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The Yankees shouldn’t count on Jordan Montgomery this year

Jordan Montgomery might play in 2019, but there’s a chance we won’t be any good until 2020.

New York Yankees v Texas Rangers Photo by Rick Yeatts/Getty Images

It’s been a number of years since the Yankees have seen a pitcher through a Tommy John rehab. Michael Pineda, Nathan Eovaldi, and Chase Whitley were the most recent big league arms to go under the knife, but the Yankees cut all of them loose before they could complete their rehab.

The same won’t be said for Jordan Montgomery. After getting his UCL repaired last June, he’ll undoubtedly return to the Yankees at some point, but figuring out when is a little more up in the air.

When speaking with reporters last week, Montgomery had quite a bit to say about his eventual return to the big leagues. He told Coley Harvey of ESPN:

“I’ve got four more months to get as strong as I can and try to work on anything I want to: my mechanics, clean those out, get my legs stronger — just to get in better shape and come back a whole new pitcher is the plan.”

Four months puts Montgomery in games in June, but those will likely be rehab outings. It will likely take a handful of those before he’s potentially called up to the big leagues.

I took a sample of pitchers similar in style to Montgomery that have undergone Tommy John surgery in recent years. Obviously, players have the procedure every year, but I specifically chose this set of five because they resemble Montgomery. They’re all low-to-mid 90s fastball, back-of-the-rotation types. Three of the five happen to be left-handers as well.

Tommy John timetable

Name Surgery date Next MLB appearance Months out
Name Surgery date Next MLB appearance Months out
Andrew Heaney July 2016 August 2017 13
Drew Smyly July 2017 Has not returned 19 (as of 2/19)
Alex Cobb May 2015 September 2016 15
Homer Bailey May 2015 July 2016 14
Jason Vargas August 2015 September 2016 13

Given this data, the mid-July, 13-month timetable seems a reasonable projection for Monty. That, however, assumes he doesn’t have any major setbacks, which can be devastating. Old friends Jacob Lindgren and Eovaldi can attest to that. Both experienced setbacks in their rehabs just within the last year. Still, even if Montgomery is healthy, that doesn’t exactly mean he’ll go back to being the 2017 version of himself.

Being healthy and being effective are two entirely different things. The Yankees’ ZiPS projections came out earlier this week, and they see Montgomery being about league average this year (101 ERA+, 99 ERA-), a step back from his career norms (117 ERA+, 87 ERA-). If Montgomery can live up to that projections, it could honestly be a great thing for the Yankees. The sample of pitchers in the above graph did not fare as well at all.

Post-Tommy John stats

Name K/9 BB/9 HR/9 FIP ERA+
Name K/9 BB/9 HR/9 FIP ERA+
Andrew Heaney 11.2 3.7 5 9.11 61
Drew Smyly NA NA NA NA NA
Alex Cobb 6.5 2.9 2 5.6 47
Homer Bailey 10.9 2.7 0.8 3.1 65
Jason Vargas 8.3 2.3 0.8 3.15 196

Between the four of them, there’s only about 78 innings and 19 games started, so without a doubt, these numbers could easily just be sample size noise. On the other hand, 78 innings and 19 games started is about half a season’s worth of production. It’s probably not worthwhile to read into the specific numbers too closely, but one definitive thing can be said: health and effectiveness don’t always go hand-in-hand.

For what it’s worth, Jason Vargas, Andrew Heaney, and Alex Cobb returned to more-or-less their normal selves in their first full seasons back from Tommy John surgery. Vargas was even an All-Star in 2017. Still, there’s no guarantee that Montgomery will be effective at all in 2019, and there’s a reasonable chance he won’t be a serviceable pitcher again until 2020.

A couple of different studies have shown that pitchers are better the further they’re removed from surgery, but generally they tend to lose some overall ability post-surgery.

For all the advances that have been made in Tommy John surgery and it’s subsequent rehabilitation, the procedure doesn’t have a 100% success rate. Monty is likely going to be healthy enough to pitch this year, but that doesn’t mean he’ll immediately be the 2017 version of Jordan Montgomery either. Sure, he might prove the ZiPS projections correct and be just a shade worse than he has been to this point in his career, but it could be just as likely that he’s not effective at all. The Yankees would do well to not count on having him, or at least a good version of him, this season.