Yankee southpaw Jordan Montgomery is having a a capable rookie season at age 24, with a 3.92 ERA and 4.07 FIP over 108 innings, both good for second among qualifying rookie starters (although to be fair, there are only four). Montgomery has solid strikeout and walk rates of 8.25/9 and 2.75/9, respectively, and if he’s given up a few too many homers (1.25/9), well, so has pretty much everyone else this year. So far, so encouraging, especially for a guy who eluded the top 100 prospects lists, but Montgomery is going about it in a highly unusual way. Just 42.4% of his pitches have been fastballs this year, the fifth-lowest rate in the majors among qualifying starters.
Throwing fastballs is a young man’s game. No other under-25 pitcher has used the fastball less than 50% of the time this season. The next such pitcher down the fastball rarity list from Montgomery is teammate Luis Severino, (25th on the list) who throws his heat just with just over a 51% frequency. In fact, none of the other bottom-10 fastball users are under 28.
While career development can take many different paths, pitchers tend to throw more fastballs early in their careers and fewer as they age. Kershaw’s career, for example, follows this pattern almost exactly, while Adam Wainwright’s is somewhat similar, though his (low) fastball usage this year is somewhat higher than last year’s. It’s unusual in the current era to see a young pitcher come up and have sustained success throwing fastballs so infrequently.
Over the last five years, just 20 pitchers have used the fastball less frequently than Montgomery has this year, 15 of whom are (or were, in the case of the retirees) starters. Only two of the active pitchers are under 30: Cleveland reliever Bryan Shaw (29) and yet another Yankee, Masahiro Tanaka (28). (The perceptive reader perhaps will have divined that the Yankees staff as a whole has the lowest fastball usage in the majors.)
On the surface, Montgomery’s reluctance to cook with gas is understandable: his gas is flammable. According to FanGraphs pitch values, Montgomery’s curve and changeup are among the ten best in all the land, while his fastball is down at 50th. So Montgomery might be excused for being gun shy (that actually is a pun — it’s okay to laugh!), but as noted above, very few young pitchers have survived to baseball middle age by so assiduously avoiding the fastball. If Montgomery is to have long-term success, he will either need to bushwhack a hitherto unblazed career trail, or figure out a way to keep hitters honest with a few more fastballs.
For an example of the latter course, consider Corey Kluber. When he arrived in The Show he had a somewhat similar pitching profile to Montgomery’s: a very hittable fastball that he was reluctant to throw, coupled with other, more promising pitches (in Kluber’s case, the the cutter was initially the best, followed by the curve and then the change). According to pitch values, Kluber’s heater was quite a bit worse than Montgomery’s is now, and Kluber accordingly suffered during his first two seasons in 2011 and 2012. FIP saw his potential, however: Kluber’s best ERA in those formative seasons was 5.19, but his worst FIP was 4.29.
In the next two seasons, Kluber would cut almost two full runs off that FIP, on his way to a Cy Young Award in 2014. Four significant changes helped postpone the start of Kluber’s broadcasting career. First, he added velo, which rose from 92.0 in 2011 to 93.2 in 2013. Second, perhaps because of the additional speed, he threw fastballs more often. Much more often, rising from around 43% in his first two years to 53% in 2013. Third, he correspondingly reduced changeup usage, from 16.5% in 2012 all the way down to 4.8% in 2014. Fourth, perhaps because of this simplified approach, his curve went from being spotty in 2012 to a wipeout pitch in 2014.
Kluber thus became the ace on a World Series pitching staff. He would go on to top 50% fastball usage every year until now, when it has once again slipped to 45%. His fastball has never been a dominant pitch, but it effectively sets up his curve and cutter, which are. As he’s aged, Kluber has given back his velocity gains, but so far that has not significantly eroded his overall effectiveness.
No player’s career is a perfect template for another, but Kluber’s rapid evolution at the major-league level suggests some steps Montgomery could take to remain in the Yankees’ rotation. Efforts to enhance velocity don’t always end well, but Montgomery’s velo (91.9) is just about where Kluber’s was before he began his ascent, and it doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility that Montgomery could add 1 mph or so to his heater, thereby making him more willing to throw it. If he’s more afraid of his fastball than the hitters are, success will likely elude him. Of course, almost every pitcher would like to find an extra mile per hour in between the couch cushions, but in Montgomery’s case that may be closer to a need than a want.
If Montgomery throws more fastballs, he could also throw fewer sliders. Though not a bad pitch, it is the weakest of his other offerings and the one he already throws least frequently (12%). Largely scrapping it would enable to focus on developing and using his curve and change, which are the pitches that will essentially determine whether the Yankees ever have a Jordan Montgomery Bobblehead Night. Coupled with a more effective fastball, these pitches could become devastating.
To be sure, top prospects drive the bus — out of the 2016 Cleveland Spiders 27+ WAR, around 16 came from four former top-50 prospects (Francisco Lindor, Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis, and Lonnie Baseball). Two former top-50 pitchers (Trevor Bauer and Carlos Carrasco) contributed just over 5 of the around 19 WAR that the staff produced. But teams need to get value from their unheralded players as well. In 2016, Kluber’s 5.1 WAR essentially equaled Bauer and Carrasco’s combined.
The Yankees are certainly far more important to Jordan Montgomery than vice-versa, but his performance thus far suggests that he is more than a fringe rotation member; he may be a fringe impact starter. The rotation is the weakest link in a Yankees team that otherwise looks poised to compete for the AL East crown for years to come. It’s easy to imagine that only Severino will have been in both the 2017 and 2018 opening-day rotations. Even if Chance Adams and Justus Sheffield can progress quickly enough to make an impact next year, the Yankees will need help that lies beyond the glow of the top-prospect campfire. Jordan Montgomery could be that help if he can learn to love the fastball.
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