Jordan Montgomery has been something of an enigma across his five seasons with the Yankees. Sometimes his stuff is sharp enough to make you think he can play the role of a strong mid-rotation arm, and other times he just looks like an ordinary fifth starter. In the end, his career averages of a 4.11 ERA, 1.23 WHIP and 107 ERA+ look about right.
Tuesday night against the Rays though was one of those elite starts where Montgomery tapped into his upper-level potential. He threw six innings of two-hit, one-run baseball, and tied a career high with nine strikeouts against just one walk in what was easily his best start of the season.
An effective pitch mix was the key to Montgomery’s success. He threw his fastball more than he has in any other start this season, and only threw one cutter. In the end, Montgomery achieved a near-perfect balance of all his pitches, and kept the Rays off-kilter all night.
Jordan Montgomery had every pitch working tonight. Look at the balance and effectiveness of his top three:— Max Goodman (@MaxTGoodman) May 12, 2021
23 fastballs - 12 swings, 4 whiffs
23 changeups - 15 swings, 9 whiffs (!!)
22 curveballs - 8 swings, 4 whiffs
It was a good adaptation for Montgomery, whose cutter was getting positively destroyed in his other starts this season (.435 batting average against, two home runs against just two strikeouts). Instead, Montgomery used his four-seamer in a way he usually doesn’t: as an upper-strike zone put-away pitch. Check out where almost all of the red circles are located in the chart below:
Montgomery was elevating with his heater, and he got quite a few strikeouts on the pitch. Check out these high heaters to Willy Adames and Randy Arozarena that became punchouts:
For a guy with the reputation of a junkballer, Montgomery looked like anything but on those high fastballs. The fact that he even considered throwing his fastball there, instead of his curveball, changeup or cutter, went a long way toward propelling his success on Tuesday. When hitters are expecting a breaking ball and they get ambushed with a high fastball, it’s too late to catch up. Of course, Montgomery’s re-discovered fastball also made his offspeed pitches sharper. His changeup was the strongest we’ve seen it all season, and his curveball dipped and dived all night.
It will be interesting to see if Montgomery continues with this high fastball usage moving forward, because so far this season, he had strayed away from it. However, his metrics on the season aren’t that inspiring – after a 2020 season where he excelled at generating soft contact, opponents are hitting him harder this season. Going with the fastball more often helped him get ahead and gave him a new weapon to finish hitters on Tuesday, but it remains to be seen if that was just a one-off or the start of something new for Montgomery.
Another thing that stood out for Montgomery against Tampa Bay (and in the season as a whole) was his ability to get ahead in the count. This season, he’s throwing a first-pitch strike 66 percent of the time, a figure that’s six percent better than MLB average. If this is going to continue all season long, the fastball could play a key role for Montgomery. If he can get ahead with the heat, he has plenty of options to finish off hitters with two strikes.
It’s encouraging that Montgomery tried something new against the Rays, and even better that it worked. If he can continue to command his fastball, it’ll open up a world of possibilities for Montgomery on the mound.