Mike Montgomery has been put in a relatively difficult position during his Cubs tenure. As he explained and we explored over the offseason, the Cubs have asked him to be a little bit of everything (i.e. a matchup lefty, a full-inning/high-leverage reliever, a mop-up guy, and the sixth starter), and, although he’s been extremely valuable doing it, the job has taken a toll on him and his arm.
As he’d explain it, “It’s tough no matter how long or short you’ve done it because there’s really no routine,” he told NBC Sports Chicago. “But it is what it is, so for me, whether it’s easy or not, it doesn’t cross my mind.”
Montgomery is being a good soldier, but from that, and other comments at NBC Sports Chicago, it’s pretty easy to see he doesn’t love the lack of a defined role. We already know he’d prefer to start, but at this point, it sounds like he’d settle for just about anything, so long as it’s consistent: “It’s tough with my role because there is no role. It’s tough to get into a rhythm. It’s tough to get anything going. So I just gotta prepare for any situation. But yeah, it’s tough not knowing your role.”
To be fair, Montgomery’s not wrong. Although he’s always been used in this capacity with the Cubs, I think it’s fair to say it’s been stretched to the extreme here in 2018 – with the exception of having not made any starts (though that’s because there hasn’t been an opportunity yet (and there definitely will be)).
Consider that, of his eight appearances, four have been a full inning of relief, two have been to get just one or two outs, and two others have been for 2.0 innings or more. That’s a very difficult workload, because, as Montgomery has said, it’s impossible to know if you’re going to throw 5 pitches or 50 on any given day.
And, here in the early going, the uneven usage could be contributing to some results that are just flat out weird.
Over his first 10.0 IP of the season, Montgomery has a rough 5.40 ERA and 5.68 FIP, which, frankly, look low when you consider his *tiny* 6.7% strikeout rate and above-average 11.1% walk rate.
But that’s really only half the story. Although he has the fourth lowest strikeout rate and third lowest K/BB ratio among all qualified relievers, Montgomery also has the second highest ground ball rate (73.5%), fifth lowest fly ball rate (14.7%), 12th lowest hard-hit rate (19.4%), and an excellent 25% soft-hit rate.
Basically, he’s been the most extreme version of the anti-FIP, contact-management pitcher.
Now, I can’t say for certain that the unusual role is the cause of these weird numbers (frankly, this is about as weird as stats get, and since we’re talking about a small sample, there’s definitely some randomness and good/bad luck mixed in), but I can say his pitch mix has changed rather drastically this season, versus last. Take it for what it’s worth:
2018: 32.1% (+9.6)
2018: 20.6% (-9.9)
This represents the biggest transformation, as Montgomery has basically abandoned his
four-seamer sinker for more of his sinker four-seamer, which is particularly interesting, given what we observed about Tyler Chatwood just this morning (he went the other direction).
But put a pin in that for a second (we’ll come right back), because the fastballs aren’t the only area we’ve seen change:
2018: 14.6% (+2.5)
2018: 11.5% (+0.4)
2018: 20.6% (-3.2)
Is this a clear overhaul in pitch mix? Just an early-season fluke? An effort to combat this difficulties of not knowing his role? I don’t think we’re in a position to answer those questions just yet, but given what we’re seeing on the fastball side, given the weird numbers, and given his comments about his role, it’s worth teeing those questions up now as we go forward.
In any case, while you’d hate for Montgomery to lose any of those batted ball numbers he’s posted this year, as they’re currently among the best in baseball, he most definitely needs to dramatically improve his strikeout rate if he wants to succeed.
As for the ways he’s used going forward, well, his words explain it well, and hang on that same uncertain theme: “I don’t even think they know the role,” Montgomery said. “There’s really nothing to talk about in that sense.”