Undoubtedly, there is nothing worse in sports than the injury bug. Think about the difficulties of being a professional athlete. Not only do you have to perform against the best players in the world and endure long seasons away from your family that also take a toll on your body, but, at any point, injuries can sidetrack your ambitions.
The worst part? As hard as one can train when it comes to injury prevention, there is no possible way to guarantee that you can go injury-free for your entire career. Just when you think you’re on top of the world, an injury can take that away in the blink of an eye. It’s certainly unfair, though, then again, what is fair in life?
This is all especially true for baseball players, particularly pitchers. At a time where pitchers are playing competitive baseball at a younger age than ever, injuries requiring Tommy John surgeries, or other procedures, are becoming far too common. While historical studies show that Tommy John surgeries have a very high success rate, there are no guarantees, and it can take time for pitchers to get back to peak form.
What does this all have to do with today’s case study? Well, it’s been anything but smooth sailing for Yankees starting pitcher Jordan Montgomery. Yet, through bumps and bruises, he’s not only continuing to trend up, but also may be on the verge of a massive breakout this season. What makes Montgomery so intriguing? Let us take a closer look.
Jordan Montgomery: Consistently Overlooked
What is “upside”? Per Google, this is defined as “the positive or favorable aspect of something.” In baseball, the concept of upside is often utilized when evaluating prospects, as their “best-case scenario” is attempted to be captured. The problem? There is no true way to measure this, and believing that you have the power to do so can cause you, as an evaluator, to overlook several promising prospects.
Montgomery certainly profiles as someone who was cast aside due to his perceived lack of upside. He was undrafted of high school, and decided to attend his hometown school, the University of South Carolina, where he immediately worked his way up to a rotation spot as a freshman. That being said, while he had a 1.48 ERA as a sophomore, he only struck out 18.6% of the batters he faced. Meanwhile, while he improved to a 22.7% strikeout rate, that isn’t a standout number in your draft-eligible season.
When the Yankees selected Montgomery, MLB Pipeline’s 160th overall draft prospect, in the fourth round of the 2014 draft, it certainly wasn’t seen as a flashy pick, and, rather, a method of securing more pitching depth in the system via a college performer. While he had success early on as a 22-year-old in the very low levels of the minors, he only mustered a 20.7% strikeout rate in High-A, which wasn’t promising considering he was old for the level. A year later, though, he did find more success in the upper levels of the minors (23% K, 15.3% K-BB), while also inducing plenty of ground balls as well. That being said, he still didn’t rank as a top-ten prospect in New York’s system, and a similar theme could be seen by MLB Pipeline‘s write up of him:
“Unlike a lot of tall pitchers, Montgomery has never had difficulty repeating his mechanics. He pounds the bottom of the zone and generates plenty of strikeouts and groundouts. He may lack a true plus pitch and a ceiling as lofty as some of New York’s more famous pitching prospects, but he has a high floor as a good bet to become a No. 4 starter.”
Ceiling, ceiling, ceiling. Of course, the prototypical pitching prospect would be one who is a north-south pitcher with a plus arsenal, mainly a high-velocity fastball; it’s the prototype that traditionally has had the lowest margin for error. On the other hand, every pitcher is unique in their own fashion, and it’s generally suboptimal to place them into specific buckets.
Entering the 2017 season, the Yankees were entering a unique stage for them. Coming off of missing the postseason in 2016, they were seen as being in the midst of a retooling period, opening up opportunity for young players. However, in a system filled with young pitching talent, it wasn’t expected to be Montgomery who stepped in.
In fact, in an article by the New York Post about Montgomery’s emergence, the headline read: “Yankees prospect comes from out of nowhere into Opening Day picture.” In other words, this isn’t your classic story of a top prospect rising straight to the MLB level. Rather, against several odds, Montgomery stood out, finding himself on the Opening Day roster, and, later, in the rotation for good starting April 12th. From there, he never looked back.
