In his last start – the one before last night – Mike Montgomery got the job done against the Padres, allowing just one earned run through 5.1 IP, but did so narrowly.
Throughout the course of the night, he allowed seven hits, no infield pop-ups, and got plenty of medium and hard contact. Now, Montgomery is certainly a pitch-to-contact/groundball-type guy, so that wasn’t entirely out of the ordinary, but recording just one whiff while facing 25 batters is probably not going to cut it in the long run. When you do that, too much of your fortune is left out of your own hands.
Montgomery spoke about this after that Padres game (NBC Sports Chicago): “I’m gonna still look to get more swings and misses. I’m a groundball pitcher, but I think in today’s game, you’re gonna need swings and misses, so I’m constantly gauging how I can do that. I think some of the things I did tonight are gonna give me more of those and I was pretty happy about that.”
What he was talking about specifically, according to NBC Sports Chicago, was improving the grip on his curveball and getting it back to the success levels of 2016, when it was worth 7.5 runs above average (this year, it’s averaging 1.3 according to PitchInfo).
So how did it go last night?
Well, after recording exactly zero whiffs on the pitch two starts ago, he notched four whiffs with his curveball last night. But that was hardly the only change. In fact, that wasn’t even the most impressive or important development to trickle out of last night’s game. Instead, I’d argue, it was the improvements to his changeup.
Two starts ago, Montgomery threw just 12 changeups resulting in zero whiffs. Last night, however, he threw it 20 times and got SIX swings and misses. That’s huge.
And it sounds like something he was aware of during the start: “It’s probably the best off speed stuff I’ve had,” Montgomery said. “I thought today, they were good and an aggressive hitting team. It was a good matchup against these guys.”
Indeed, it was. Altogether, Montgomery recorded 13 whiffs last night – impressively achieving the goal he set out for himself after his last start – doubling his strikeout total (4), while shaving down the hits (5) and runs (0) in a longer overall outing.
By game score (65), it was Montgomery’s second best start of the year:
And what a year it’s been, right?
Since joining the rotation full-time on May 28th, Montgomery has made 13 starts for the Cubs, covering 73.0 innings. Throughout all that time, he’s earned an extremely impressive 3.08 ERA with a solid 3.83 FIP to back it up. He’s gotten more than his fair share of ground balls (48.9%), and has been about league average in terms of hard and soft contact.
He has really struggled to get his strikeout rate to a reasonable level as a starter (14.6%), but because of the swell contact management and minimal free passes (6.8 BB%), he’s been able to make it work. Of course, if he were able to get that K rate up to around the 19-20% range, he’d be a much scarier, more effective starter. But then he might not be as efficient.
There’s obviously no questioning Montgomery’s desire to start full-time, but he wasn’t exactly coming into this season expecting to do that for a whole year.
After throwing 130.2 innings last season and already approaching the 100 IP mark here in early August, you can bet the Cubs are thinking about how to conserve his arm. “You still want to be proactive,” manager Joe Maddon said. “You look at the innings and you’re looking for a successful conclusion this year. Down the road for the guy, you don’t want to overload it. We’re still talking about it. I think his confidence is at a high right now.”
Point being: Montgomery might be able to consistently miss more bats and get more strikeouts – exactly as he did last night – but that may not be feasible in the long-run (i.e. the rest of the season). Racking up the whiffs and K’s also tends also can extend the pitch count. It’s entirely plausible, then, that a guy already suited to pitch to contact is beating that drum even harder in an effort to spread himself over as many innings down the stretch as possible. Perhaps that’s even coming from the Cubs.
In any case, things are proceeding well on the Montgomery-as-starter front, even if the innings are climbing. For one thing, given the way Cole Hamels has been pitching and Yu Darvish has been progressing, Montgomery won’t have to stay in the rotation forever.* And for another thing, this is a way to build up Montgomery’s innings for the future. If he somehow finds his way into securing a spot in a big league rotation next season, he could be in a better position to stick there the whole season.
For now, the Cubs are simply lucky to have the guy who simply has to be the most effective swing starter in all of baseball.
*That depends on whether or not the Cubs want to use a six-man rotation when Darvish returns. Although I can see the benefits, I tend to think their synchronized desires to ramp Darvish back up before October and limit Montgomery’s innings this season will squash that idea. Plus, Montgomery and Tyler Chatwood in the bullpen could seriously help to ease the load on the relievers before October, too.