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Can Jordan Montgomery refine the next great cutter in Yankees history?

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The pitch has been passed down through a lineage of great Yankees pitchers, and Montgomery is poised as the next to take up that mantle.

Philadelphia Phillies v New York Yankees Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

The cutter holds a vaunted place in recent Yankees history. Mariano Rivera’s cutter was arguably the single greatest pitch in baseball history, so good he needed no other offering. It was the weapon around which Andy Pettitte built his success, and a major contributor to CC Sabathia’s second chapter as a precision pitcher. And now, Jordan Montgomery has a chance to add to the pitch’s storied pedigree in Yankees lore.

Montgomery is off to a torrid start this spring, allowing a single earned run across 10 innings of work, striking out seven. However, I am not so much interested in the results as I am in the process that yielded them. He is commanding all five pitches in his arsenal, hitting his spots and inducing soft contact.

We all know how filthy his curveball can be. I wrote last summer about the uptick in velocity on his four-seamer, and Aaron Boone has lauded the performance of the changeup. But today I’d like to talk about a pitch of his that doesn’t get as much attention: the cutter.

According to Statcast, Montgomery only began incorporating the cutter into his repertoire last season. It may actually be a retooled version of the slider he used to deploy, thrown a bit harder and with a modified spin axis. Early signs suggest that the nascent pitch could become a legitimate weapon.

His cutter ended up being his best pitch by several metrics in 2020. Of his five pitches, it carried the lowest expected wOBA (.235), average exit velocity (77.8 mph) and launch angle (five degrees). These converged to produce a zero percent hard-hit rate and whopping 75 percent groundball rate, exactly the results you would want from a precision pitcher.

Also encouraging is the fact that Montgomery’s cutter displayed the 15th-most vertical movement of any cutter as a function of pitch velocity in MLB in 2020. And it could be getting better, as the 24 inches of average drop Montgomery has produced with the cutter this spring represents a three inch improvement over his 2020 results.

Montgomery uses the pitch primarily against righties, burying it either up and in underneath the hands or diving down and in beneath the hitter’s swing plane. The pitch syncs particularly well with his changeup, as they are thrown out of the same arm slot with divergent movement. You could see how effective it was against Rays hitters in the ALDS, as they either got jammed or outright could not offer at the pitch.

Courtesy of Statcast
Courtesy of Statcast

Luckily for Montgomery, he can lean on the two great Yankees southpaw starters to come before him. Indeed, Montgomery spoke to the impact of the support he has received from Pettitte and Sabathia this spring.

“Having the Yankees say what they’re saying, and getting a random text from Andy Pettitte and CC and just checking in on me,” Montgomery shared. “Obviously they believe in me too. They’ve always told me I’m going to be pitching here for a long time and that I’ll just keep getting better year by year.”

It’s always cool to hear about the guidance former Yankees provide to the current players, and what makes this story especially intriguing is the way they have passed down the cutter to the next generation of lefty starters. When I attempted to diagnose James Paxton’s velocity issues last season, I was fascinated to learn how integral Pettitte was in helping Sabathia adapt to his own diminished velocity. The key: the cutter. For two years Sabathia refined the pitch under Pettitte’s tutelage and now it appears he is paying it forward with Montgomery.

Montgomery has often called Sabathia one of his mentors, and it seems that includes passing on the knowledge of the cutter given to him by Pettitte. After recording his first win in almost two years, Montgomery made sure to highlight the role Sabathia played in his development, particularly with the cutter.

“[Sabathia] was pumping my tires, telling me I’m unhittable,” Montgomery said. “[I] was staying aggressive, really just trusting the cutter. He’s been telling me that since day one. He’s just kinda been a really great mentor, great friend, great guy to really follow behind and kinda learn from.”

Much has been made about the “question marks” in the rotation following Gerrit Cole this spring. Jordan Montgomery, through his performances, has done his best to remove himself from that characterization, showing he can be a lights-out pitcher for the Yankees. And thanks to Andy Pettitte, CC Sabathia, and the cutter, I have no doubt he will be an integral member of the Yankees this season and long into the future.