As a rookie, Montgomery totaled 155.1 innings in 29 starts, posting a 22.2% strikeout rate, 14.3% K-BB ratio, and 4.34 skill interactive ERA (SIERA), which aren’t elite numbers, but rather fine numbers as a rookie. In fact, the lack of drop-off in his numbers at all while he continued to move up the chain of competition is rather impressive, and, at the very least, New York was looking at a young, reliable middle-of-the-rotation starter, with the upside for more.
Unfortunately, this is where the story takes a turn. After just 27 innings in 2018, Montgomery was diagnosed with a left elbow flexor strain, which ultimately led to him undergoing Tommy John surgery. As a result, he missed the rest of that season and practically all of 2019, causing him to go under the radar once again. As it turns out, though, Montgomery was ready to overcome the odds again.
Jordan Montgomery’s Return From Injury
Montgomery was able to pitch four innings out of the bullpen in 2019, but 2020 represented his re-introduction back into the Yankees bullpen. Thus, due to the delay of the season in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, he ultimately went over two years without starting in a major league game.
Initially, Montgomery got off to a slow start, but over his last seven appearances, he posted a 28.9% strikeout rate, 24.2% K-BB ratio, and a 3.39 SIERA. Small sample be damned, this was not a level of performance he was supposed to be able to unlock. With that in mind, how could you not to be excited what took place in 2021?
As it turns out, it was more of the same for Montgomery, who posted a 24.5% strikeout rate and 4.07 SIERA in 157.1 innings. While these are not elite numbers, there are certainly high-quality numbers; that SIERA put him in line with pitchers like Zac Gallen, Lance McCullers Jr., and Luis Castillo. How did he get from middling production at High-A to this? At the end of the day, it all comes down to the arsenal.
Jordan Montgomery’s Arsenal
When you can’t blow hitters away with an upper-90s fastball, you have to succeed in different ways. For Montgomery, it’s come by the use of his off-speed pitchers, mainly his changeup and curveball. These were his two most used pitches in 2021, and are the drivers of his success.
Let’s start with the changeup, which is a critical pitch for a lefty who has to face lineups stacked with right-handed hitters. Since the start of 2020, the pitch has an extremely impressive 38.6% whiff rate and .239 weighted on-base average allowed (wOBA). That is despite that the fact that, per Baseball Savant, the pitch lacks ideal drop or horizontal fade, though with the extension (6.8 feet) he has and the extra deception created by his over-the-top delivery at 6’6″:
The ideal changeup varies greatly from pitcher to pitcher, and Montgomery’s is unique. His ability to equally locate it down and in to righties, as he did often in 2021, as well as have it serve as more of a horizontal fading pitch away (as shown below), has allowed him to have so much success with it.
That being said, when placed in a two-strike situation, Montgomery’s curveball has been his most-utilized pitch in every season of his career. This is another pitch that doesn’t feature ideal movement patterns, yet also benefits greatly from Montgomery’s delivery and extension:
Starting in 2020, the curveball (42.7% whiff, .218 wOBA allowed) has clearly been Montgomery’s best pitch. His ability to consistently bury it down and in to righties is remarkably impressive, and allows him to induce chases (40.3% in 2021) with it at a high level. Among qualified starting pitchers, he had the eighth-best curveball in terms of run value last year, and it has continued to perform exceptionally this season with a 46.9% whiff rate. Add in the lack of platoon splits, and it truly is an exceptional pitch.
In the past, Montgomery’s sinker and four-seam fastball haven’t been consistent offerings for him. This season, though, there have been some interesting changes:
Both pitches have two extra inches of horizontal movement this season. In fact, amongst qualified starting pitchers, his sinker has the most horizontal movement in baseball, which may explain its increased success (21.9% whiff, .337 xwOBA allowed) this season. As a result, he’s made the sinker (33.9%) his most utilized pitch, taking his cutter out of the picture. As a result, it’s become a difficult pitch to handle for right-handed hitters:
If these gains with his sinker end up being legitimate, then Montgomery has an extra added layer of intrigue to an already enticing arsenal. Generally, sinkers, or horizontal fastballs, aren’t conducive to missing bats, which does place more pressure on his ability to command that pitch well. That being said, he has given righties fits (20.7% putaway) with that sinker so far, and that could easily continue moving forward.
