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Is Jordan Montgomery a mixed-league ready starter?

Yankees rookie starting pitcher Jordan Montgomery won the fifth starter job in the Bronx this spring and currently has the second most WAR in the rotation. Is he ready to be a reliable mixed-league contributor in fantasy baseball?

MLB: Kansas City Royals at New York Yankees Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

Note: this was written before his most recent start, so it doesn’t include the stats from that game. If he got injured in that game, I guess I jinxed him, sorry.

If you’re like me and not a Yankees fan, you probably hadn’t heard of Jordan Montgomery headed into 2017. He was a non-prospect that put up solid, but unspectacular numbers in the minors, until he got to AAA in 2016. In 37 innings there, he tallied 9 K/9, 2.19 BB/9, a 54% GB%, and a 0.97/1.90/2.53 ERA/FIP/xFIP. That’s excellent stuff.

With that finish to 2016 and a strong spring, the 6’6” lefty won the fifth starter job coming out of spring training, beating out Luis Cessa and Chad Green, both of whom had previous MLB experience. Montgomery is only 24 and and throws a solid 92 mph fastball (above average for lefties).

Things did not go well in the early going. Walks plagued his first five or so starts, with a 4.5 BB/9 rate, a 3.81 ERA and a 4.86 xFIP. Those are not mixed-league worthy numbers. That works in an AL-only league, but nothing shallower.

Since that arbitrary date of May 6, here’s those same numbers: 2.31 BB/9, 3.34 ERA, 4.04 xFIP. Those numbers are much more mixed-league ready. Oh, and his K/9 has been 9 over that time period. As a flyball pitcher in Yankee Stadium, he’s going to give up some home runs, but other than that, he’s been pretty good. And did I mention his 12.7% swinging strike rate is good for 9th best among all starters? His 4.22 SIERA for the season doesn’t look great, but with an improved walk rate and that elite swing and miss rate, I can overlook it. Throw in his very low 25% hard-hit rate, too.

Let’s take a look at his Zone% and first-strike%

Welp, I don’t see any improvement in Zone% or first-strike% since the beginning of the season. That’s...odd and a little unsettling. I was expecting more improvement there with his walk rate improvement.

If we now turn our attention to his ability to get hitters to chase out of the zone:

He struggled getting hitters to chase early in the season but has gotten better lately. That’s important for a guy that only throws 43% of his pitches in the zone. That’s one element of his recent success.

His pitch mix has also been highly variable and something in that mix might be responsible for his improvements. He has five pitches: a four seam, a sinker, a curve, a changeup, and a slider. By linear weights/pitch values (used at Fangraphs to measure a pitch’s overall value), his two fastballs aren’t very good (values below 0), but all three of his other pitches are above average.

You can see just how much his pitch mix changes game by game. There really isn’t much of a pattern here. His mix has changed significantly from start to start. Lately, he’s been using his curve more and it’s a good pitch, so that’s a good idea.

His velocity and swinging strike rates have been relatively flat all year, so there’s nothing to that.

A random quirky fact that isn’t really relevant:

He’s far better the second time through the order than the first. That’s pretty unusual. Like most pitchers, he’s much worse the third time through. He’s really bad the third time. He’s also below average when pitching from the stretch with runners on.

So...where does all this leave us? I was hoping to find a smoking gun that would explain his recent run of good starts, but beyond an increase in batters chasing out of the zone, I can’t find it.

As one last check to see if his walk rate might just be improving due to getting more called strikes from generous umpires in recent games, I looked at his called strike%. It actually shows that, as a % of his total strikes, called strikes have gone down since his first five starts (29%, down to 24% in his last six).

So, with his elite swinging strike rate, an improvement in chase rate, and an always-evolving pitch mix, coupled with a vertical release point over seven feet (!), he has earned my trust. While I don’t think he will be a 3.2 ERA guy the rest of the season, he should be a 3.5 ERA guy and worthy of mixed-league consideration. If the walks start to come back, though, things could go south, so keep an eye on that. Tschus!