, Green, and Britton to back them up.

    It will keep your injured pitchers counts low and protect the less effective guys for the last month of the season.

  6. Rob in CT

    My head knows you’re right. My heart says Monty should take Happ’s spot in the rotation the moment he feels ready. 😉

    • RetroRob

      That likely isn’t until 2020!

      I don’t think Happ will be back next year. They’ll eat a chunk of his salary and trade him to the Reds, where he’ll compete for the Cy Young.

      Just kidding on the latter. I think.

  7. Michael Serra

    You really paint a glum picture for Gumby. We should just release him now. According to you and your “projections” he will suck pretty much forever starting right now.

    • Derek

      Lol, these aren’t my projections or my research. Just relaying what’s out there. The point is we probably can’t expect Montgomery to be anything resembling his old self until 2021.

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