Bend And Change Is The New Twist And Crawl

Mike Montgomery is something of a weird study. It’s hard to judge just how vital he is to the Cubs’ success this year. He’s not a starter, and he’s not a closer (except for that one time), and yet he may end up being more important than a reliever. And the hunch says you’re going to see more of him this season. Given that two of the holdovers in the rotation–Lester and Hendricks–both saw DL time last year, and that Tyler Chatwood has never carried a full starter’s load over a season, and Darvish is still not totally removed from Tommy John, I think the Cubs are going to use a six-man rotation more often than we might think. Also, when they’re not, Monty might see more two- and three-inning stints out of the pen now that Maddon knows that’s a toy that will work. And we know how Maddon gets about his toys. He vibrates on that frequency, man.

The difference for Montgomery between starting and relieving last year was walks. I think it’s strange that Monty walked way fewer guys as a starter than he did as a reliever, but then again I tend to see the world in odd colors. Out of the pen, Monty walked five guys per nine innings, which is over double what you’d find acceptable. In fact, it was 10th worst among all qualified relievers. What’s weird is that the first time through the order as a starter, Montgomery’s walk rate was 1.39 per nine, which is pretty good. As a reliever, which sometimes was only a batter or two at a time,¬†of course, it was 5.15. Why should that be?

One explanation might be the change in attack when Monty starts versus when he comes out of the pen. When starting, the use of his curve and change drops. Coming out of the pen last year, Monty threw his curve 27.4 percent of the time. When he started it dropped to 20.6 percent. The difference in the change isn’t as pronounced when he switches from relieving to starting: from 14.2 percent to 11.6. But it’s there.

That doesn’t really explain it though, because his strike percentage is higher on the curve and change than it is with his sinker or four-seam, and he gets far more swings and misses with off-speed stuff than he does with his fastball. And that might be where the real key to his success could be.

Last year, for pitchers who threw over 100 innings, Montgomery had one of the more effective change-ups in the game. It was 19th in value out of 134 pitchers who crossed that threshold. Again, 100 innings is kind of a weird total, because it’s more than relievers will throw but less than starters who don’t get hurt for any length of time throw. It’s a nether region, and as we all know you shouldn’t hang out in the nether regions. But to amass that value in less time is certainly an antihistamine total (not to be sneezed at. GONG!) Looking around at this around him, he doesn’t throw the change as much as a lot of them. His teammate, Kyle Hendricks, whose change was 16th in value, threw is 28 percent of the time. Danny Duffy threw it 22 percent of the time. Cole Hamels threw a change 20 percent of the time. Granted, Duffy and Hamels throw harder than Monty, and he might feel there isn’t enough of a gap between his fastball and his change, but you can see where more established pitchers are thinking. Chase Anderson is another who threw his change more often, as did Stephen Strasburg, and Montgomery’s change was only slightly less valuable than theirs. Monty’s 36.2 whiff/swing percentage on it is certainly something you take notice of. That’s higher than his teammate Hendricks gets, for comparison’s sake.

On the flip side, sorta, Montgomery’s change has more horizontal movement than those mentioned, but not the same drop. Which probably explains why righties found it to be Copperfield-like, whiffing at nearly 40% on swings, whereas lefties only whiffed at 8.3%. So that’s half the equation. Still, you see more righties than you do lefties, we know this because of the Leftorium episode of the Simpsons.

Monty’s curve is no less a mystery to hitters, who swing and miss at it a third of the time on the swings they take. Montgomery lost something off his curve last year, as it lost both horizontal and vertical movement from 2016. Maybe that’s why he didn’t use it as much last year. But in 2016, Monty’s curve had the eighth most value in MLB. He threw it then about a quarter of the time, but some others around him like Trevor Bauer and Jared Eickhoff threw it nearer to a third of the time. His curve was a weapon to all hitters, as lefties whiffed on it on 35% of their swings and righties something of a staggering 43%. Some of the best curves in the game don’t even reach that. Rich Hill for example only got 28% of whiffs on swings on his curve, and we know what people think of his. Verlander was at about 22% for hitters on both sides of the plate. If he can find it again, it’s a real weapon.

So it appears the key for Montgomery is to get his curve and change working at the same time, and to throw them each a little more often whether he’s coming out of the pen or starting. If he does that, he’ll probably get him his wish of starting somewhere sooner rather than later.

Lead photo courtesy Jayne Kamin-Oncea—USA Today Sports

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