A Few Observations About Mike Montgomery
I don’t know that I’ve seen a more unlikely complete game shutout by a Mariner since Jeff Weaver’s 4-hitter against Pittsburgh almost 8 years to the day before Mike Montgomery blanked the Royals. In doing so, Montgomery became the first M’s left-hander to record a shutout with 10ks and no walks, and his stuff looked better than it has in any previous start.
Most of the focus on the game will center on his change-up, and for good reason. It’s clearly Montgomery’s best pitch, and he recorded 6 of his 10 punchouts on change-ups. But as we’ve discussed before, the change-up has been a dominant weapon against right-handed batters this season, and he’s been fortunate that the line-ups he’s faced have been so righty-dominant. Coming in to last night’s game, Montgomery had only faced a left-handed batter 24 times in the big leagues. The Royals line-up was still plenty right-handed, but in Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer and Alex Gordon, he was going to be facing the best group of lefty bats he’s seen thus far. They went a combined 1-12 with 5 Ks. How did the guy who struggled to some degree (he hasn’t really struggled at all yet) against lefties like Jason Castro or Colby Rasmus dominate the Royals’ three top lefties? With a very different approach.
In his first two starts, Montgomery faced a total of 5 lefties. In his last three starts, against Houston, San Francisco and Kansas City, he’s seen 31. The Giants and Astros lefties hit Montgomery hard, knocking 5 hits (including 3 doubles) and drawing another 3 walks. Last night was a very different story. We don’t have a lot of information, obviously, given that last night was Montgomery’s 5th career start. But you could start to see a game plan developing – against lefties, he used his fastball early and then paired it with his curve. Last night, he tried something else: he made much more use of his cutter. This is a pitch he developed this year – he didn’t throw it in the AFL or in spring training before 2015. Like most of Montgomery’s pitches, it’s got some extreme horizontal movement. Unlike most cutters that have close to zero horizontal movement or move gloveside like a slider, Montgomery’s still has noticeable *arm*side run. Still, it has 8″ or so less than his sinker, and it also sinks about as much as his great change. Coming into last night, he’d thrown 20 of them in 4 starts. Last night, he threw 18, including 9 to the Royals lefties.
The biggest at-bat of the game – the turning point – came in the first with the bases loaded and no out. Montgomery faced Eric Hosmer, a lefty with a 124 wRC+ and someone who presumably knew about Montgomery’s curve ball as he was Montgomery’s teammate in the minors for many years. Montgomery got ahead with a fastball low in the zone, then threw a cutter out of the zone for a swing-and-miss. After he missed inside with a change, Montgomery went back to the cutter and got a huge strikeout. In the 6th, he K’d Moustakas, one of the league’s tougher batters to strike out, on a cutter that followed a change. He got ahead of Gordon the next inning with a first-pitch cutter before getting a strikeout on his curve. It gave Montgomery something else to work with and presumably disguised his fastballs as well. Montgomery’s fastball (and sinker) generate a freakishly low number of whiffs, so having a pitch that looks similar, that’s thrown with similar velo, but dives down and out of the zone should be a big plus.
I’d love to know more about where and when he picked this pitch up, and why he decided to throw it so much last night. Like many change-up-first pitchers, he can be effective against opposite-handed hitters. But at some point, teams were going to realize that he had less to offer lefties and adjust their line-ups accordingly – something similar to the “Danks Theory” where Tampa would fill their line-up with same-handed hitters to neutralize an opponent’s best pitch. Montgomery hasn’t yet had to deal with that – and in fact yesterday showed his change could be effective against lefties too – and what few at-bats he’d HAD against lefties hadn’t gone all that well. Yesterday’s game offers a blueprint for how he can adjust once the league adjusts to him. Let’s be clear: he’s not a dominant, bat-missing lefty. He’s not going to strike out 10 all of the time, but he needs a way to prevent Colby Rasmus or Kole Calhoun from having comfortable at-bats. Now we know that he can.