Trade rumors began swirling around right-hander Frankie Montas the moment the baseball world realized last offseason that A’s owner John Fisher had no intention of fielding a halfway-contending ballclub in 2022, with intermittent connections to the Yankees that began to heat up as it became clear they would address pitching at the trade deadline.
After opting against matching the collection of talent that the Mariners were able to offer the Reds for Luis Castillo, the Yankees pivoted to Montas, putting him in pinstripes (along with Lou Trivino) in exchange for low-minors infielder Cooper Bowman and a trio of high-octane, nearly MLB-ready pitching prospects in Luis Medina, Ken Waldichuk, and JP Sears. It was a brutally disappointing time in pinstripes for Montas, to be sure, but with one arbitration year remaining before reaching free agency, the 2021 standout has another opportunity to provide the badly-needed rotation depth he failed to give them in 2022.
2022 Statistics: 8 games (8 starts), 39.2 IP, 6.35 ERA, 4.93 FIP, 8.1% BB, 17.8% K
2023 Contract Status: Final year of arbitration
What went wrong for Montas in a Yankees uniform? Other than, well, everything? Montas was seen by some as a trade target on a tier below Castillo and perhaps Carlos Rodón (who remained in San Francisco). Any lingering bad feelings about landing the former over the latter two were immediately exacerbated when Montas began his Yankees tenure by getting lit up in St. Louis to the tune of six runs (all earned) in just three innings.
In the wake of the nixed Pablo López trade that saw Jordan Montgomery depart without any clear replacement, the Yankees needed Montas to be a pillar of their rotation over the last two months of the season, and he simply couldn’t get it done from day one.
That outing demonstrated the dangers of what Montas looked like with hittable stuff and his less-than-best control, and unfortunately, it wound up being prophetic. Location issues have periodically plagued Montas throughout his career, and the Yankees got the most inconsistent version of him: Every time it looked like he may have righted the ship (5 IP, 2 ER vs. Boston on August 13th; 5 IP, 0 ER vs. Tampa Bay on September 4th), he’d turn around and give up six runs or walk four in three innings the next time. On the rare day where his location was firing on all cylinders, something else inevitably went wrong, like on August 29th, when he struck out six Angels hitters without a walk over six innings, but also saw 25% percent of the fly balls he allowed leave the yard:
That was Montas’ Yankees spell in a nutshell. The stuff was still there, but it got a whole lot less effective once the calendar hit August.
If mechanical issues and the injuries that kept him off the initial playoff roster were a hindrance to him, they didn’t negatively impact his velocity, which was virtually unchanged between Oakland and New York. They might have done something else, though, because even though the stuff was more or less identical in terms of velocity and movement, hitters were all over it post-trade in a way they simply weren’t before. His trademark splitter still did fine as a Yankee — a nasty split is a nasty split — but his four-seamer and slider both saw their whiff rates drop by about a third while his overall walk rate ticked up (and groundball rate ticked down) by almost two points. He allowed 10.4 hits per nine, which would have easily been a full-season high, and his strikeout rate dipped below league average for the first time in years. Whatever worked in Oakland simply didn’t on the other side of the country.
What happened? While it’s reasonable to assume that there were some issues with mechanics and approach that caused his nosedive, it’s equally possible that it was simply an unusual amount of small-sample-size chaos combined with a touch of regression. The difference between Montas’ pre- and post-trade expected wOBA (.301 to .333) was barely a third of the difference in his actual wOBA (.285 to .363). And though he may have had more difficulty missing bats after the trade, contact metrics think he was actually better at managing contact, dropping his expected wOBA on contact (which I like to think of as a Statcast version of BABIP, both in terms of what it tells us and how many conclusions we can draw from it absent other context) from .381 to .362.
That being said, the disappearance of Montas’ strikeout stuff without a clear underlying cause is quite concerning, as it doesn’t fall into any previous pattern he’s displayed since establishing himself in 2019:
There weren’t any clear underlying causes, but the shoulder issues that sent Montas to the injured list late in the year could be indicative of some deeper tells or mechanical inconsistencies behind his struggles. Whatever it is, he’ll need to out of the gates hot in 2023 to wash out the bad taste left in fans’ mouths after the crushingly disappointing start to his tenure in 2022.