In case you missed it, the Chicago Cubs traded for a very good left-handed starting pitcher in Jose Quintana on Thursday. It’s the kind of move the Cubs have been looking to make for a while, and one that solidifies the rotation for the next 3½ years.
But they made a another trade for a cost-controlled, left-handed (potential) starter last season, as well. His name is Mike Montgomery.
Let me be clear, Montgomery is no Quintana. It’s not even close, and I’m certainly not making that point right here. However, Montgomery has begun to prove that he can be a serviceable big league starter and could make a strong argument to stay in the rotation even after Kyle Hendricks and John Lackey return from their respective stints on the disabled list.
In his starts since joining the Cubs nearly a year ago, Montgomery has pitched to a 4.47 ERA, 4.32 FIP, and 3.65 xFIP, while limiting batters to a .235/.326/.393 slash line worth a .314 wOBA in 54.1 innings.
Those numbers are OK, but in his five June starts this season (his first five starts of the year), Montgomery owned a really solid 3.58 ERA (3.40 FIP) to go along with a stellar 62.8% ground ball rate, 22.2 K% and 8.6 BB% in 27.2 innings. Save for his one ugly start (2.1 IP, 7 ER) against the Brewers on July 6, Montgomery has pitched well since moving into the rotation. And there might be a very specific reason why: his pitch mix.
Back in Spring Training, I noted some changes in pitch type and usage for Montgomery, since coming over from the Seattle Mariners at last year’s deadline. But, what do you know, Montgomery has continued to evolve here in 2017, as he bounces back and forth from a reliever to a starter.
Here is a look at this year’s pitch mix as a reliever, per Brooks Baseball:
- Four-seam: 18.83%
- Sinker: 25.22%
- Cutter: 15.03%
- Curve: 27.63%
- Change: 13.30%
And as a starter:
- Four-seam: 17.14%
- Sinker: 31.63%
- Cutter: 17.14%
- Curve: 23.27%
- Change: 10.82%
Upon entering the rotation, Montgomery has been more reliant on his sinker, a pitch that has resulted in a ground ball 69.2 percent of the time when it has been put in play. Browsing deeper into the data, Montgomery has three pitches (sinker, change, cutter) that lead to ground balls in play at a 60 percent rate or higher, while his four-seamer isn’t too far off, generating a 57.1% rate of ground balls in play. And while he has cut back on his curveball usage, it’s still the pitch that generates the most whiffs, getting swings-and-misses at a 32 percent whiffs per swing rate.
As it turns out, this is the latest evolution in Montgomery’s development. During a five-start stint that began in August 2016, Montgomery’s pitch mix featured a four-seamer (45.9%), curveball (27%), cutter (12.6%), changeup (11.81%), and sinker (2.6%). Things really changed when he returned to the bullpen near the end last year, where the cutter (1.2%), sinker (3.6%), and changeup (8.4%) took a back seat to the four-seamer (44.5%) and curve (42.2%).
There seems to be more balance in Montgomery’s mix right now, with the focus being on him using pitches that will result in a high percentage of ground balls or whiffs. It’s as if the Cubs told him to throw strikes because, when you do, opposing hitters either beat it into the ground – or miss it altogether (and, of course, when you’re in the bullpen, you can get away with using fewer, but stronger pitches).
With Quintana sliding into the rotation, there is one less spot for which Montgomery can fight. What the Cubs do with him when Hendricks, Lackey, or even Brett Anderson return from their trips to the DL, then, is still to be determined. The only certainty (for now) is that Montgomery takes the ball tonight against the Orioles with a newfound mix that should give him confidence and positive results more often than not.