Jordan Montgomery had a fascinating 2020 campaign. On the surface, his 2-3 record, 5.11 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, and an average of 4.4 innings per start aren’t especially impressive. However, Montgomery is also the man who saved the Yankees’ season with an unexpectedly brilliant start in a win-or-go-home ALDS Game 4. It was an excellent way to cap an inconsistent season, his first full campaign since undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2018.
Entering his age-28 season, it’d be easy to think that we know what to expect of Montgomery by now. However, his analytics indicate a pitcher who actually made significant progress in several key elements last year. Yes, it was only 10 games and 44 innings, so it remains to be seen if it will continue over the long haul, but there were several encouraging aspects of Montgomery’s season.
Comparing Montgomery to his peers around the league is great place to start. (Thanks, Baseball Savant!) Almost across the board, the young southpaw ranged from above-average to elite despite pedestrian velocity and spin:
That top-five-percentile exit velocity is particularly notable. The average exit velocity on batted balls off Montgomery was just 84.6 mph. He was not only superb at avoiding hard contact; he was even better at generating soft contact. His 6.0 percent soft-contact rate is almost double the MLB average (3.2 percent), which is the key here. It’s sometimes hard to maintain exit velocity success if you’re simply getting lucky at avoiding hard contact, but Montgomery is actively inducing soft contact, which indicates possible sustainability.
Montgomery also had the best strikeout rate of his career (9.61 K/9) and a stingy 1.84 BB/9 that was among baseball’s best. It all adds up to a slick 3.87 FIP and 3.65 xFIP, which looks vastly better than his 5.11 ERA. It seems that Montgomery was a little unlucky in a couple of his starts, inflating his ERA, but his performance in the rest of his appearances was far superior.
Adding to the good vibes, Montgomery also demonstrated major and somewhat unexpected improvement on his fastball. He throws two variants of it – a sinker and a four-seamer. Both pitches actually gained velocity after his Tommy John surgery, which doesn’t always happen. The pitches jumped the 90-91 mph range in his first two years to a 92-93 mph range this year, which is a huge difference in the eyes of a Major League hitter. It showed on the mound this year, too.
Montgomery used his fastballs slightly more often than in past years (45.6 percent of the time in 2020 vs. 41.5 percent over 2017-18), but it’s also crucial to analyze when he was using them. The lefty used his fastballs in put-away situations far more often in 2020, notching 14 of his 47 strikeouts in 2020 on the heater (29.8 percent of his K’s). Over those first two years, he got only 24 of his 167 strikeouts with the gas (14.4 percent). Not only did Montgomery gain some velocity on his heater — he put it to good use.
This allows Montgomery’s offspeed pitches to stand out even more. His curveball has been a plus offering since he first came up, and his changeup has developed into a true weapon vs. righties. Armed with a newly-effective fastball, Montgomery doesn’t have to rely on his breaking balls quite as often, which should make them more potent. With his new velocity, he’s now got four pitches to get hitters out with.
Again, these numbers are just over 10 starts and 44 innings for Montgomery. Baseball has a funny way of returning to the norm over a 30-start, 160-inning season. The interesting thing here with Montgomery is that he underperformed his metrics last year, which means that there is some room for a positive regression to the mean if his analytics hold up. The Yankees shouldn’t count on Montgomery as any kind of ace, but he might be able to prove more than a mere junkballing fifth starter if this improvement holds in 2021 and beyond.