The Impact of Yu Darvish on Mike Montgomery on the Cubs

Mike Montgomery is an asset to the Cubs both in relief and as rotation depth.
(Photo: Arturo Pardavila III)

So far this offseason, the Chicago Cubs have signed seven free-agent pitchers. That’s a lot. (According to ESPN Stats & Information, it’s actually the second-most ever behind the 2001 Rangers.) You may have heard of one of them: Yu Darvish.

Travis Sawchik has already written about who Darvish is as a pitcher, and how he and the Cubs needed each other, and I agree with most of that. I want to write about something else — namely, the signing’s impact on Chicago’s bullpen, and how it’s really rather bad news for one rather excellent pitcher: Michael Paul Montgomery.

The big reason for that, of course, is that Montgomery was, prior to Saturday’s news, projected as Chicago’s fifth starter. Following Sunday’s news, meanwhile, Montgomery is now projected as Guy Who Joe Maddon Uses for More Relief Innings Than You’d Exepect.

This second role was actually the one Montgomery played for much of 2017, throwing out of the bullpen in 30 out of 44 appearances, and averaging a bit over two innings in those games. Seven times, he pitched three or more innings in relief. Once, he threw 4.1 innings. No pitcher in the game who recorded as many relief innings also threw more innings per relief appearance in 2017.

All that pitching (when you add in his 14 starts, Montgomery threw by far the most innings of any player who appeared in relief in at least 50% of his appearances) and especially all that switching back and forth between the bullpen and the rotation began to wear on Montgomery. In early December, The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported that Montgomery had expressed a clear desire to stay in the rotation in 2018.

That won’t happen now, and that’s a shame for him. But it’s good news for the Cubs, who in one move replaced Montgomery with Darvish in the rotation, your pick of Adbert Alzolay/Eddie Butler/Luke Farrell with Montgomery as rotation depth, and your favorite bad Cubs reliever with Also Montgomery as a reliever.

The Cubs were uniquely positioned to take advantage of an upgrade in their starting rotation, because Montgomery — unlike most other players used as either bullpen or rotational depth — can stay in the big leagues and contribute while still serving as depth. No need for constant shuttling between Triple-A and Wrigley.

That’s a particularly big deal for the Cubs, because Maddon has a puzzling and frequently infuriating tendency to trust only one or two relievers for whole stretches at a time, going to them for far longer, and with far more frequency, than one might typically expect. Montgomery is on the Good List. Woe betide those who fall onto the Bad List.

Without Montgomery in the ‘pen, Maddon would likely have gone to the recently re-signed Brian Duensing for most of his long-relief need, or perhaps the newly-acquired Brandon Morrow or maybe holdover Justin Wilson. But now it isn’t a question. Montgomery will be the long-relief guy, which will allow Duensing and Wilson to slot into their familiar and successful roles as spot relievers in the middle innings.

It would have been easy, coming into this offseason, to imagine that the bullpen might have been a point of weakness for the 2018 Cubs. Héctor Rondón and Pedro Strop, bullpen stalwarts for years, had shown significant signs of weakness in 2017, and the Cubs indeed let Rondón walk at the conclusion of the season. Strop stayed, but with asterisks.

Carl Edwards Jr., meanwhile, had shown bursts of terrifying wildness in between brilliance for much of the year, and Justin Grimm had spent far too much time on Maddon’s Bad List to be viewed as a foundational element of the rebuilt ‘pen. Duensing, though excellent, was a free agent, and Dillon Maples was something of an unknown.

Now, with Duensing re-signed, a combination of Morrow and Steve Cishek and Drew Smyly brought in from outside the organization, and Montgomery back in a relief role, the bullpen actually looks like it might be a source of some strength for the Cubs in 2018. In the National League, only the Brewers, Dodgers, and Nationals can rival it.

It’s hard to predict how relievers will do in any given year — in any event, we’re usually really bad at it — but it’s easy to predict that some of them are going to get hurt over the course of a major-league season. The way to counteract that is with depth, and now the Cubs have enough of it to make you think they’ll be able to withstand an injury or two.

As teams continue to experiment with non-traditional pitching roles, the kind of fluidity between the starting and relieving corps that the Cubs have used to positive effect will become more and more commonplace, just as AL teams have increasingly moved away from picking a single designated hitter and instead fill the role to the need, day by day.

That will mean that major signings, like Darvish’s, will continue to call for more integrated analysis than the old “Team X has a hole at first base and just signed a first baseman” reads that might have sufficed a generation or two ago. Darvish is a great starting pitcher, and he probably bought the Cubs a win or two more in the rotation. If things go right for Chicago, his impact will be nearly that great in the bullpen, as well.

Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs based in Seattle. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he works with communities around the world to end homelessness.

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6 years ago

Kudos for reminding everyone that analyzing transactions often involves “systems thinking” and not a mere addition and subtraction of WAR in one lineup or rotation spot.

On the value of MM to the Cubs, while some teams may experiment with non-traditional pitching roles, the Cubs have five veteran starters who will be doing no such thing. Their most efficient use of Montgomery is to trade him to a team that wants a starter – unless the Cubs figure he will be such an essential bullpen weapon in the playoffs that they will keep him around for that. Maybe both ideas could be addressed simply by trading him for a good relief pitcher.

6 years ago
Reply to  Alan

Given that MM has posted ERA’s of 2.10 and 2.42 as a reliever over the past 2 seasons, I’d say he’s already a very good reliever … who can also step in as a starter. And given that the Cubs now have two SPs with injury histories (Darvish and Chatwood), are sorely lacking minor-league rotation depth, and will (likely) be entering their 4th consecutive year of October baseball (i.e., the need to keep inning counts down), MM is arguably more valuable on the Cubs than on any other team. I can’t imagine the Cubs trading him (prior to Drew Smyly returning to action), except at the deadline for a closer, should Morrow flop in that role.

Dave T
6 years ago
Reply to  Alan

I disagree that trading Montgomery is their most efficient use of him. He’s useful in the bullpen, and the Cubs should want to have 6th starter injury depth better than the names mentioned in this article (Alzolay, Butler, Farrell).

6 years ago
Reply to  Dave T

You know, I was totally thinking the same thing as you until I went and checked out his starter/relief splits, and they’re basically identical. I remembered him as a monster in the bullpen and not so great as a starter, and now I am not sure putting him the bullpen is the best use of him.

All of that said, I agree he might be more valuable as a 6th starter/long reliever type than whoever they could get back.