The Cubs and Mets were tied 4-4 with two outs in the top of the 7th Friday afternoon and the visitors had lefty-batting stud Jeff McNeil coming to the plate. Those unfamiliar with McNeil might think I’m being sarcastic, but dude’s batting .341 with an .898 OPS and has actually been better against lefty pitchers.
So of course the right call is to lift Brad Brach in favor of a southpaw there. Well, the first part of that isn’t such a bad idea, since Brach hasn’t been all that dependable this season. But bringing Mike Montgomery into the game was not one of Joe Maddon‘s best moves.
While McNeil’s splits alone are reason enough not to bring on a lefty, Montgomery’s performance against left-handed hitters this season is cringe-worthy. He’s been more or less an even-split guy in the past, which is why he’s done well as a swingman or long reliever. So far in 2019, however, Monty has been beyond terrible against lefties.
He’s pitching to a 1.409 OPS and .563 wOBA, which is unacceptable even though we’re only talking about 27 batters faced. Hence the lack of surprise when McNeil singled to drive in the game-winning run.
So what gives, why has Monty been so ineffective this season? And this isn’t just against left-handed hitters, either. His career-low 6.16 K/9 combines with a career-high 4.26 BB/9 and a 1.42 HR/9 (nearly double his 0.79 mark coming into the season) to make him wholly unreliable in any situation, let alone a LOOGY role.
With full understanding that Montgomery’s stats are culled from a small sample due to a lat issue that landed him on the IL for more than a month, this isn’t just a fluke. He came into the season with a goal to throw harder again, getting his fastball up closer to the mid-90’s velocity he’d displayed since high school. He was sitting around 94 mph in 2016, when he was traded to the Cubs, but that had dropped to 92 over the two following seasons.
Montgomery’s four-seam is being thrown a little harder this season, though he’s still just below 93 mph. His changeup has likewise gained a tick, to the point that he’s throwing it harder than ever (84.5). That appears to have come at a cost, however, since he’s getting less drop on it than in any previous season and isn’t fooling hitters.
But while that helps explain some of his overall performance, it can’t tell us much about why Monty is struggling against lefties in particular. After all, he only throws those batters a changeup about 10% of the time. For more on what’s causing these numbers, we need to look at the pitch McNeil tagged for a single.
The two-seam is Montgomery’s go-to pitch, comprising 38% of his overall mix this season and 47% of what he throws to lefty batters. He has gotten the velocity up slightly (92.7), though it’s still nearly 2 mph lower than in 2016 (94.5). The real trouble is that the pitch is flatter than ever and his location has been off to boot.
Take a look at the chart below, which displays the horizontal and vertical movement of Monty’s sinker on a year-by-year basis. Though it’s not as easy to discern the specifics axes due to the overlay, the important thing here is the very apparent trends toward less movement.
We can see the effects of that lack of movement in Montgomery’s sinker location to lefties, which has changed dramatically this season. Where he once used to run the pitch down and away, he’s now leaving it right out over the plate. Still down, just far more predictable.
The lefty is throwing fewer first pitch strikes and he’s working in the zone less than ever, which means he’s getting behind in the count and is throwing more get-me-over pitches to catch up. Or at least that’s how it appears from the outside, though it’s unfair to assume that he’s out there throwing with timidity.
This sure doesn’t look like the uber-confident pitcher who tossed desks around in Seattle when he wasn’t part of the rotation or who’s told anyone in Chicago who will listen that he deserves to start. Even if his role on a bigger scale is somewhat open to debate, I think we can say for certain that Montgomery is not a LOOGY. Like, at all. And using him as such is harmful to the team on a number of levels.
That should change as Craig Kimbrel arrives and pushes everyone into more comfortable roles, though there’s still a question of whether Montgomery might benefit from a change of scenery. He had reportedly asked for a trade prior to last season if he couldn’t be part of the Cubs’ rotation and he’d certainly have more value as a starter than as a misused reliever. At the same time, we’ve seen how good he can be as a swingman and the Cubs loath to part with anyone at a discount.
If Montgomery is to be effective, whether in Chicago or elsewhere, he’s going to need to work some things out with his sinker and change. Neither is moving well and his location has been poor, to say the least. A lefty who’s pitching to alarming reverse splits isn’t going to be able to hold down a spot for long no matter how he’s deployed.
So here’s to hoping the ability to pitch in lower-leverage situations helps Montgomery to rediscover something in his mechanics or his approach. Beyond that, let’s hope Maddon realizes that just going lefty-lefty isn’t a great bullpen strategy.