Jordan Montgomery Has Been the Best Deadline Acquisition in Baseball

Jordan Montgomery
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Jordan Montgomery wasn’t the biggest name traded at the trading deadline, not by a long shot. Juan Soto got traded this deadline! So did Luis Castillo and Frankie Montas. The latter was even traded to Montgomery’s team, setting in motion the trade that sent him to St. Louis. But since the deadline, no player has done more for their new team than New York’s former lefty.

Last night, Montgomery put together his fourth straight gem for the Cardinals, throwing a one-hit shutout on 99 pitches, both the first complete game of his career and the second Maddux in the majors this year. The Cardinals needed every bit of it, with their bullpen taxed, their offense quieted by the Cubs, and the rival Brewers winning in Los Angeles. That brought his post-trade record to 4–0 and set up this delightfully obscure statistic:

I don’t think we’re in for Montgomania anytime soon, comparisons to Valenzuela notwithstanding; statistics like that are more interesting for novelty than for making player comparisons. But the Cardinals’ deadline acquisitions — Montgomery and José Quintana — have backed an August explosion by twin MVP candidates Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado and the resurgent Albert Pujols, allowing St. Louis to take the reins in the race for the NL Central.

When the Cardinals traded for Montgomery, they trailed the Brewers by three games for the division lead. Our playoff odds gave them a 19.1% chance of capturing the division — not quite their lowest mark of the year, but not far from it either. Since then, to put it mildly, things have gotten better:

Montgomery and Quintana have each started four games; the Cardinals have gone 8–0 in those games. But there’s a reason “team record in games started by a pitcher” isn’t on their FanGraphs page: it’s not a great statistic. In Quintana’s four starts, for example, the Redbirds have scored 27 runs. He’s just showing up and collecting royalties, more or less. But Montgomery has faced a significantly tougher task, with the Cardinals scoring only ten runs in his four starts. Turns out, that’s all he’s needed:

Montgomery’s St. Louis Starts
Date Opponent Result
8/6 Yankees Win, 1-0
8/12 Brewers Win, 3-1
8/17 Rockies Win, 5-1
8/22 Cubs Win, 1-0

For lack of a better word, that’s ludicrous. While Quintana’s statistics have been solid — if you told John Mozeliak he’d get a 3.20 ERA and 3.52 FIP from Quintana, he’d be quite pleased — Montgomery’s have been otherworldly. I wasn’t exaggerating up above; no player traded at the deadline has accrued more WAR since August 3:

Traded Player WAR Leaderboard
Player Team WAR
Jordan Montgomery Cardinals 1.1
Emmanuel Rivera Diamondbacks 0.8
Luis Castillo Mariners 0.6
Juan Soto Padres 0.5
Andrew Benintendi Yankees 0.5
Noah Syndergaard Phillies 0.5

I cut the list off at half a win, but you get the idea. It’s hard to add that much value to your team in short order, because baseball is inherently a game of small edges and randomness. The best players in the game might produce one win above replacement per 20 team games — an 8 WAR pace for the season. There are fluctuations around that — baseball is also a game of streaks — but that still shows how impressive Montgomery has been. There’s also the small matter of his 0.35 ERA; if you go by RA9 WAR, he’s been even better, totaling 1.9 wins in these four starts.

How has he done it? To some extent, he’s done it by luck. Opponents are batting .206 on balls in play against him, and while the Cardinals have the best infield defense in baseball by a mile, they’ve still allowed a .281 BABIP on the year. He’s also stranded 94.1% of runners who have reached base; for context, league average hovers around 72% year in and year out.

But just because Montgomery has been fortunate doesn’t mean he hasn’t also been excellent. Every facet of his game has improved since joining St. Louis. Strikeouts? He’s punched out 26.4% of opponents in these four starts. He’s walked only 3.3%, an elite mark. He hasn’t given up a home run, which is a sure sign of good fortune, but he also hasn’t given up much hard contact.

Think of it this way: to hit a home run, you have to hit the ball a)hard and b)in the air. Montgomery has allowed exactly three balls hit over 100 mph and with a launch angle of 15 degrees or higher, two marks you almost always need to clear to hit a home run. One of those was even a smashed pop up that landed in shallow center field. Sure, Montgomery will give up more homers than he has, but the way he’s pitching right now, he’s not going to surrender many.

