There aren’t too many Yankees games without TV feeds in spring training, but tonight unfortunately is one of them. I’m not one to watch every spring training game, but I am disappointed to miss this one. It would have been the first opportunity to see Gerrit Cole pitch for the Yankees in Grapefruit League play. One other pitcher we won’t be able to see is Jordan Montgomery, who will follow once Cole’s outing is complete.
2020 marks the 27 year-old lefty’s first full season since Tommy John surgery curtailed his 2018 campaign. Last year marked his official return when he pitched twice before season’s end, though this time around is a bit more serious. 2019’s outings were late season September call up filled ballgames that Monty appeared in.
In case you forgot, Montgomery was pretty good before surgery. In 188 2/3 pre-TJS innings (35 starts), Montgomery had a 3.84 ERA (88 ERA-) and 4.09 FIP (92 FIP-). Better than I remembered, in fact. He could have stood to go deeper into games, but all things considered, that’s very good for a back of the rotation starter, especially in his age 24 and 25 seasons. Sure would be nice to get that version of Montgomery back right away. And that perfectly tees up our first question about the tall lefty…
Will he be back to his pre-surgery self?
Unfortunately, odds are against Montgomery returning to form immediately. It can take multiple years for pitchers to resemble their normal selves, if ever. Per Jeff Zimmerman’s 2014 piece in The Hardball Times, pitchers in year one of their return can expect higher a higher ERA, HR/9, BB/9 and a worse K/9 compared to their pre-surgery projections. The gap lessens in years two and three. There’s always a chance Montgomery bucks the trend, but this gives us a good sense of what to prepare for.
Worsened command is a big reason for pitchers’ rate stats suffering upon return from TJS. For avoidance of doubt, I’m specifically noting command (i.e. ability to hit target), not control (i.e. ability to throw a strike anywhere). Here’s a simplified explanation by Baseball Prospectus’s Patrick Dubuque:
For now, though, it appears that the old adage that “control is the last thing to come back” is to some degree a myth, or at the very least an imprecision of language. It’s command, as defined by BP’s new metrics [Called Strikes Above Average, or CSAA], that is last thing pitchers rediscover, or at least pitchers sacrifice that command for the sake of control.
What does this mean for Montgomery?
Based on walk rates alone, Montgomery has always had pretty good control of the strike zone. He’s also had good command too. In 2017, Montgomery was a tad above average in garnering called strikes according to BP. Now, this metric (CSAA) doesn’t explicitly define command, but it serves as a good proxy for it.
Merely from watching Montgomery pitch, one can tell that he needs good command to be successful. He’s not coming at opponents with a mid-90s fastball or a hammer curveball. But he makes his arsenal work, particularly because of respectable command. So, it’s no surprise that the lefty had a strong rookie season per traditional metrics (i.e. ERA) alongside a positive CSAA.
Knowing that the southpaw’s command will probably come back slower than everything else is a bit worrisome. It’s one thing for Zack Britton to miss his spot with his 95 MPH power sinker, but it’s another for someone like Monty to throw a middle-middle 90 MPH sinker. Much of his success in his first full season back will likely depend on his command, just like it always has for him. It’s just going to be a bit challenging, at least from the start.
Will he be in the rotation all season?
Jordan Montgomery with a filthy 1-2 pic.twitter.com/hgUihj5jst— YES Network (@YESNetwork) February 16, 2020
Before spring training began, the question was: will Jordan Montgomery make the Yankees’ rotation out of camp? Things have changed since then, though. We’ve learned of James Paxton’s back surgery and Luis Severino’s forearm soreness. So, instead of beginning the year in Triple-A, Montgomery has a good chance to win the fifth starter gig. How long he lasts in the rotation is the better question now.
Assuming good health for Montgomery, there are a couple ways he can maintain his place in the Yankees’ rotation all year long. The easiest way would be to force the Yankees’ hand. A more realistic scenario would be setbacks for Paxton or Severino and/or injuries to other starters.
Let’s suppose that the Yankees get better news on Severino in the coming days and Paxton’s return remains on track. If Montgomery’s pitching to a mid-to-low-3 ERA come May or June (when Paxton’s back), does Monty get bumped from the rotation? That’d be hard to do unless you expect JA Happ to rebound this season. And even if that was the case, the Yankees will probably try to prevent Happ’s 2021 $17 million option from vesting. 27 starts or 165 innings pitched would trigger it.
On the other hand, pitchers break and Montgomery may not need to force the Yankees’ hand. That’s not to say he can’t also pitch well, but rather, chances are that the Yankees have other injuries in the rotation. Whether it’s new injury or a setback for someone like Paxton, the odds of the Yankees’ staff making through 2020 unscathed the rest of the way are slim. That should keep Montgomery in the mix almost all season long, unless there’s a workload issue. About that…
Will the Yankees impose a limit on his workload?
Montgomery threw over 160 innings in his rookie season (nearly all in the majors), so he’s had a full season’s worth of work in the past. Of course, that was back in 2017 and before he went under the knife, so how far the Yankees will push the southpaw is unknown. He’s got the frame of an innings eater (six-foot-six, 225 pounds), but that doesn’t mean the Yankees can throw him back into the fire for six months.
I couldn’t even begin to estimate how many innings Montgomery will throw this season. The most important thing is that he ends the season healthy and strong with no flare ups along the way. Whether that’s just 80 innings or as many as 140, it’s no matter.
Plus, the Yankees starting depth should be deep enough to give Montgomery breathers as necessary. Yes, it’s a little thinner presently, but theoretically it should get stronger with good health in time. Plus, graduations of prospects like Deivi García or Clarke Schmidt can help.
One thing I don’t expect the Yankees to do is utilize Montgomery in relief. He just doesn’t seem like the type of pitcher whose stuff plays up out of the bullpen.
2020 Outlook: What They’re Saying
Here is what the projections are saying going into the season:
- PECOTA: 89 innings (18 starts), 5.95 ERA, 5.24 FIP, 4.86 DRA
- ZiPS: 87 1/3 innings (18 starts), 4.43 ERA, 4.62 FIP
- Steamer: 46 innings (16 games/6 starts), 4.65 ERA, 4.79 FIP
Far cry from what we saw in Montgomery’s first two seasons. However, Monty has never been a projection system’s darling. Without the big strikeout numbers and mediocre walk rates, it’s hard for any system to project an ERA that starts with a three.
It’s interesting to see PECOTA far more down on Montgomery than the others. Couldn’t tell you why. I expect some time needed to shake off the rust, but a near 6 ERA seems way too high.
As the days of spring training have passed, Montgomery’s importance in 2020 has grown. Instead of serving as depth, the Yankees need him to hold the fort as the team’s fourth or fifth starter to start the season. There’s a bit more urgency for him to be the guy he was in 2017-2018 than just a few weeks ago. Hopefully, that’s not too much to ask.