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The growing importance of Jordan Montgomery

Back in the offseason, before the baseball world along with the rest of the country hit pause, Jordan Montgomery wasn’t even guaranteed a spot in the rotation. After the addition of Gerrit Cole, the Yankees had finally built a formidable 1-2-3 in Cole, Luis Severino, and James Paxton. Criticized for not having a championship caliber rotation, Cashman had transformed the Yanks in just two small years from a ragtag pitching staff to one of the most intimidating in the AL, if not all of baseball.

Behind the star-studded front three were Masahiro Tanaka and JA Happ, two established veterans who were guaranteed starting roles at least to start the season. Meanwhile, Monty hadn’t been a full time starter in nearly two full years after suffering a torn UCL and undergoing Tommy John surgery in the first half of the 2018 season. When the team was drawing up its plans at the start of the year, it looked more likely than not that they would stash Monty in AAA and use him as cover in case of injury to one of their five starters.

Well, those injuries came as they always seem to do for the Yankees. In early February the Yankees announced that Paxton would need to miss 3-4 months after undergoing surgery on his back to remove a cyst that was impacting his spine. That was followed by an even more devastating announcement later in the month that Luis Severino required Tommy John surgery, and that he’d be out for the entirety of the 2020 season.

These were crushing blows to the Yankees, sidelining their young superstar for at least a year and removing last year’s #1 from the equation for at least half of the regular season. All of a sudden, Jordan Montgomery went from the outside-looking-in to projecting as a guaranteed rotation piece for at least the regular season.

Fast forward six months and it now looks like the Yankees ability to challenge for a title in 2020 will hinge in no small part on Gumby’s progression. While the COVID-induced delay to the season meant Paxton was “ready” for Opening Day, he’s been plagued by continuing injury issues that currently have him back on the shelf. In his few starts before the return to the IL, his velocity was down precipitously from past seasons and he looked a fraction of the elite pitcher he’s been in years past.

When paired with JA Happ’s struggles, this leaves Montgomery as the clear number three on the staff and a likely playoff starter pending Paxton’s return to health. His importance to the Yankees rotation is highlighted by the announcement that he will start along with Cole and Tanaka in their crucial upcoming series against the Rays.

 

So after being abruptly thrust back into the spotlight, how confident should Yankee fans be in Monty’s ability to make the leap and perform like a playoff-caliber starter in his first year back from injury? Early evidence suggests reasons for cautious optimism.

Montgomery never has been and likely never will be a dominant strikeout pitcher like Cole, Severino, or Paxton. In his brief MLB career, he’s accrued 8.19 K/9 and a 24.4% Whiff rate, respectable but unspectacular numbers. Simply watching him pitch, it’s clear that even with his improved velocity since returning from Tommy John he will never have the ability to overpower hitters.

But that’s quite alright from Montgomery’s perspective, as his calling card is his ability to generate some of the weakest contact in the league. He epitomizes the old adage of being a “pitcher, not a thrower”, minimizing hitters’ ability to barrel up balls against him and thus giving his fielders a chance to make plays.

Montgomery isn’t just good at this. He has the potential to be elite at it. In an admittedly small sample of 24.1 IP this season, the average exit velocity of batted balls against him is just 82.9 MPH. This is tied for the best among all SP in the league. In his 211 career innings pitched, he has allowed an average EV of 86.6 MPH which would place him in the top 10 for all pitchers from 2017-2020, on par with guys like Jacob DeGrom and Jack Flaherty.

Now don’t get overly excited. Montgomery is obviously miles away from those guys in almost every respect, especially because they are able to pair the weak contact with strikeouts in ways that few in the big leagues can. But it proves a larger point that Montgomery has shown an ability to be successful with less than stellar stuff by pitching cerebrally and forcing hitters into making soft contact.

So far in 2020, Montgomery has pitched to a 4.44 ERA, with a 3.71 FIP and 4.01 SIERA (advanced metrics that try to predict what a pitcher’s ERAย should be based on their performance). These numbers that indicate that Montgomery has been a roughly league average starter, offsetting his lack of strikeout stuff with solid command and an ability to limit the longball.

But if Montgomery can continue to perform in this fashion, and especially if he can capitalize on a much improved changeup that’s been his best swing-and-miss pitch so far, he is more than capable of helping anchor a depleted Yankees staff. He will continue to give the Yankees quality innings during a regular season in which they’re clawing to get outs from pitchers not named Gerrit Cole in any fashion possible. And if he can make even modest improvements in his strikeout numbers, he can become a legitimately formidable pitcher that Yankee fans can have confidence in as we draw closer to October.

In this strange season, many unexpected players have been asked to step up yet again for the Yankees. Jordan Montgomery figures to be the most important of the lot, with the Yankees success this year hinging in no small part on his progression throughout this season. If he can continue to limit hard contact and grow into his developing arsenal, he will give the team consistency in the rotation they desperately need if they hope to compete for a championship.