Mike Montgomery Returned Healthy with Some Nasty Pitches, But He Got Hit Hard

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Mike Montgomery Returned Healthy with Some Nasty Pitches, But He Got Hit Hard

Chicago Cubs

Last night, Mike Montgomery (shoulder) returned to the Cubs starting rotation after missing a little over two weeks on the disabled list with shoulder soreness. And although the start was both abbreviated (4.1 IP) and fairly ineffective (8H, 4ER), it wasn’t actually all that bad, at least not after taking in some context and checking under the hood.

At the most obvious level, there’s the injury to consider. Few would expect a pitcher fresh off the disabled list to last deep into a ball game, but that goes double for guys returning from shoulder injuries, and triple for guys who return without a rehab stint. Montgomery’s injury was not particularly severe, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t any cobwebs to shake off when he first returned.

Then there’s the broader usage question. With those 4.1 IP last night, Montgomery has thrown more than 100.0 innings for just the second time in his career (2017), and has matched last season in total starts (14). Given that there’s still a month of games left, he’s very likely going to surpass his previous highs in innings pitched and starts.

Beyond that, there’s the simple fact that the Braves offense has been one of the most potent in baseball this season, and that is especially true when they’re facing lefties. Against southpaws this season, the Braves’ 111 wRC+ trails only the Yankees and Astros. That’s not an easy lot for Montgomery.

Then, of course, there’s the divisional race to consider. Montgomery may have been pulled from that game after just 4.1 innings and 66 pitches, but with September reinforcements on the way and surging Cardinals and Brewers teams to fend off, pulling the starter earlier than he could’ve otherwise lasted is perfectly acceptable. It’s win-now time and that’s what the Cubs did.

But even beyond all that context (and some admittedly hopeful justification), there are positives to extract from the performance. For one, Montgomery struck out six batters in that short outing, which equates to a solidly above average 27.3% strikeout rate. And he got there because his 22.7% swinging strike rate was WAY above his 9.5% season mark. Indeed, at Brooks Baseball, we can see that Montgomery induced a ridiculous 15 whiffs despite facing just 22 batters, and that generally means he was missing plenty of bats on the strength of his stuff, alone.

His changeup (7 whiffs) was right at the heart of it all, and so was his cutter (4 whiffs), though that probably shouldn’t have been such a surprise. Sahadev Sharma recently discussed the return of Montgomery’s cutter – which is close to a slider – and how the Cubs lefty believes it affects the rest of the pitches in his arsenal: “In 2016, the curveball got a lot of attention,” Montgomery said. “But I would say, without [the cutter] being what it was, the curveball becomes average.” For the season as a whole, Montgomery has used his cutter 9.3% of the time. Last night? He was up to 16.7%.

It seems to me, based on some of his other comments with Sharma, that Montgomery was angling for a little more swing and miss to his game, and last night with the cutter, he clearly got it:

Of course, Montgomery is not traditionally considered a strikeout artist. In fact, he’s always had a pretty low strikeout rate (even if it was never as low as the 15.1% mark he’s posting this season). Instead, he’s always gotten by on plenty of weak contact and even more balls on the ground. And to that end, from last night, the news is split.

Montgomery did manage to maintain an elite ground ball rate against the Braves last night (57.1%), but he wasn’t able to get much weak contact (7.1%) and allowed a ton of hard contact (50.0%). You can get away with that sort of thing every now and then with a super high ground ball rate and a little luck, but it’s not going to be very sustainable. Montgomery is trying to strike a balance between his K-rate and contact management, and last night it might’ve just swung a little too far in one direction.

As far as how I feel about Montgomery going forward though, last night’s abbreviated, poor-result start did nothing to sway me. I still like him as a starter right now.

(I also feel compelled to point out that Montgomery had .571 BABIP last night (which could help explain the 8 hits in 4.1 IP), but given all the hard contact, he probably earned at least part of that. At a minimum, that means he wasn’t getting lucky last night. So that’s helpful context, too.)

(Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

Author: Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami covers the Chicago Cubs, Bears, and Bulls at Bleacher Nation. You can find him on Twitter @Michael_Cerami