The Marvelous Mr. Montas

One element missing from the Oakland A’s in recent years has been an ability to develop long-term, high-quality starting pitchers. The cupboard hasn’t been completely bare, with Sonny Gray notably appearing on the cusp of establishing himself as one of the best starting pitchers in the league before a series of injuries waylaid him starting in 2016. Whether ultimate responsibility comes down to failure in developing pitchers or not choosing the right ones in the draft, the A’s have a poor record at finding starters. Gray remains the most-recent drafted pitcher to amass even five WAR in his MLB career.

The legacy of the trio of Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, and Barry Zito leaves a long shadow on the franchise. In the past 20 years, the A’s have a total of 39 top-50 starting pitcher seasons. That’s above-average (you’d expect an average team to have roughly 33 of these seasons), but it’s also skewed very heavily in favor of the pitchers the team had back when we were worried that the Y2K bug would destroy humanity something something.

Top 50 Pitching Seasons, Oakland A’s, 2000-19
Season Pitcher WAR MLB Rank
2007 Joe Blanton 5.3  7
2001 Mark Mulder 5.7  8
2002 Tim Hudson 4.7  8
2019 Frankie Montas 2.6  8
2003 Tim Hudson 5.8  9
2004 Tim Hudson 4.6 11
2001 Tim Hudson 5.1 13
2001 Barry Zito 4.8 14
2002 Barry Zito 4.5 14
2011 Brandon McCarthy 4.5 15
2003 Mark Mulder 4.5 16
2007 Dan Haren 4.7 16
2015 Sonny Gray 3.9 18
2003 Barry Zito 4.4 19
2012 Jarrod Parker 3.7 19
2013 Bartolo Colon 4.0 19
2004 Rich Harden 4.1 20
2018 Blake Treinen 3.6 22
2002 Mark Mulder 3.9 24
2014 Sonny Gray 3.5 24
2005 Dan Haren 3.7 25
2006 Dan Haren 3.8 25
2000 Tim Hudson 3.5 27
2009 Brett Anderson 3.7 27
2014 Scott Kazmir 3.4 27
2002 Cory Lidle 3.7 29
2011 Gio Gonzalez 3.3 29
2005 Rich Harden 3.6 30
2012 Tommy Milone 3.1 32
2010 Dallas Braden 3.5 35
2004 Barry Zito 3.1 36
2010 Gio Gonzalez 3.2 41
2003 Ted Lilly 3.1 43
2006 Joe Blanton 3.2 45
2009 Dallas Braden 2.9 46
2005 Barry Zito 3.0 47
2012 Bartolo Colon 2.6 49
2000 Gil Heredia 2.6 50
2001 Cory Lidle 2.6 50

Wait, Gil Heredia had a top-50 season?

Twenty-two of the team’s 39 top-50 starting pitcher seasons were from 2000 to 2006, the endpoint chosen being Zito’s departure from Oakland, via a very large free agent contract from the San Francisco Giants, a contract we won’t talk about without warning Giants fans that there may be upsetting material within.

But there’s a name you may have noticed highlighted in the above chart. As you probably guessed from the title of the article, it’s Frankie Montas, standing at 9-2 with a 2.85 ERA as we approach the halfway mark of the season, putting him in firm contention for the AL Cy Young award. Montas and his big fastball always left him hanging around on the edge of prospect lists, but his lack of development meant that his claim to fame was being included in trades for much more famous players: Jake Peavy, Todd Frazier, and most recently, Rich Hill and Josh Reddick.

The knock on Montas had been his lack of control, most notably after his struggles as a relief pitcher, walking nearly six batters a game for the A’s in 2017. But that’s not quite right. Montas has always been able to find the strike zone, and in 2017, his 47% of pitches in the strike zone was actually better than the league average. He’s actually thrown fewer strikes this year (41%) despite a walk rate less than half of 2017’s figure (6.1% in 2019 vs. 13.2% in 2017).

Now, that might make you think “maybe, then, it’s a fluke?” ZiPS uses plate discipline stats to get an expected walk rate for a pitcher, something I talked about more extensively when discussing Aaron Nola’s poor start to the 2019 season. In this case, Montas’s data is consistent with a pitcher that you’d expect to have a solid walk rate.

