With the exception of anyone prescient enough to copyright “#2ELLOFF” or “#DEBT2ERVICE,” MLB’s offseason has been a glacially slow one thus far. But there has been one undeniable benefit for all fans: we now have the most accurate metric in baseball history for measuring the excitement level of a given year’s winter meetings…
|Year||Number of Ken Rosenthal Tweets About a Pissed Off Mike Montgomery|
|That time the Rangers signed A-Rod||0|
|When the Tigers acquired Cabrera||0|
It came a bit out of left field a couple weeks ago when the Rosenthal broke the news that Montgomery views the prospect of another year in the bullpen like he was Virginia McCaskey watching Marc Trestman gameplan for Aaron Rodgers.
And because the week was otherwise dominated by huge names like Brandon Morrow and Pat Neshek, Montgomery’s complaint became a bigger story than it otherwise would have been. Jed Hoyer was somewhat taken aback when confronted with the news, and the Cubs responded by giving Montgomery the worst punishment they could conceive: talking to Gordon Wittenmyer.
“I’m going to be nice. I’m not going to say trade me or else. I just want them to know I am serious about starting.
“I’ve always been team-first. But I don’t know if the role I’ve been doing the last few years is physically in my best interest. Going back and forth is really tough to do. I don’t think it’s much more than that.”
When reviewing his performance from last year, it appears that Montgomery might have something there. After being one of the most reliable bullpen arms and performing solidly as a swingman throughout most of 2017, things took a turn when he was called upon in October. In 4.1 postseason innings, Montgomery allowed a total of 14 hits, three homers, and eight earned runs.
Great Dave Smith’s ghost.
With that kind of performance, Montgomery’s entrance music should have been “Everybody Hurts.” The only good thing you can say about those numbers is that at least they didn’t show up in the 2016 World Series. If that Mike Montgomery had pitched Game 7, BP Wrigleyville would be introducing its new staff writers Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and David Foster Wallace.
It’s not too big a leap to believe that all of Montgomery’s bouncing back and forth between starting and relieving led to the kind of fatigue that produced those abominable numbers. There’s probably a limit to the number of times in a calendar year that the human arm can be stretched out to throw 80-100 pitches and then forced back into throwing high-stress innings every day.
And the Cubs bounced Montgomery around quite a bit in 2017. He began the season in relief and was frequently used for multi-inning stints. Through his first 15 games, Michael Martinez’s Greatest Nightmare averaged just under two innings per appearance. As the end of May approached, Joe Maddon defined his role even more precisely as Eddie Butler’s swingman reliever and Montgomery delivered two appearances of 4.0 and 3.1 scoreless innings in this capacity.
But thanks to Kyle Hendricks’s bizarre middle finger injury (Hey guys, it turns out he does have an emotion!), Montgomery found himself in the starting rotation from June 9 through July 19. He offered up 43.1 innings of widely varying quality, amassing a 5.19 ERA during his starts. And despite a few great performances, this proved to be his most ineffective period of the season.
Well…up until the most important games of the year. Sigh.
After The Professor was reactivated, Montgomery was shuttled back to the bullpen for the next month. It was a return to heavy usage and effectiveness, as the erstwhile starter racked up a 2.76 ERA and 16.1 innings over his next eight appearances. He appeared to be settling into the role of multi-inning reliever right up until Jon Lester hit the DL on August 17 with fatigue of giving up nine runs to the Reds.
Suddenly, Montgomery was a starting pitcher again for five of his next six appearances. And while he was much more consistent this time around (a 2.89 ERA and .542 Opponent OPS over 28.0 innings), you couldn’t blame him for feeling like his left arm was just cast in a reboot of Split.
It’s understandable that Montgomery would look back and conclude that his ghastly postseason was at least partly due to bouncing back and forth among multi-inning reliever, game finisher, and emergency starter. With the Cubs calling on him to relieve in October after pitching 130.2 innings during the regular season, perhaps they shouldn’t have been surprised by the disaster that followed. Except…
As noted above, there was no hint in his performance that he was about to go The Full Marmol. From the day the Cubs returned from the All-Star Break until the end of the season, Montgomery’s numbers were sterling. His second-half ERA was 2.95 and he allowed a .194/.273/.313 opposing slashline. He was pitching at the top of his game over a full two and a half months of baseball, although a .212 BABIP and 20 walks in 61 innings indicated that he was due for some regression.
In retrospect, it turned out he was due for all the regression.
Montgomery in the playoffs was like that moment when Henry Rowengartner lands on his arm after slipping on a baseball and suddenly discovers that he doesn’t have his fastball anymore. Or, if you prefer a different Rookie of the Year metaphor, Montgomery’s postseason was what would happen if Gary Busey was a stat.
So maybe instead, the combination of Montgomery’s inconsistent role and peripherals should have been a red flag for Cubs decision makers when the calendar turned to October and they should have kept a closer eye on him in case things went south. That certainly feels like a logical conclusion. Except…
Montgomery also performed in this hybrid role during the 2016 season. And all that did was put him in position to throw the most important pitch in the history of the Cubs franchise.
A perusal of Montgomery’s usage pattern from that glorious year reveals several similarities to last season. As in 2017, Montgomery began the year in the bullpen performing a role where he was frequently asked to pitch multiple innings (16 of his first 30 appearances lasted longer than 1.0 IP). Eventually, the Mariners stretched him out and asked him to start two games in July before deciding the only way he could fulfill his destiny as World Series Hero was to send him to Chicago.
As you remember, he began his Cubs career shuttled back to relief for his first seven appearances. He was then promoted to start again in mid-August when Joe Maddon decided to go with a six-man rotation after he bet Chris Bosio 20 bucks that he could make John Lackey spontaneously combust.
For the next month, Montgomery made five starts covering a total of 24.1 innings. He was then sent back to the bullpen for the final weeks of the season to prepare him for his role in October. Overall, he ended up pitching a more than healthy 100.0 innings in 2016.
And while he only made seven starts, he made an equal number of transitions between the rotation and the bullpen as he would in 2017. Yet once the 2016 postseason rolled around, Montgomery was one of the most valuable and trusted members of the Cubs’ bullpen, putting up ERAs of 1.69 in the NLDS and 1.93 in the World Series.
All of this is not to say that there’s no validity to Montgomery’s claim. Perhaps he started to feel the cumulative effects of the swingman role after being bounced around repeatedly for two consecutive years. And some supporting evidence for this idea showed up in his velocity readings, which dropped 1.5 mph from the 2016 postseason on his four-seam (93.53 to 92.0) and 1.7 mph on his sinker (93.71 to 92.05).
Even with that in mind, though, it should be noted that Montgomery’s 2017 velocity was consistently down from 2016 in every month. And he managed to make it work just fine right up until he had to assume the herculean task of pitching to Justin Turner while trying to ignore the Death Eater in the front row that had taken the form of Larry King.
While he might not want to hear it, Montgomery is such a talented pitcher that he can excel on both sides of the swingman role. And he has already proven in the past that he is more than capable of performing said role for an entire season and continuing to thrive in the playoffs and World Series.
It’s completely understandable that Montgomery would want the challenge of a full-time spot in the starting rotation. And after the Cubs gave three years to Tyler Chatwood, you couldn’t blame Montgomery for showing up outside Theo Epstein’s office window with a boombox playing “You Oughta Know.”
As he said, going back and forth between the bullpen and the rotation is really difficult. But it didn’t prevent him from becoming one of the biggest postseason pitching heroes in Cub history. And that’s one role that will never change.
Lead photo courtesy Kim Klement—USA Today Sports