One of the nice things about improving a 103-win team is you tend not to spend much time talking about the big pieces. Gerrit Cole will be the Opening Day starter, hopefully the Yankees’ new approach to the training staff will yield healthy, 150-game seasons from Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, and we’re left to discuss the margins of the team.
We’ve had discussions about whether Kyle Higashioka and Erik Kratz are enough to back up Gary Sanchez at catcher, and the Yankees have to make a decision about who plays third base. Today, though, we’re going to talk about the fifth starter.
When Cole was signed, I had a reaction:
I officially care who pitches fifth, at least for the purposes of this post. J.A. Happ might have the inside track on the fifth slot—he’s a veteran and the fifth-highest paid player on the team. He also had a horrible 2019, and the Yankees have an incentive to not let his 2021 option vest. It’s entirely possible the Yankees let him start to begin the year and transition him into a long-relief role to avoid that vesting option.
Mike King is another option, but he probably isn’t ready to be a full-time rotation piece. Spot starts and September work, barring a completely dominant season at Triple-A Scranton, seem to be the most likely approach for King in 2020.
This leaves Jordan Montgomery, a guy who got Rookie of the Year votes in 2017, and on run suppression alone, improved marginally in 2018 before missing a year and a half with Tommy John surgery. He threw four innings for the Yankees in 2019, so we can’t really evaluate those numbers with any kind of legitimacy. We can look at the granular elements of his 2017 and 2018. And while the latter season suffers from the same top-level sample size issues as 2019, plate discipline and more raw Statcast data does stabilize much quicker than something like ERA or FIP.
Monty faced 116 batters in 2018, and we know from the above links that strikeout rate tends to stabilize—or at least, become more stable—right around 60 batters faced. Gumby’s strikeout rate in 2018 dropped about three percentage points, to 19.8%. He’s never going to be a huge strikeout guy, but in an era where batters are more and more willing to sacrifice some Ks in return for power output, you really don’t want to see a young pitcher actually decline in strikeout rate. Luis Severino, for example, dropped about a point and a half in 2018 from his 2017 rate, and we know how disappointing that campaign was for the talented righty.
The potential concern is a drop in effectiveness of Montgomery’s secondary stuff. He’s not a 98 mph flamethrower, and the best study I’ve seen on Tommy John surgery does result in a statistically significant drop in velocity for players returning from the surgery. He relies on mixing pitches, especially because he’s able to work from similar release points for all five of his main offerings.
Not great! The big pitches Monty uses to fool hitters did a much poorer job at that in an abbreviated 2018. Part of that is probably noise, part of that is hitters learning Monty’s tendencies and adjusting, but the trend is there.
Now, Montgomery’s had lots of time to rehab and get back to his former self. He’ll likely be one of the actual “best shape of his life” stories we hear come spring training. We’re dealing with data that’s almost two years old; there’s nothing in 7.2 2019 rehab innings that would be of any use to us. Still, it looks like they’re could be some yellow flags in Montgomery’s most recent performances, and that could be the edge the Yankees end up using to justify holding onto Happ and starting Monty in Scranton until he shows some progress.