Mike Montgomery’s Lights-Out Stuff Better Suited for Pen than Rotation

No matter what happens over the rest of his career, Mike Montgomery will forever be the answer to the trivia question: “Who was on the mound when the Cubs won their first world series in, like, a long time?” Prior to that, he was known as the guy the Cubs got in return for Dan Vogelbach. Shortly after arriving in Chicago, however, he gave up runs in his first three appearances and earned a moniker that saw his initials go from MM to MF.

But he followed that up by wrapping nine consecutive scoreless relief appearances around five spot starts late in the season and got his proper name back. Montgomery’s postseason performance (5 ER in 13 IP) left a little to be desired, though the numbers give us scant insight into the individual situations of his 11 appearances.

Consider Game 3 of the NLDS, in which the lefty took the ball with the score tied at 5 in the 9th inning. Montgomery ended up taking the loss, but only after gutting out 4 scoreless innings to get the Cubs to the 13th. He then gave up 3 earned runs over his next three outings (2.1 IP), followed by no earned runs over the three subsequent appearances (4.2 IP). He looked rough in Game 4 of the World Series before closing the season on a high note.

Pretty nice capper for a guy who posted a 2.82 ERA and .214 batting average against over 38.1 innings as a swingman. Of course, he’s also the guy whose 1.30 WHIP as a Cub would have ranked 88th among relievers and 45th among starters (a spot occupied, interestingly enough, by Trevor Bauer) in 2016. Sorry, I’m droning on here.

Those numbers above represent a significant departure from Montgomery’s full-season marks of 2.52 and 1.17, shifts that can be at least partially attributed to the shock of being traded. Given the high-leverage experience and an increased comfort level with his team new team and city, there’s every reason to believe the southpaw can be significantly better next season. Pitching performance is about more than just emotion and feel, though, you’ve still got to be able to leverage your stuff.

Those two non-fastballs are the change and cutter, offerings Montgomery has served up with a great deal more efficacy than I ever would have guessed. According to PITCHf/x, the cutter generated a 27.84 percent whiff rate that ranked 21st among all pitchers (min. 100 pitches) in 2016. That same pitch induced a very nice ground-ball rate of 69 percent, third in MLB. And the change was a few ticks better, getting a third-ranked 54.43 percent whiff rate and an 11th-ranked 67 percent ground-ball rate.

The lefty’s career numbers on the these pitches are even more impressive when viewed in light of his peers and predecessors. Among all pitchers for whom PITCHf/x has data (since 2007; min. 200 pitches), the 45.66 percent whiff rate Montgomery’s gotten on the change ranks 19th. And the cutter? That one ranks 23rd with a 31.78 percent whiff rate. What’s more, Montgomery actually sits at the top of the list — again, this is for both starters and relievers — with a 70 percent ground-ball rate.

So, yeah, that’d be a pretty nice asset for the rotation. If Montgomery’s able to make his stuff play as a starter, that is.

Over a limited sample last season, he allowed a slash line of .188/.303/.405 with a 3.33 ERA (5.04 FIP) and 1.15 WHIP. Not bad, though the disparity in ERA and FIP is a little concerning. What’s more, Montgomery gave up home runs in four of his five starts and struck out only 24 while walking 12 over that stretch. In case you were wondering, the average K/BB ratio for starters is 2.62 and a mark of 2.00 would have been tied with Rob Zastryzny for 200th in MLB. Not exactly indicative of greatness, but, you know, only 24.1 innings and whatnot.

Beefing up the sample by pulling in the numbers from his days in Seattle doesn’t help to form strong case for Montgomery as a starter. After tossing back-to-back complete-game shutouts in his fifth and sixth career starts, things got pretty ugly. Montgomery notched a 7.49 ERA over his final 10 starts and finished his Mariners tenure with a 4.44 ERA over 101.1 innings pitched. He wasn’t exactly a world-beater in eight minor league seasons, either, having never logged better than a 4.29 ERA at AA or higher.

We could look at all that and see the bright side, maybe assume that Montgomery just took a while to push the boulder up his personal learning curve. Perhaps, like Jake Arrieta, he just needed a change of scenery and a little freedom to do his thing. Or maybe we see a guy who, at 27 years old, has shown us what he is as a starting pitcher. Please understand that I don’t mean that as a knock. He could be cut from the same cloth as Andrew Miller, a pitcher who only realized his full potential when he was moved to the bullpen for good.

