We often underestimate how important the count is in an at-bat. For a hitter, it’s not the same to swing at a 3-1 pitch as doing it in a 1-2 or 0-2 count. The approach, location, and pitch selection all change during those two hypothetical cases.
Obviously, if a pitcher can gain an early 0-1 advantage, it’s like a Formula One driver getting the pole position. If he falls into an early 1-0 or 2-0 count, the chances of the hitter doing some damage are quite high. What does this have to do with the Yankees, you might ask? Jordan Montgomery is attacking hitters with first-pitch strikes at a career-best rate, and not coincidentally, he is having the best season of his five-year MLB tenure.
Not including last night’s start, Monty’s first-pitch strike rate is 67.8 percent according to FanGraphs. That is the fourth-best mark in all MLB among pitchers with at least 110 innings (Monty had, before the game against the Atlanta Braves, 119.1 frames) and the best in the American League. The improvement is notable in Montgomery’s case — his previous career-high was in 27 innings back in 2018, at 60.3 percent. That has enabled him to use his wide array of pitches to have the best strikeout rate, 24.6 percent, of his career.
Montgomery is rocking a career-high swinging-strike rate (SwStr%), at 13.5 percent, and has two pitches with a whiff rate of 35 percent or better: his curveball (42.6%) and his changeup (39.3%.) He has so many pitches — he also throws a cutter, a sinker, and a four-seam fastball — and throws them so evenly that it makes him hard to square up (70th percentile in average exit velocity and 67th percentile in hard-hit rate).
Montgomery’s run-prevention skills indicate he is a sub-4.00 ERA pitcher, like in 2017 and 2018, and unlike the shortened 2020 season, when he finished with a 5.11 ERA. This time, he is at 3.77, but his FIP (3.54) is also the lowest mark of his career. Before 2021, Monty’s best season per Wins Above Replacement, or WAR, was his rookie year, 2017. He had 2.6 fWAR back then, in 155.1 innings, but he has already surpassed that total this campaign, with a 2.8 mark in 119.1 frames.
A 3.5 WAR season is well within reach, which would be very good considering he missed some time with COVID-19. After Gerrit Cole ace-like performance, Montgomery has acted like a rotation stabilizer who can always keep his team in the game. He has kept opposing lineups to three runs or less in 18 of his 22 starts, which is actually crazy. Even in nights in which he doesn’t have his best stuff or command, he finds a way to battle through adversity and keep the Yankees relatively close.
In a weird year with three COVID-19 outbreaks, lots of arm injuries in the pitching staff and other adversities, Montgomery has been consistently reliable. His 2021 performance has been huge for the Yankees. He may not have a truly elite pitch, but Jordan Montgomery has lots of other traits that make him a reliable piece of the Yankees’ rotation. He is having his best season yet, and getting ahead in the count only helps him.