Lest We Forget, Frankie Montas

Frankie Montas
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

FanGraphs’ Top 50 free agents of the 2024 offseason went live on Thursday, and you might have noticed a starting pitcher or 20 among the group. Even though Shohei Ohtani won’t fit the description until 2025, the top of the market is just brimming with rotation talent, from Aaron Nola to Cy Young finalists Blake Snell and Sonny Gray, playoff hero Jordan Montgomery, and Japanese phenoms Yoshinobu Yamamoto and Shota Imanaga. And the list goes on; beyond the cream of the crop are plentiful second and third tiers. Suffice to say, the market will be active this winter.

Amidst all the fray, a 30-year-old who finished sixth in the Cy Young voting two years ago will have comparably little attention on him. Frankie Montas lost almost all of 2023 to surgery on his right throwing shoulder, returning on the final weekend of the regular season to get four outs – and a win – for the Yankees in Kansas City on September 30.

The difference between losing a whole season and losing a whole season less one game might mean quite a bit to a potential suitor in free agency. That Montas worked his way back from the surgery, rehabbed for two games in Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, and was healthy enough to get into a big league game gives some confidence that he’ll be ready for 2024. And while he threw all of 26 pitches in his only big-league outing, he topped out at 95.6 mph on his sinker and 95.0 on his four-seamer, which felt like at least some evidence of his health:

He got a pair of outs on the splitter that had emerged as a signature in 2021, including this swinging strikeout of Logan Porter:

It would be a good bit of overreaction to say that Montas’ return to a big league mound was reminiscent of his successes with Oakland, or anything like that; it wasn’t even a strong outing. But his presence alone was at least a bit of a statement, and despite a lengthier recovery than Montas or the Yankees may have expected, Aaron Boone was complimentary of his efforts to make it back to being game-ready. It’s entirely within reason that with a full Spring Training, Montas will be able to regain his top form or somewhere close in 2024.

It can also be easy to forget how strong Montas was during his best stretches in Oakland. From the start of the 2021 season through the end of his time there, he ranked ninth in the majors with 291.2 innings, posting a 3.30 ERA, 3.37 FIP, and 3.49 xFIP. Since 2019, he’s been worth 9.4 WAR over 481.2 innings — a pace of 3.9 per 200 IP. That’s not to say he hasn’t had his trouble; the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, in particular, was none too pretty. We shouldn’t overreact and call his free agency anything more than what it is. But his pre-2023 resume is enough that, if a team could be sure of his health, he could be a steal towards the lower end of the market on a shorter-term deal.

Montas’ Stats Since 2019
Season Team Level Age G GS IP ERA FIP xFIP WAR
2019 OAK MLB 26 16 16 96.0 2.63 3.00 3.47 3.0
2020 OAK MLB 27 11 11 53.0 5.60 4.74 4.36 0.4
2021 OAK MLB 28 32 32 187.0 3.37 3.37 3.64 4.0
2022 OAK MLB 29 19 19 104.2 3.18 3.35 3.20 1.9
2022 NYY MLB 29 8 8 39.2 6.35 4.93 4.68 0.1
2023 NYY MLB 30 1 0 1.1 0.00 4.01 4.01 0.0

If the production weren’t enough to sell Montas’ case, his Statcast contact profile suggests he didn’t exactly stumble into this success in 2021 and ’22. In his last full season, he ranked in the 71st percentile in average exit velocity at 87.6 mph and the 78th in hard-hit percentage at 34.2%. His chase percentage was even better, in the 86th percentile at 33.2%, thanks to that splitter. That helped him manage a 23.4% strikeout rate and 7.1% walk rate, both above average, albeit not by a whole lot.

When things are going right, this is how Montas operates: he gets swings on pitches on or outside the edges of the zone, inducing a lot of bad contact, and most of it on the ground. His pitch mix — the sinker, four-seamer, and splitter alongside a slider and a newish cutter — plays well on the shadow of the plate, where he generated a run value of +15 in 2022 and a remarkable +37 in 2021, the second-highest total that season after only Walker Buehler, with 36 of those runs generated on swings. Montas doesn’t hit the edges all that much more than the league average or get that many more swings there, but he’s able to generate a lot of value when he does.

Montas’ Run Value, 2021-22
Zone Swing Take Total
Heart -17.4 15.3 -2.2
Shadow 53.9 -1.8 52.1
Chase 28.4 -46.0 -17.6
Waste 5.3 -26.6 -21.3
Total 70.2 -59.1 11.0
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

That splitter is the type of weapon that can carry an arsenal. Among the 604 pitches that have been thrown as many as 1,000 times since the start of 2021, it ranks 10th with a .190 wOBA against and ninth with a .199 xwOBA. Of the more than 500 pitches that have been swung at 500 times in that time, it ranks 22nd with a 44.0% swing-and-miss rate. If Montas is able to maintain his velocity and continue to pull the string on the splitter, that’s a recipe for success.

Top Pitches by xwOBA, 2021-23
Player Pitch Type xwOBA
1 Corbin Burnes Curveball .156
2 Triston McKenzie Curveball .164
3 Will Smith Slider .175
4 Sonny Gray Sweeper .181
5 Emmanuel Clase Slider .184
6 Max Fried Curveball .189
7 Germán Márquez Knuckle Curve .190
8 Andrés Muñoz Slider .193
9 Frankie Montas Split-Finger .199
10 Spencer Strider Slider .200
SOURCE: Statcast

As Montas gets into his 30s and his fastball velocity trends down, it’ll be interesting to see if he picks up use of his cutter, which has been an interesting complement since he introduced it in 2021. He throws it a few ticks lower than the four-seamer and sinker at around 90 mph, and it cuts 4.0 inches to the glove side, almost twice as much as the league average. He threw it just 8.3% of the time in 2022, but it led to hard contact on just 21.4% of batted balls and an average exit velocity of 83.3 mph. His slider hasn’t been particularly strong in the last few years, but the cutter gives him another useful weapon to his glove side.

Montas’ biggest barrier is his health, both because of the risk itself and because it makes him harder to evaluate with limited data from last season. But for a player who has been through some ups and downs, he is only 30 — the same age as Nola, Snell, Montgomery, and Eduardo Rodriguez. While the shoulder surgery is a concern, there’s plenty of room for him to return to some version of his past self and help a team in the near term. Whether that team will get the best version of Montas or something shy of it is anyone’s guess.

Given the sheer quantity of starting pitching talent on the market this winter, it’s a tough year to try to sell your services when you’re coming off a mostly lost season. There is heaps of risk to signing a player whose second-most recent appearance was 14 months ago. But there’s also loads of risk involved in playing at the upper levels of the starting pitching market, and higher-stakes risk at that. Montas will likely have to be patient and let the market settle around him, but I would be less than surprised if his next contract is looking like a bargain before long.

Chris is a data journalist and FanGraphs contributor. Prior to his career in journalism, he worked in baseball media relations for the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox.

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3 months ago

If you would have asked me how many years older is Aaron Nola than Frankie Montas, I probably would have said eight. That’s wild.