The secret has been better location, at least partially. Montgomery is throwing fewer pitches over the heart of the plate in St. Louis and more around the periphery of the zone. He’s making it harder on batters, and getting more grounders out of it, which works quite well with the defense behind him. One development worth monitoring: with the Cardinals, Montgomery has used his four-seam fastball more often as a counter to his normal sinker. It’s below average movement-wise and doesn’t miss many bats, so I’m curious to see whether that trend will continue, but it’s worked well so far, generating plenty of weak contact as batters sit on sinkers and adjust poorly to the four-seamer.

I’ll level with you: I thought the Montgomery trade showed hubris on the part of the Cardinals’ front office when they made it. Trading away from the major league team, even if it was just an injured outfielder, didn’t make much sense to me given St. Louis’ precarious position in the division race. I would have preferred to trade from minor league depth and keep as much talent on this year’s major league roster as possible.

That might still be true in the abstract. If the Yankees would have accepted a minor leaguer in exchange for Montgomery, I’d prefer that trade. But the Yankees wanted Bader, and let’s put it this way: you could ask every Cardinals fan in the world if they’d make this trade, and 100% would do it again. Jordan Montgomery has arrived in St. Louis, and for now, it looks like he’s bringing the playoffs with him.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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1 year ago

Gosh I love Gumby so much. I lay awake in bed every night wondering why in the world Cashman made this deal- it makes no sense to me. I’m sure Bader is great, but the level of hubris to trade Monty away, when you can never have enough starting pitching – is absolutely absurd to me. And now we’re looking at a situation with a thinning bullpen and arms falling off left and right.

1 year ago
Reply to  jankees1991

I thought it was a strange deal at the time, given that Bader was hurt. At the time I chalked it up to the ridiculous shortage of center fielders these days. But maybe the Yankees really thought he had changed, with his strikeouts being down.

But…I don’t know, I’m looking at his statcast page and if there was a big change I’m not seeing it. If a simple change in pitch mix turns him back into the guy he was in 2021 that doesn’t reflect well on the Yankees.

1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

The guy Bader was in 2021 was a Gold Glove winning centerfielder with a 114 OPS+ and solidly above average power for the position. I mean shit, he was worth 3-4 WAR in 104 games. If he turns back into that guy, the Yankees will be absolutely thrilled and the trade will be a true win-win.

1 year ago
Reply to  LoafyTrophy

I am a huge Bader fan because I think there are relatively few center fielders who can adequately field the position and hit anything close to league average, and only a handful who are truly plus there. With Cain retired and Kiermaier seemingly permanently injured, it’s just Bader and Buxton who you could even call elite there.

That said, Bader was hurt and there was no expectation he would be back before September and there was no guarantee he was going to be back at all this year. And Bader’s offensive output in 2021 was a bit exaggerated (see his xwOBA)–he’s more of a league average hitter than a solidly above-average one. Which isn’t to say he’s an incredibly valuable player, because if he makes it to free agency teams will be all over him, but his value this year is iffy.

None of this would be an issue if it weren’t that Montgomery was their second-best starter as recently as 2021. Looking at the statcast page it is really hard to see how he was different, and with his issues being solved largely by a change in pitch mix I think they may have just overthought this.

Alex Remingtonmember
1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

You can add Michael Harris II to that list!

1 year ago
Reply to  Alex Remington

You know when I first saw him I was totally in that camp, but the more I look at him and his statcast numbers I’m thinking he’s probably more plus than an elite 70 or 80 grade defender along the lines of Bader, Buxton, and Kiermaier.

I did leave off Myles Straw and Jose Siri who are the two best center field defenders this year but their hitting is just so bad.

random Colorado guy
1 year ago
Reply to  jankees1991

I’m a big Bader fan, and if he was healthy, it would be worth while in the long run to give up a back-of-the-rotation workhorse to get him. But (1) he’s not healthy and (2) right now, Montgomery doesn’t look like just an innings eater. I too wonder what was in Cashman’s mind.

Pepper Martin
1 year ago
Reply to  jankees1991

As a Yankees fan this trade absolutely drove me insane. Even when he’s not doing a Clayton Kershaw impression, he’s a solid 3-4 starter for a playoff team, which is absolutely not something you just throw away! Especially for a center fielder who isn’t meaningfully better than Aaron Hicks!

1 year ago
Reply to  Pepper Martin

At this point, Bader might be better than Aaron Hicks right now, since at least Bader isn’t taking up a roster spot.

Pepper Martin
1 year ago

Hicks is cooked, but he’s put up a .335 OBP this year, which is better than Donaldson, Torres, Stanton, Kiner-Falefa, any of the catchers, etc. And his defensive numbers aren’t terrible.

1 year ago
Reply to  Pepper Martin

Maybe not offensively, but Bader is much better than Hicks defensively.