Mike Montgomery: The Prospect Phoenix

Mike Montgomery is on fire. He has risen from the ashes of old Baseball America Prospect Handbooks to all of a sudden become a key piece of the Mariners’ rotation. Podhorzer tried to get you on board a month ago. Did you listen? You didn’t, I knew it. Well, you missed 38 innings of a 1.64 ERA and 0.89 WHIP including back-to-back shutouts. So the best is almost certainly behind him, but it’s not like he has to maintain a 1.64 ERA or he can’t be picked up. He could reasonably add two runs to his ERA and still be a plus asset delivering quality innings.

Remember, this is the former blue-chip prospect from the Royals who spent multiple years in the upper quarter of top 100 prospect lists industry-wide. He wasn’t the main piece in the Shields-Myers deal and Jake Odorizzi quickly passed him by in terms of value for the Rays in that deal, but Monty was an important piece for that deal at the time even on the heels of back-to-back ugly seasons. The Rays weren’t able to turn him around in the two years he spent with them, so he was traded for Erasmo Ramirez just before the season started (who is flourishing with Tampa Bay… a win-win deal thus far).

He wasn’t part of Seattle’s original plan, but injuries to Hisashi Iwakuma and James Paxton left big holes in the rotation so they turned to Montgomery. He made his MLB debut the day before Podhorzer’s piece came out and it was in line with the rest of his work so far as he went 6 IP/1 ER v. NYY. For the year, he has 44 innings of a 1.62 ERA. His 5.7 H/9 rate is amazing, but it’s nearly identical to his 5.9 K/9 rate which is something far less than amazing.

Montgomery was never a strikeout force in the minors, so his underwhelming 17% rate isn’t that surprising, but I don’t think we have a very clear read on where he will be at strikeout-wise given how much he’s fluctuated thus far: 4, 3, 4, 1, 10 (against KC, no less!), and 7. He has a swing-and-miss changeup that has the requisite 10 MPH split from his fastball with movement and unsurprisingly, it has accounted for 18 of his 29 strikeouts.

You gotta love a young lefty with a great change to combat the throngs of righties that most teams have throughout their lineups. With just a .333 OPS allowed in 40 PA, the changeup has been instrumental in Montgomery holding righties to a .167/.231/.217 line in 130 PA. Neither the fastball nor the curve is able to back up the change with even an average swing-and-miss rate which is why the overall strikeout rate lags despite a plus pitch in the arsenal.

Monty’s star dimmed as the strikeouts fell and the walks started to pile up. He had an 8% walk rate through his first three years as a pro (which isn’t great, but wasn’t a red flag, either). It jumped to 10% in 2011 and held there through 2013. It was at 9% last year before falling to 7% in 53 innings at Triple-A so far this year.

He has brought that with him to the majors, walking just 7% of the batters he’s faced thanks in large part to a 64% first-pitch strike rate. He sits firmly above the 61% league average rate and getting ahead has been a major part of his success. Staying out of trouble with free passes is a great way to get by without a huge strikeout rate. It’s not like he’s just pounding the zone throughout, though. He usually throws a first pitch fastball in the zone and then he is regularly out of the zone with the secondary stuff.

The league’s starters throw 47% of their pitches in the zone after first-pitch; Montgomery is at just 43%. Getting behind hasn’t really bothered Montgomery, either. After a 1-0 count, he’s allowing just a .636 OPS which ranks 15th among the 168 starters with 50 or more such PA. He’s in between Dallas Keuchel (.633) and Shelby Miller (.639) – not bad company.

That’s particularly interesting because I kinda thought his path to success might be similar to theirs, but they are flourishing with groundballs and loads of weak contact. Keuchel is on the elite end of both with a 65% groundball rate and 26% Soft% rate – both good for second in baseball. Miller might not rank as elite (top 5), but we’ll still go with “great” or “very good” as he’s 21st and 16th, respectively, with figures of 51% and 21%.

Montgomery doesn’t qualify for the leaderboards just yet, but even if he did, his 45% groundball rate and 16% Soft% rate wouldn’t register anywhere near elite or very good. The groundball rate is essentially average while the Soft% is actually a few ticks below (19%). The fact is, he doesn’t have one over-arching gameplan for success right now.

Sometimes it is the groundball-weak contact approach: he has three outings with a 50% or better GB rate and all yielded 22% or better Soft% marks. Sometimes it is the strikeout as we’ve seen in his last two including that remarkable 10-strikeout effort against his former franchise (KC). Sometimes it is flyballs and weak contact via the pop-up: when he faced his second former franchise (TB), he went 7 IP/2 ER with a 55% FB rate.

If you pick up (42% ESPN, 36% Yahoo!, 73% CBS) or already have Montgomery, I think that first-pitch strike rate can function as something of a confidence meter. He’s going to have some clunkers mixed in the rest of the way, that’s just a fact, but if that FPS% starts plummeting, then you know it’s time to worry. He isn’t blessed with overwhelming raw stuff, but he has more than enough to stay successful. I actually think he could adopt a more groundball-focused approach to continue the success, but I’ve been impressed with his ability to regularly retire batters in several different ways so maybe he needn’t fix what ain’t broken.

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Paul is the Editor of Rotographs and contributes to ESPN's Daily Notes. Follow Paul on Twitter @sporer and on Twitch at sporer.

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Sorry, Paul, but I see Monty as fool’s gold. His best traits going right now are BABIP, LOB%, and HR/FB, and none of those are remotely sustainable.