Taking all this into account, I tend to lean toward the latter of those assessments. Not that Montgomery is on Miller’s level or anything, just that I feel he presents the most value to the Cubs when working in shorter stints more frequently than every fifth day. I don’t doubt for a second that the guy can be a decent starter, I just question his stamina and think he can be an excellent reliever. When I posited such on Twitter, I was asked whether I’d prefer 175 good innings or 75 great ones. Swap out dimes and quarters for good and great in that question, you’ll get a yes from me all day.

While that analogy is perhaps a bit raw and assumes fixed valuations that aren’t directly related to any empirical data, I think you understand where I’m going here. During his time as a starter, Montgomery has allowed a .774 OPS the first through the lineup and a .905 the second time through. And he has given up a .663 OPS on pitches 1-25, but an .830-something OPS on pitches 26-75. Hey, wait a minute: quarter, good performance over first 25 pitches. Maybe I’m onto something.

Of course, Montgomery’s eventual deployment and the value he can bring to the team comes down to the rest of the personnel on the roster and what makes the most sense. Absent any further moves, that probably means maintaining his clubhouse lead on the fifth spot in the rotation. Maybe even the fourth. It’d be a different story should the Cubs add another proven starter. I’d like to hearken back to those pitch stats from earlier and ask whether you might wanna venture a guess as to whose 68 percent ground-ball rate on the cutter sits just behind Montgomery? Yep, you got it: Tyson Ross.

If the Cubs land Ross, it likely means Montgomery working as part of a six-man unit and/or transitioning back to the pen. And you have to assume the rotation will experience somewhat less than the nearly injury-free campaign it enjoyed in 2016, which means spot-start duties. It’s absolutely understandable to see the results Montgomery has generated from the cutter and change and salivate over what could be in a bigger role. And it’s equally understandable to see that the lefty’s overall results leave him best suited to play the role of primary lefty reliever and gap-filler.

Regardless of how he ends up getting his innings, Montgomery’s greatest asset is that he’ll do so on a rookie contract. Because it took so long for the lanky lefty to break through, his limited service time means that he’s not even arbitration-eligible until 2019 and won’t be a free agent until 2022. That sets a pretty low bar for the type of performance required from him in order to earn his keep and it also gives the Cubs all kinds of room when it comes to making other moves.

Not a bad spot to be in, all things considered. And, having considered all things, I think the best spot for Mike Montgomery is under the bleachers in the relocated bullpen.

About Evan Altman

Evan Altman is the EIC and lead writer for Cubs Insider and has proclaimed himself Central Indiana's foremost Cubs authority. He is a husband, father, homebrewer, and award-winning blogger with entirely too much pop culture knowledge. Evan's greatest accomplishments include scoring 400 points in Magic Johnson's Fast Break, naming all 10 members of the Wu-Tang Clan in under 3.5 seconds, and winning the Meese Literary Award at Hanover College. You can follow him on Twitter @DEvanAltman.

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  1. Interesting article, I enjoyed reading it, but I think I have to respectfully disagree with your conclusion. Montgomery also has the 80th best pitch in Baseball with his curveball…that’s pretty amazing. The best Changeup in the MLB last year (6th overall), the 25th best pitch in the Cutter, and a 3rd top pitch with his #80 CurveBall, along with a mid-90’s FB (which induces groundballs at a very high rate), plus the fact that he’s a lefty would suggest that he should be given every opportunity to be a starter. Bringing up Arrieta is important because Arrieta’s emergence with the Cubs after struggles earlier in his career has much more to do with the Cubs simplifying his delivery (vastly improving his control/command) in my mind than it has to do with a change of scenery. I believe Montgomery could be in for a similar emergence, as he seems to have every bit of the “stuff” that Jake has. I think that a year from now the Vogelbach/Blackburn trade for Montgomery could be seen as every bit the heist that the Arrieta/Strop trade was for Feldman…. well, maybe not that good, lol

  2. I’m not sure I agree with the conclusions here either. Montgomery got significantly better after Bosio forced him to stop throwing his sinker. That pitch was getting hammered and single-handedly (or single-pitchedly) brought down the FIP. He was also threatened with a fine for every time he shook off the catcher. We can also look at xFIP, which gives a better picture of him than FIP, since it regresses his oddly high homer-rate. I do think it’s fare to assume regression in his homer rate, given that all of his pitches are extreme grounders.

