A Quick Look at Mike Montgomery, Relief Pitcher
In a textbook example of the trenchant analysis you’ve come to expect from USSMariner dot com, I noted before the year that Mike Montgomery’s arsenal and history made him an odd fit as a relief pitcher. His one plus pitch was a change-up, and that led to some struggles against *left* handed bats, as the cutter that once looked so promising had fizzled out by the end of 2015. Coming into the year, the M’s were out of rotation slots and Montgomery was out of options. Following a flurry of acquisitions, even the M’s bullpen seemed pretty full, with Cishek, Benoit, Furbush, Scribner, Zych, Peralta seemingly in, and an assortment of others looking for a spot (Nuno, Justin De Fratus, Cody Martin, Jonathan Aro, Nick Vincent). A series of injuries in the spring cleared a path for the M’s to at least hold on to Montgomery, but what he’s done with that shot is nothing short of remarkable. In 27 innings, Montgomery’s yielded just 16 hits and 5 runs, striking out 22 and posting an insane 62% ground ball rate thanks to a 95mph fastball.
As a starter, Montgomery had essentially average velocity for a lefty, and threw a five-pitch mix weighted towards fastballs (~52%) and change-ups (~20%). He used his cutter and curve a fair bit, but less often than the change, which made plenty of sense. The change was his best bat-missing pitch, while his curve was handy when he needed a grounder. His fastballs (sinker and four-seam) were pretty much average in terms of their batted ball results. As a reliever, the M’s probably expected a bit of a bump in velocity, and they may have hoped that bump would improve his cutter/slider. As a starter, lefties hit .391 off of the pitch, but who knows – maybe it’d get sharper? His curve looked good, but even that didn’t seem to be a clear weapon against same-handed batters, and that’s generally what a manager would want when he brings in a lefty.
A fastball/change-up combination can work in the bullpen, as guys from Trevor Hoffman to Fernando Rodney to Joaquin Benoit prove. But Montgomery’s, with its big armside run and lack of real downward movement, didn’t seem like a great candidate for bullpen stardom. There was a reason Montgomery never posted big strikeout rates, and in fact, he’s not posting big K rates now. To be successful, Montgomery was going to need to manage contact and his walk rate, and Tony Blengino’s article from last August made that seem…unlikely. It seemed that way, but here we are with a potential breakout reliever. How’d this happen? I don’t think there’s one, clear, obvious explanation, but here are three guesses:
1: Velocity, velocity, velocity. In Brendan Gawlowski’s prescient-in-hindsight post about shifting Monty to the pen, he noted that while a velo gain of around 1mph is standard, some guys pick up more like 2-3-4mph. Even an extra tick would help, but the game-changing velocity bump was a possibility. Well, that’s what Montgomery got. By Brooks Baseball, Montgomery’s average fastball last year was 91. It’s now at 95, and that’s only looking at the relatively cold (read: slower FBs) months of April/May. Gawlowski also noted that the velocity would have an impact on his secondary pitches, too, and that’s exactly what we’ve seen. Montgomery’s curve seems to be benefiting from the extra spin, and gets more downward break than it did last year, leading to both better whiff rates and higher GB rates. The samples here are tiny, but you don’t need much to see changes in movement and velo. Velocity is also correlated with ground ball rates – a 95mph FB *should* get a few more grounders than a 91mph FB thrown with the same movement.
2: Pitch mix. Montgomery and the M’s have come up with a neat solution to the “but his best pitch is a change” problem: he’s become a fastball/curveball guy. Like the change, Monty’s curve had solid results against lefties and righties last year. As mentioned above, it’s now faster and has more spin, leading to more whiffs. Moreover, it’s being put in play more often. That sounds odd – more whiffs AND more balls in play – but it’s an important part of Montgomery’s sky-high GB rate. It’s not a pitch batters put in play much at all in 2015, but they’re doing so more this year, and most of that contact’s on the ground. And because of *that* most of the contact against him is pulled. Montgomery’s percentage of balls in play to the pull side is up by 11 percentage points this year, more or less identical to the 11.1 percentage point increase in his GB%. That makes him the perfect guy to shift behind, and god knows the M’s love to shift. That may be a partial explanation for Monty’s .229 BABIP. As I’ve said before, I’d still love to see him break out the change a bit more than he has – it’s still a great pitch to righties. There are signs he will – he used it a bunch against the A’s the other day, and the more he sees multi-inning stints, the more I’d imagine he’ll use it (it’s also a great GB% pitch). But Montgomery’s also been great at mixing his fastballs, mixing in his sinker to keep batters off balance. The shifts in usage aren’t huge, but the seem to be making a difference, particularly given his…
3: …Location, location, location. Montgomery’s clearly got a plan with his fastball now, and that didn’t always seem to be the case last year. Take the way he attacks righties. His four-seam heatmap from 2015 looks almost random. The plurality of pitches are middle-middle, but he threw the up and out of the zone on both sides, and mixed in some low ones. There’s no obvious pattern at all. This year, there’s a clear pattern: he’s pitching inside to righties. Inside fastballs at 95 are tough to hit, and extremely tough to hit to the opposite field. Batters looking for a four-seam or change might pull a ground ball. If they get a sinker instead, they’ll top it. If they expect a sinker, they’ll pop up the four-seamer; Monty’s infield pop-up rate’s doubled this year. The beauty of this is its simplicity. Montgomery struggled with walks in the minors, and he clearly struggled down the stretch last year, but his walk rate thus far is a solid 6.9%. It’s lower despite the fact that Montgomery *isn’t* throwing more strikes, and batters still aren’t swinging at his curve. But now, if he falls behind, he has a decent shot at getting a ground ball. With batters *ahead in the count*, Montgomery’s allowing an ISO under .100. Montgomery got crushed last year once he fell behind, but the simpler approach is producing both fewer walks AND better contact.
Now, this isn’t to annoint the man an elite reliever. It’s early yet, and he’s still not missing enough bats. But the M’s looked like they were going to lose him, and instead he’s been the M’s best reliever by WPA. Those win probability stats also illustrate something that probably needs to change: Montgomery’s been used in garbage time. It’s kind of amazing that Montgomery’s WPA is as good as it is, because he hasn’t seen many high leverage situations. You’d assume that’ll change if he keeps this up, with Joel Peralta the guy who’d be the easiest to swap roles with.
There’s always the possibility that batters will adjust to the new Mike Montgomery, just as they adjusted last year. We – okay, I – was probably too hasty in proclaiming him a solid big league starter, and we – okay, I – may be guilty of the same thing now. Anyone looks good when they’ve allowed zero HRs, and when their GB rate blows past anything they’ve done to date. The simplicity of his fastball approach cuts both ways, too: if you stick to one location too much, batters will adjust quickly. Still, through luck or skill, the M’s have unearthed a very useful piece. That they haven’t used him as effectively as they could is irrelevant. That he might’ve been pitching elsewhere if Charlie Furbush or Evan Scribner was healthy is irrelevant. I said at the beginning of the year that the M’s needed more than regression in HR/FB ratios from their pitchers – they needed to help them actually improve. Mike Montgomery would seem to be the poster boy for the value of instruction, and that the M’s new field staff is capable of improving their players (OK, OK, Leonys Martin is the real poster boy for that, but hey, Montgomery’s on the podium somewhere).