Jordan Montgomery Needs to Figure Out His Fastball Problem

© Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees starting rotation sits in an odd position while rosters are frozen during the owner’s lockout. No one can question Gerrit Cole’s dominance as the team ace, but after him, there are some real concerns about the health of the rest of the rotation. Luis Severino returned from Tommy John surgery to pitch in four relief appearances in 2021 plus one additional outing in the American League Wild Card game. Jameson Taillon’s season ended prematurely after he tore a ligament in his ankle, and his previous health history isn’t exactly spotless. It’s hard to know what to expect from Nestor Cortes or Domingo Germán either. That leaves Jordan Montgomery as the presumed number two starter behind Cole.

Montgomery missed nearly two seasons after his own Tommy John surgery back in 2018. He returned to the mound late in 2019 and struggled through the abbreviated ’20 season. Last year, he put together his most complete season of his short career, posting a career-best 3.69 FIP while accumulating 3.3 WAR. It was a solid performance in his first true full season since his rookie campaign back in 2017.

Ignoring his four-inning cup of coffee in 2019, Montgomery posted the highest strikeout rate of his career last season. Nearly all of those punch outs are fueled by two phenomenal secondary pitches. Both his changeup and curveball feature whiff rates around 40% and he uses both to dispatch batters. When the count gets to two strikes, he throws one of those two pitches over 60% of the time and opposing batters can’t help but swing and miss.

With a foundation built on two elite pitches, the only thing holding Montgomery back are his fastballs. He throws two different types of fastballs (depending on how you classify cutters; his is more of a cutter/slider hybrid than a true cut fastball). For most of his career, he relied on his sinker as his primary pitch, with his four-seamer used sparingly. Three quarters of his pitch mix was made up of his sinker, changeup, and curveball with a mix of four-seamers and cutters making up the rest. The problem is opposing batters simply crush his hard stuff:

Jordan Montgomery’s Fastball Results
Pitch Type Whiff% CSW% Zone% GB% Hard Hit% xwOBAcon
Sinker 11.6% 28.3% 56.9% 50.0% 42.6% .401
Four-seam 19.1% 22.4% 45.6% 17.9% 50.0% .414

The only metrics above that are better than league average for the given pitch type are his sinker’s called and swinging strike rate, zone rate, and groundball rate. No matter how you slice it, neither of his fastballs are all that good.

Montgomery recognizes that this is an area where he needs to improve. In a September interview, he told Lindsay Adler of The Athletic that “one of my goals was to just get my heater better.”

“I felt like that was the one thing that was holding me back from being top-tier. Sometimes, it’s just me not being loose on the mound when I need to throw it. Like, I just need to relax and trust it, but it’s hard to let that go. It’s just something that I need to be confident in to execute.”

To his credit, it looks like Montgomery was at least trying to tinker with his two fastballs late last season. Here’s what his pitch mix looked like last year:

Beginning with his start on September 10, Montgomery started to feature his four-seamer around a quarter of the time, essentially swapping the usage with his sinker. Those final five starts were a mixed bag; in two of them, he allowed seven runs, but he held the opposing team to just a single run in the other three. Combined, he ended up posting a 4.38 FIP in those starts, though his xFIP was a much more interesting 3.36. With the usage of his two fastballs flipped, it’s unsurprising to see that his groundball rate fell to just 32.3% to finish out the season. Despite all that additional contact in the air, his four-seamer featured an expected wOBA on contact of just .287 in those five starts.

Looking at the physical characteristics of the two pitches doesn’t really help us discern which one might be better.

Jordan Montgomery’s Fastball Characteristics
Pitch Type Velocity V Mov H Mov
Sinker 92.4 (44) 19.8 (30) 15.5 (54)
Four-seam 92.6 (32) 15.3 (46) 7.4 (49)
Percentile rank in parenthesis

Both heaters have pretty average movement profiles. His four-seamer has a bit of cut to it, likely imparted by inefficient back spin on the pitch. His sinker has decent horizontal movement to it, but it just doesn’t sink all that much.

Both of those clusters fall a little too close to the “line of normality” to really stand out in any way. His four-seamer has enough ride to it that it deviates from the norm a bit more than his plain sinker, but it’s not enough to make it all that unique. He was able to locate that pitch up in the zone with regularity, which, combined with its shape, led to a ton of weak fly ball contact and popups.

So with two plus secondary weapons and two thoroughly mediocre fastballs, what’s the path forward for Montgomery? As he told Adler:

“Really, I’ve just got two plus-pitches that I’ve needed to use more. I’ve gotten caught up in fastball usage and all that. But even Gerrit [Cole], guys who throw 100 give up hits on their fastballs. So I’m just trying to figure out when to use my best pitches more, and I’ve learned a lot about sequencing and tunneling my pitches, and I think I’m getting closer and closer to figuring out what I do best.”

Flipping the usage of his fastballs might have been step one towards figuring it out. After all, he allowed a whopping .412 wOBA off his sinker in 2021. But perhaps Montgomery needs to go beyond simply reducing the frequency of that pitch; could he optimize his usage of both fastballs based on the type of batter he’s facing? Ben Clemens looked into this kind of optimization a few weeks ago. To a certain extent, Montgomery was already doing this. To batters with high groundball rates, his sinker made up 68% of the fastballs he threw. When facing batters with fly-ball tendencies, that rate fell to 62%. That’s a start, but he could take it even further in an effort to really maximize the effectiveness of his heaters.

Montgomery has a fantastic foundation to build off of with his changeup and curveball. Those two pitches give him a floor that should look pretty similar to his 2021 season. But to raise his ceiling, he’ll need to figure out how to best use his two fastballs. It’s a problem with no easy answers, but he’s shown a willingness to make adjustments when needed.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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George Resormember
11 months ago

I like the idea of optimizing fastball type usage by the types of batters he is facing. Sinkers have a strong handedness platoon split so Montgomery should also take batter handedness into account.