    Since we don’t yet have a way to quantify command accurately, we don’t have a really clear picture of whether his walk rate is fixable, but if it is (and this is the crucial if), then his wiff rate and groundball rate with a good (not assuming a repeat of great) Cubs defense behind him can lead to a 2nd or 3rd in the rotation role.

    This is the kind of stuff we speculated (and continue to do so) about Arrieta. Big difference: Montgomery has a much more orthodox delivery, doesn’t throw across his body, and therefore his nasty stuff is due more to the crazy spin he generates than the complex mechanics. Orthodox delivery means easier to tweak for your average pitching coach. I’d say there’s a higher chance he becomes a good starter than there was for Arrieta. That said, we shouldn’t expect Arrieta type numbers from him.

    Finally, using Baseball Savant we can see that Montgomery is great at throwing his fairly unhitable curveball for strikes. When it is hit, it goes straight into the ground at a tremendous rate. That’s great for a reliever and very good for a starter (we can look at Blake Snell as a rough, very rough comp here – no, we’re not going to comp him with the freak that is Rich Hill). With the sinker likely tossed because of its extreme hitability, we’re seeing him needing to command a his 4-seam and thereby all of its sub-type pitches (cutter, change) better. I think this is doable. What we saw this past year was a Montgomery in transition. Last year he worked to develop more optimal spin on all of his pitches. It worked per fivethirtyeight. Now he needs to control the added movement that spin added to many of his pitches. We’ll see if he can do it.

    Basically there’s just too much there to blow in the bullpen.

    • You make a solid argument and I’ll say again that I’ll be very happy about being proven wrong. I’m just not sold on Montgomery’s ability to consistently get through the order a second time and to maintain his effectiveness over the course of several innings. That could change with approach and pitch mix and control, no doubt. But I take some issue with saying that his talent would be blown in the pen. His value as a starter might be greater if he can indeed put it all together, but it’s not as if it’d be a waste to have him in the pen.

      • Just realized I basically restated my previous response, which doesn’t reflect all that well on my capacity for original thought.

      • Sorry, I didn’t mean it’d be a waste to put him in the bullpen. I think my idea was that someone with at least 3 plus pitches like that has the stuff to be extended (my argument for why he could last several times through the order) and should be given a very good chance to do it. Given the innings difference between a number 5 starter and a middle reliever, I’d just rather see those great pitches for more than 50-90 innings per year. With the amount of movement he gets on the curve, change, and cutter, I’m mostly seeing fastball command/control as the big indicator of his sustained success in any extended role (starter or long relief). If he can keep his BB/9 in a reasonable area, there are multiple ways for him to find success as a starter: learn to stop leaving the sinker hanging over the center of the plate (this improves his pitch mix and ability to sequence, especially adding the up-and-in on lefties), use the curve as his primary pitch (he actually throws this for strikes at a higher rate than either of his heaters; this could give him a better look compared to being another orthodox pitcher with better/wilder movement), or just really work on refining his mechanics to get that fastball control (which would also improve his already great numbers with the cutter and change).

        I was re-watching the two games he started against the Brewers near the end of the year, and it seemed that his inability to go long into the games (7th inning or beyond) was due to having Arrieta-like bouts of wildness. I’m hoping this means he’ll have the stuff to go long if he gets that wildness tamed (but not too much). But all of these arguments are just ways of rationalizing my hopes and fears for a fandom that just had the best possible season. Maybe it’s time I can learn to relax a bit and, understanding that baseball is gonna be baseball, be happy if Monty stays healthy enough to pitch well in any capacity (for the Cubs, that is).

        Didn’t say so in my first comment, but you’re one of the best actual writers I’ve come across in any sports writing. Cheers!

        • I’m glad you didn’t put the last comment first because I’d probably have just skipped anything after. Thanks for that, though, I really appreciate the kind words. You make a very valid argument about the topic at hand and I can absolutely see that happening. But as much as I trust what you’re saying specifically, and the message writ large in the metrics, I will cling steadfastly to the idea that performance is largely influenced by psychological matters. That doesn’t mean MM is weak mentally, I just believe some guys are better suited to being able to bear down over longer stretches. Maybe he is that guy and being presented with a solid game plan and not being allowed to shake his catcher as often will improve him in that area.

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