Facing elimination, the Yankees will turn their fate over to 27 year old starter Jordan Montgomery. The young lefty’s major league career got off to a promising start in 2017, when he posted a 3.88 ERA over 155 innings, with peripherals that lagged behind that gaudy mark, but were still very solid for a 24 year old pitching in the majors. He then injured his elbow in 2018, eventually requiring Tommy John surgery. In what is essentially his first “full” season back, Montgomery now holds a 5.11 ERA over 44 innings, but his peripherals (2.87 FIP, 3.65 xFIP) are much better than that.
Rays fans will remember Montgomery as the pitcher who couldn’t get out of the first inning in the Mike Brosseau game on account of all that bad karma his teammates dumped on his back, but he’s a significantly better pitcher than that.
The Curveball Mystery
Kevin Cash is likely to get his right-handed bats into the lineup against Montgomery, so this preview will focus on the matchup between the Rays righties and the Yankees lefty, and there’s an interesting little puzzle evident in Montgomery’s numbers: The curveball really works.
Why does the curveball work?
Coming in at 80 mph, this pitch is on the faster side of curves. It’s completely 12-6, with virtually no lateral movement. And it doesn’t really drop, falling only two inches further than a spinless pitch would over the same period. Yes, it’s a tight little pitch, somewhere between a fast curve and a slow slider, but it lacks more drop (1.34 standard deviations less than average, per Brooks) than it has speed (.74 standard deviations faster than average).
The speed and vertical movement shouldn’t add up to “plus pitch,” and yet they do, especially against righties.
Montgomery has thrown his curve for a strike to righties more often than any other pitch, and he’s gotten an insane 42.6% whiff rate on those right-handed swings. How?
Well, some of it has to do with location. Montgomery does a great job boring his curve in below the zone, and on the back foot of righties.
He actually hasn’t gotten very many whiffs inside the zone, but he’s getting hitters to chase his curve to unhittable spots below it.
Watching him on video, there’s something interesting about the smoothness of the trajectory of this pitch. Coming from that high release point, there’s no visible hump or break. It looks like just a straight line traveling from high to low, picking up downward speed as it goes. I think there’s probably something deceptive about this pitch, but on its own it shouldn’t be enough to get batters to chase the way they do.
A Fastball for Each Edge
While he’s setting up righties for a putaway curve below the zone and in, Montgomery does a good job making sure the batter has to remain aware of every edge of the plate, and he does this very intentionally with his two types of fastballs.
He doesn’t throw a ton of four-seam fastballs to righties (19% in 2020 per Brooks), but he establishes the pitch up and in.
He throws a few more sinkers than he does fastballs (22% in 2020), but he really leans on the pitch when he’s behind in the count. And he uses his sinker to establish the outer edge, and down.
Neither of these pitches is amazing — average velocity, decent rise on the four-seam, and a sinker that’s all about the horizontal run rather than actual sink — but they do a very specific job, and they’re well-suited to how Montgomery uses them.
The Straight Changeup — Putaway or Setup Pitch?
Lastly there’s Montgomery’s changeup, which he throws to righties often, and in any count. This to me is the other half of the equation on Montgomery’s curveball success. It’s a straight-changeup, with an unusual amount of four-seam rise.
When compared to his four-seam and two-seam fastballs, its movement is sandwiched right in between the two, at least in comparison to a theoretical spinless pitch, and this gets into one of the funny things about pitch shape.
A straight changeup has unexpected “rise” from its high backspin, but it’s slower than a fastball, so gravity works on it longer and it appears to fall. If a batter thinks he sees fastball, he’ll swing over the top of a straight changeup like Montgomery’s, but if he correctly identifies changeup and times it up, he may be fooled by the magnus force and end up swinging under it.
What does that mean for the effectiveness of the pitch? It’s all about context. Out of context, this is an 83 mph fastball with average movement. In context, well, that’s interesting.
Montgomery buries his changeup below the zone, but he also works it over the heart of the plate, and even up and away. Really, he’s only getting whiffs with it down and away off the corner, like this:
But the pitch is doing a lot more work for Montgomery than just those reaching whiffs.
Thinking back on those straight curveballs down and in that righties should be spitting on but can’t, my supposition is that, at least some of the time, they think they’re swinging at a straight change, which they think Montgomery has brought in too far from the edge, and left over the middle of the plate, in the bottom third.
Put another way, two “straight” pitches, when combined together, make a lot more deception than either would apart. Baseball is cool, and hitting is hard.