If you aren’t sure who Jordan Montgomery is, I don’t blame you. The Tigers didn’t see Montgomery at all during the lefthander’s surprising run through the American League in 2017. While the 25-year-old had a sparkling 2016 season in the upper minors, few expected him to break out in the way he did last year. Montgomery finished sixth in the AL Rookie of the Year voting — mostly thanks to a second-place vote from FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan — and was New York’s second-most valuable pitcher with 2.9 rWAR in 155 1⁄3 innings. He didn’t make a postseason appearance, but 2017 was still a massive success for the former fourth rounder.
How good is he, though? His statistical profile doesn’t hold any red flags, but it feels unnatural for a player on the fringes of prospect-dom to become a star this quickly. Even someone like Corey Kluber struggled initially. Mariners lefthander James Paxton — who some hometown reporter believes is a worthy comparison for Montgomery — took a while to harness his full potential. Montgomery was slightly fortunate with a .275 BABIP and 78 percent strand rate last year, especially given his home ballpark, but he also generated a 12 percent swinging strike rate and struck out 22 percent of hitters.
I’m not entirely sure the swing-and-miss stuff will stick around, but it sounds like Montgomery’s stuff has continually improved as he has gotten older. Mike Axisa of River Avenue Blues keeps a closer eye on Yankees prospects than anyone else in the business, and seems to see something special in Montgomery.
I don’t mean this as a slight, but I didn’t think too much of Montgomery when he was first drafted...but since then Montgomery has added a cutter and gained considerable velocity, improving his long-term outlook dramatically. He’s gone from swingman candidate to no-doubt starter in his two full pro seasons. It’s hard not to love that.
The only real concern I have about Montgomery is his arm slot, and whether it’ll lead to a big platoon split because right-handed hitters get a good look at the ball. Right-hander Josh Collmenter has a similar arm slot and lefties have hit him pretty hard over the years. Montgomery was actually more effective against righties than lefties in the minors this year, though I wouldn’t read too much into that. We’ll just have to see how his arm slot plays in the show when the time comes. For now, Montgomery is a near MLB ready workhorse southpaw, and good gravy do the Yankees need one of those.
The Yankees have all sorts of offensive talent in their pipeline, but the development of pitchers like Montgomery, Chance Adams, and Justus Sheffield will determine just how high their ceiling goes over the next several years. Signing free agent pitching is a risky venture these days — hi there, Jordan Zimmermann — and keeping a few homegrown arms in the rotation will be a must for a Yankees team already set up for years to come on the other side of the ball.
New York Yankees (6-7) at Detroit Tigers (4-8)
Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation site: Pinstripe Alley
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV , Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: LHP Jordan Montgomery (0-0, 4.82 ERA) vs. RHP Mike Fiers (1-0, 0.00 ERA)
Game 13 Pitching Matchup
We already discussed Montgomery quite a bit above, but I want to touch on the last point in that scouting report: his splits. Righties hit slightly better than lefties against Montgomery and hit 16 of the 21 homers he allowed, but they finished with a .687 OPS in 553 plate appearances. However, Montgomery struggled somewhat against the best of the best. The Houston Astros, owners of a 120 wRC+ against left-handed pitchers last season, put up seven runs on 13 hits in 11 1⁄3 innings against Montgomery. The Cleveland Indians sported a 110 wRC+ against southpaws and scored five runs in nine innings across two starts.
The only other American League offense in that stratosphere against lefties last season were these Tigers. While they have lost several key players over the past calendar year, some of their top performers against left-handed pitching are still around. Nicholas Castellanos put up a 143 wRC+ against lefties last season, and James McCann was slightly better at 145. Jeimer Candelario’s final two months probably weren’t sustainable, but he produced a 148 wRC+ against lefties all the same. And Miguel Cabrera, for all the troubles he had, still hit .326/.434/.495 against southpaws.
Key matchup: Mike Fiers vs. oh so that’s what a dinger machine looks like
Given his pedestrian stuff, unique delivery, and high fly ball rate, Fiers has always been a pitcher on the brink of disaster. He was anything but in his few years in Milwaukee, generating plenty of lazy fly ball outs as well as some swings and misses with the high spin rate on his low-90s fastball. He struggled to repeat this in Houston, in part because he went away from the four-seamer that allowed him to live at the top of the strike zone. The result was nearly two home runs allowed per nine innings pitched last season, by far the highest rate of his career in any full season.
The Evil Empire’s Death Star isn’t fully operational quite yet, but the Yankees still sit tied for seventh in baseball with 16 home runs hit this year. Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and Gary Sanchez have three apiece, tied for the team lead with shortstop Didi Gregorius. All four of those players, along with several others, have enough power to change a game with one swing. If Fiers doesn’t locate his pitches well, it could be a short evening — punctuated by lots of long homers — for him.
Fiers gets bombed early but settles down to work through six innings. The Tigers still lose.