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How Frankie Montas can find success in the bullpen

The former Oakland pitcher had a disappointing start to his Yankees career, but he may be able to turn himself into a bullpen weapon for October.

Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

When the Yankees acquired Frankie Montas from the Oakland Athletics at the trade deadline, the general consensus throughout baseball was that they had added a top-of-the-rotation starter to slot behind Gerrit Cole in the postseason rotation. With Nestor Cortes reaching a career high in innings pitched, Luis Severino out with a lat strain, and Jameson Taillon struggling at the time, the move was seen as an excellent Plan B after the team lost out on Luis Castillo.

Obviously, that move hasn’t worked out as planned, at least as far as 2022 is concerned. Montas struggled in his eight starts in pinstripes, posting an unsightly 6.35 ERA with a 1.538 WHIP. Strikeouts were down, walks, hits, and home runs were up, and he hit five batters. It was an unmitigated disaster — and that’s before he hit the injured list last week with shoulder inflammation.

With just a few days left in the season, it’s pretty much impossible for Montas to return to the Yankees rotation — manager Aaron Boone admitted as much earlier this week. Boone, however, also added that Montas might still have a role for the Yankees this October, noting that he could still provide 30-40 pitches, either as an opener or out of the bullpen. This, of course, raises a question: what exactly might Montas look like as a relief pitcher?

As a starter this season, Montas has used five different pitches. A sinkerballer when he came up years ago, he now leans primarily on his fastball and splitter, although he still employs his sinker quite a bit and frequently mixes in a slider/cutter.

Most of the time, when starters head to the bullpen, they tend to drop less effective pitches, due to the fact that they typically only face a batter once in a game. With that in mind, let’s take a look at Montas’s pitch-by-pitch stats, courtesy of Statcast.

Looking at this data, I would expect Montas to drop the sinker and the slider/cutter, as both pitches have been hit fairly well this year; in this, I’m treating the cutter and slider together, as their stats are so similar I’m not entirely convinced they’re simply different characterizations of the same pitch. But what would that fastball/splitter/cutter mix look like? Let’s compare their profiles to the league’s relievers.

While not quite in the elite tier, the 2356 rpm spin rate on Montas’s fastball compares favorably to a number of top relief pitchers in baseball, surpassing that of Edwin Díaz (2351), Brad Hand (2349), and J.P. Feyereisen (2345). His 96.1 mph average velocity, meanwhile, ranks ahead of Craig Kimbrel (95.8), Josh Hader (95.7), and old pal Tommy Kahnle (95.6). Considering that starters tend to see a little bump in spin rate and velocity on their fastball when headed to the ‘pen, since they don’t need to pace themselves and can go all-in, it’s possible that Montas will be able to turn his fastball into a veritable weapon as a reliever.

Given the relatively few number of pitchers that throw the splitter — only 55 pitchers have thrown it at least 50 times this season, compared to 592 that have thrown the slider and 413 that have thrown the curveball as much — it’s harder to do a comparable analysis on the splitter. Multiple relievers have, however, over the years employed even a league average splitter (which is what Montas has, generally speaking) to great effect.

So would Montas be able to successfully transition to a bullpen role for the pennant chase? That remains to be seen. However, looking through this data, it’s clear to me that there is at least a path to a successful transition out there, and if Matt Blake and Montas can help find it, well, they might just be able to salvage this disappointing trade and make it a success.