Walk Rate vs. ZBB, Frankie Montas
Year BB% ZBB
2015 13.6% 15.5%
2017 13.2% 12.4%
2018  7.4%  6.3%
2019  6.1%  4.7%

Montas has always been plagued with a limited repertoire. He’s always thrown hard, but his upper-90s fastball has generally been a straight one, with average-or-worse numbers in the movement metrics (via Statcast). He has always had the wipeout slider, but even hard-throwing pitchers need more than that to survive as starters. Luis Severino gets more swings-and-misses from his changeup than his fastball. Noah Syndergaard has three pitches more whiff-inducing than his fastball. It’s a similar story for other hard-throwers like Walker Buehler or Luis Castillo.

Without a true offspeed pitch, platoon-disadvantage at-bats are quite dangerous. That’s been the case for Montas, as he entered 2019 with a .293/.362/.513 line against left-handed hitters. But this season, he started using a splitter in spring training and it’s been a revelation. In its first season of usage, it’s already his hardest pitch to make contact against, and also importantly, it’s befuddled both righties (38% whiff/swing) and lefties (44%). And it’s a pitch that’s not only effective but one he has confidence in; when Montas had his older changeup, he used it exclusively vs. lefties, only throwing it twice ever to righties. His splitter is now his most-used pitch in two-strike counts against all batters. It’s also arguably better than his sinker, inducing more grounders as well as whiffs and contributing to the average launch angle against Montas dropping to 9 degrees, compared to 18 and 16 degrees in his first two stints in the majors.

Pair a hard-throwing pitcher with a nasty splitter and you end up with what looks to a batter like the fastest circle-change they’ve ever seen. Ryne Stanek had a similar story, learning the splitter from Kyle Snyder when in the minors in 2017 to go along with his slider.

Montas’s improvement is already reflected in the long-term projections. While the ZiPS in-season model already sees improvement, with a 3.95 rest-of-season projected ERA (4.41 preseason in a mixed role), the more-robust full ZiPS model is even more aggressive, seeing enough in three months to put Montas into high-end No. 2 starter territory.

ZiPS Projections – Frankie Montas
Year W L ERA G GS IP H ER HR BB SO ERA+ WAR
2020 12 8 3.67 27 27 149.7 146 61 15 47 148 117 2.8
2021 12 8 3.68 27 27 149.3 143 61 15 47 145 116 2.8
2022 12 8 3.65 27 27 148.0 140 60 15 46 144 117 2.8
2023 10 7 3.69 24 24 134.0 127 55 14 41 131 116 2.5

But what if he doesn’t regress at all? What if he finishes the season pitching just as well as he has so far? While I won’t try to claim that it’s the most likely scenario, Montas is still fairly new to the splitter and is still developing as a pitcher, so I don’t think it’s a completely outlandish expectation. His 2019 in this case would be enough to put him in star territory, though clearly not in the same tier as the Scherzers and Sales.

ZiPS Projections – Frankie Montas (Alternate Scenario)
Year W L ERA G GS IP H ER HR BB SO ERA+ WAR
2020 14 7 3.29 28 27 153.3 144 56 15 43 161 130 3.5
2021 13 7 3.25 27 26 149.7 139 54 14 42 154 132 3.5
2022 12 7 3.31 26 25 144.0 134 53 14 41 147 129 3.2
2023 11 7 3.33 24 23 132.3 123 49 13 37 135 128 3.0

Presumably, if Montas stays at this level, Oakland will be unable to resist the temptation of allowing him to go deeper into games. They’re already allowing him to creep towards the hundred-pitch mark regularly. But that’s kind of out of a projection system’s jurisdiction.

Frankie Montas is largely looking like the latest example of why you should always let a player prove you wrong. When we talk about teams bringing in Kyle Kendrick or Homer Bailey and calling it expensive, it’s not just a money thing, but an opportunity cost issue. Would a richer team than the Oakland A’s, coming off a 97-win season, be as willing to give Montas an extended stint in the rotation? Whether it’s luck or skill, the Oakland A’s have likely unearthed a hidden gem in Montas.





Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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DDD
2 years ago

Great read, thanks Dan. Last season he got his walk rate under control, but his hits/9 were high and his Ks/9 were miserably low. It’s amazing what a difference adding that splitter has made.

bosoxforlifemember
2 years ago
Reply to  DDD

That and a little of that special sauce.