Put it all together, and Montgomery has one of the best curveballs in baseball a fantastic changeup, and now a quality sinker. Even better, it’s an arsenal with pitches than mirror very well to one another:
There is a reason Montgomery has been so effective inducing chases (32%) throughout his career- he’s a very difficult pitcher to pick up. The sinker and changeup are very difficult to pick up, while the curveball plays off of those two offerings very well. It truly is one of the most underrated arsenals in the MLB right now, and should only continue to shine moving forward.
Jordan Montgomery’s Strikeout Dilemma
It’s nice to look at Montgomery’s improvements in his arsenal, but with just a 19.7% strikeout rate thus far, is it working out? The short answer is an emphatic “yes”. The 29-year-old’s 13.5% swinging-strike rate has remained at a high level (13.5%), while his 29.3% called-strike + whiff rate (CSW%) is the highest of his career. As such, his expected strikeout rate of 27.9% is significantly higher, and about in line with where it was last year (27.7%).
With that in mind, if the slight tweaks of his arsenal continue to lead to more chases and ground balls, Montgomery is in line to have his best season as a pro. He’s yet to have a swinging-strike rate not in the double-digits in any game, nor an outside-zone swing rate under 30%. In other words, this isn’t simply him taking advantage of a specific opponent’s weaknesses. Rather, he has continued to evolve into a pitcher who is going to miss bats and induce chases, which is a powerful combination.
Usually, this would be an easy expectation, though there has yet to be one time in his career where Montgomery hasn’t matched his expected strikeout rate. That being said, his current pitch usage on two-strike counts, with more curveballs (39.5%) and fewer fastballs (32.1%), can help with that. Plus, regardless, it’s hard to assume that there is much to be concerned about here than statistical noise, especially if he turns to his premier whiff pitches more often when ahead. He’s also throwing fewer pitches in the zone (31.3%) with two strikes, which is a beneficial strategy considering his propensity to induce chases.
For what it’s worth, this is a similar conundrum to what Padres starter Joe Musgrove dealt with as a member of the Pirates, and a lot of his underlying peripherals from last year (12.7% swinging-strike rate, 3.69 SIERA) line up with Montgomery’s expected median-outcome finish for this season. Would that excite you? Eventually, the swings and misses he’s able to generate are going to lead to more strikeouts, and when that happens, you could be looking at a #2 starter in a rotation, which is a tremendous outcome considering his prospect pedigree. Then again, should we actually be surprised if Montgomery exceeds expectations again?
Baseball is not an easy game, and injuries only make matters worse. The simply fact that you can get sidetracked right when you’re reaching peak form is not fair, but is sadly the case with professional sports.
From being un-drafted coming out of high school to being overlooked as a prospect, Jordan Montgomery is used to overcoming the odds. After vaulting ahead of several more highly-regarded Yankees pitching prospects to produce well as a rookie, he had to deal with an injury that kept him from starting a game for over two years. Yet, he’s solidified himself in a very talented Yankees rotation, and continues to do several things that you look for in a pitcher: miss bats, induce chases, and limit walks.
Now, to go along with a changeup and curveball that play up due to his delivery and extension, he’s tweaked his sinker, giving it potential to be one of the more lethal horizontal pitches. That completes his arsenal further, while we are simply waiting on his whiffs to translate into more strikeouts. I’d bet on that happening eventually, a la Joe Musgrove, meaning that there may be another level with Montgomery that hasn’t yet been demonstrated in the overall results.
The Yankees look poised to make a World Series push this season, and, in many ways, Montgomery could serve as the X-factor. Don’t be surprised if, by postseason time, he is shining on the biggest of stages, earning the recognition he deserves. If every pitcher could simply throw 100 MPH, where would the fun be in that? More pitchers like Montgomery make the game more exciting, and he truly is a joy to watch absolutely fool opposing batters. When he makes his next start in the Bronx on Tuesday against the Angels, you’ll want to be tuning in.