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Yankees 2020 Season Preview: Jordan Montgomery

Added velocity could give Montgomery a chance to be something more than a good backend arm.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at New York Yankees Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

The outlook for Jordan Montgomery’s 2020 campaign has shifted dramatically over the past several weeks. After the Yankees signed Gerrit Cole, it looked as though Montgomery might sit outside of the Yankees’ rotation to start the season. Then, when the team announced James Paxton would miss the beginning of the season, Montgomery appeared to be the best candidate for the fifth-starter job.

Now, after the news of Luis Severino’s torn UCL, Montgomery profiles as a very important piece to the Yankees. No longer is he expected to just compete for a back-end job or provide useful depth. The Yankees need Montgomery to perform, now.

2019 Statistics: 4.0 IP, 6.75 ERA, 3.96 FIP, 11.3 K/9, 0.0 BB/9, 2.25 HR/9, 1.75 WHIP, 0.1 fWAR

2020 FanGraphs Depth Chart Projections: 104.0 IP, 4.56 ERA, 4.72 FIP, 8.2 K/9, 3.2 BB/9, 1.1 fWAR

That could feel like a risky proposition, given that we haven’t really seen Montgomery perform for an extended period of time since 2017. He’s now 27, but still inexperienced as a result of his 2018 Tommy John surgery. He’s theoretically in the middle of his prime, but almost entirely missed out on a pair of prime development years due to injury.

That said, when on the field, Montgomery has played well for the Yankees. That 2017 rookie season included 29 starts of 3.88-ERA ball from Montgomery, earning him a sixth-place finish in AL Rookie of the Year voting. He started off strong in 2018, pitching to a 3.62 ERA in six starts before going under the knife. Despite unimpressive velocity, Montgomery owns a respectable 8.3 K/9 rate for his career, to go along with a fine 3.0 BB/9 rate.

The projections don’t exactly expect Montgomery to pitch up to those career standards, with fair reason. Obviously, he’s missed time, and any projection system will show skepticism towards players who haven’t actually played. He simply doesn’t have a long track record, and that, combined with an elevated offensive environment since Montgomery last pitched a full season, likely explains the computer’s middling ERA forecast.

If Montgomery hit that projection, I think that would essentially qualify as making par. Should Montgomery turn in 15 to 20 starts while maintaining a roughly league-average ERA, the Yankees would likely accept that, without joy nor consternation. That would be enough to keep the ball rolling, but not enough to truly move the needle, to really help pick the Yankees up in the face of another brutal spate of injuries.

What does Montgomery have to do to shoot under par and go over expectation? Well, it sounds like Montgomery has a reasonable answer himself: start throwing harder. Potentially a lot harder, in fact. We don’t have pitch-by-pitch Statcast data for spring training, but reports indicate Montgomery has sat around 93 mph on his fastball in the spring, touching 94.

Montgomery sat about 91 mph pitching in short stints last season. As a starter in 2018, he sat 90 mph. It’s not unheard of for pitchers to come back a bit stronger after undergoing Tommy John surgery. A two-tick velocity bump could represent a legitimate route for Montgomery to take from average to plus.

That’s because Montgomery has most of the other, little things down when it comes to starting pitching. Last we saw him, he managed to handle major-league hitters not because of overwhelming stuff, but through guile, deception, and deft command. In 2017, Montgomery employed a true five-pitch arsenal, utilizing a four-seamer, two-seamer, changeup, curve and slider each at least 13-percent of the time. That deep repertoire kept opposing batters off balance; check Montgomery’s well above-average chase rate from his rookie season, not to mention his quality swinging strike rate.

Command of five distinct pitches made Montgomery a fine mid-rotation starter back in 2017, in spite of poor velocity. A consistent 93-mph heater from the left side as a starter would suddenly give Montgomery above-average fastball speed. If Montgomery could keep runs off the board at a quality rate while only rarely brushing 92, what can he do if he’s touching 94?

A lot would have to go right for Montgomery to reappear in the Yankees’ rotation as an imposing figure. He’d have to consolidate the velocity gains he’s flashed in spring over the course of longer outings and an even longer season. He’d have to stay healthy. He’d have to maintain his adept command and mature feel for pitching while making those velocity gains.

That’s a pretty difficult needle to thread, but it’s there. More likely than Montgomery developing into something resembling a frontline starter is him settling in again as a good arm to have in the back of your rotation. The Yankees will be OK with that, but in order to fend off what’s looking like another injury epidemic, the Yankees are going to need a few players of Montgomery’s caliber to take steps forward.