In his first “full” season back from Tommy John surgery, Jordan Montgomery put together an interesting stat line. His 5.11 ERA was by no means good, but the underlying metrics — a 3.87 FIP and xERA, 4.4 BB%, and 84.6 mph exit velocity against — suggested that he was the victim of bad luck in 2020 and established him as a potential breakout candidate in 2021.
Though he wasn’t an ace, Monty broke out in a big way, stabilizing a rotation that spent much of the season without Corey Kluber and Luis Severino.
2021 Statistics: 30 games, 157.1 IP, 3.83 ERA, 3.69 FIP, 3.93 xFIP, 1.278 WHIP, 9.27 K/9, 2.92 BB/9, 24.5 K%, 7.7 BB%, 3.3 fWAR, 3.4 bWAR
2022 Contract Status: third-year of arbitration
When you think of the league’s top-30 pitchers, your mind goes first to the hurlers that have been aces for a long time, like Jacob deGrom, Gerrit Cole, and Max Scherzer, then to the up-and-coming generation of top-of-the-rotation starters, such as Walker Buehler and Julio Urias. Following that are the former aces that you just can’t imagine not being on the list (e.g. Adam Wainwright and Charlie Morton) and the pitchers with elite stuff who have struggled at times to put it all together (e.g., Kevin Gausman and Nathan Eovaldi).
Jordan Montgomery is not the last pitcher you’d expect to find on this list, but he doesn’t jump to mind as a guy you must include, either. And yet, when you look at the league leaderboards for the 2021 season, among pitchers who have thrown at least 150 innings, the Yankees left-hander is all over it: he is tied for 27th with Chris Bassitt, Sean Manaea, and Joe Musgrove with 3.3 fWAR (just 0.1 behind free agent Marcus Stroman), is tied for 27th with presumptive Cy Young winner Robbie Ray in FIP, ranks 27th with 16.8 K-BB% (no, the identical rankings aren’t typos), and is 19th in the league in average exit velocity (87.9 mph) and 23rd in hard hit percentage (36.5%). When he’s not in the top 30 for a stat, he came close, finishing 32nd in barrel percentage (7.4%, better than Max Scherzer), 31st in xFIP (3.93), and 41st in WHIP (1.278).
Of course, every breakout season comes with two questions: how did he do it, and is it replicable? Fortunately for us, the first one is a little easier to answer. As Andrés noted back in August, Montgomery pounded the zone early in the count; he threw a first-pitch strike 66.9 percent of the time, fifth-most among starting pitchers with at least 150 innings and more than six percent higher than his previous career high (60.3 percent in his injury-shortened 2018 campaign).
Getting ahead in the count allowed Monty to unleash his curveball/changeup combo in pitcher-friendly counts. Both pitches were absolutely electric for him this year, with each ranking in the top 12 on Statcast in Run Value (-10 for the chageup, -9 for the curveball). Additionally, the whiff rate on his changeup ranked first among starting pitchers at 39.2 percent, while the whiff rate on his curveball was second only to Framber Valdez. While these pitches can play in any count, getting ahead early with first-pitch strikes allowed him to use them to their greatest potential.
Can this performance be replicated? As always with pitchers, it’s impossible to say for certain. The proximity of his FIP and xERA to his ERA are encouraging signs, as is the fact that the only other pitcher with two pitches in the top-25 in whiff rate was Germán Márquez.
Now entering his age-29 season and with two more years of team control, Montgomery looks to be a critical piece of the Yankees’ rotation plans for at least that long. While it might be too much to ask him to be a second ace or the second coming of Andy Pettitte, he has shown that he can be counted on to be a reliable upper-middle rotation starter — an important role indeed.