Whether he’s out short-term or long-term, the Yankees have options to replace CC Sabathia

(Sean M. Haffey/Getty)
(Sean M. Haffey/Getty)

The Yankees lost more than just a game last night. The game is whatever. Losses happen, even frustrating ones. In the grand scheme of things, losing CC Sabathia to a hamstring injury is a much greater concern than one loss in the standings. Sabathia has been rock solid overall this season, and his steadiness is important to the rotation. The Yankees will miss him.

“It is a little sore,” said Sabathia to George King after last night’s game. “It happened on (my) second to last pitch, I felt it grab. I thought maybe it was a cramp, but when I went to push off, it hurt and didn’t feel good … It’s sore, hopefully I wake up, and it feels better.”

At some point later today we’ll learn the severity of Sabathia’s hamstring injury, and man, I really hope it’s nothing serious. Miss one or two starts, that sort of that thing. That would be ideal. Either way, minor injury or major injury, the Yankees will have to replace Sabathia in the rotation in the short-term in some way. And no, I don’t think it will be Chance Adams.

Adams, the organization’s top Triple-A pitching prospect, has a 1.78 ERA (3.45 ERA) in 12 starts and 70.2 innings total this season. It feels inevitable that he will make his MLB debut this season. I just don’t think it will be right now, as in Sabathia’s next rotation turn, which is slated for Sunday. Even if Sabathia’s injury is serious, I don’t think Adams will get the call to pitch this weekend.

This is what I think will happen. The Yankees will place Sabathia on the disabled list today — Joe Girardi all but confirmed Sabathia is DL bound after the game yesterday — and they’ll use that to circumvent the ten-day rule and bring Domingo German back. They’ll then let German and Chad Green tag team Sunday’s start, with Girardi knowing full well he can empty his bullpen because Monday is an off-day.

Then, after the off-day, the Yankees will go through their regular four starters and reevaluate where they stand before they need to use a fifth starter again on June 24th. Maybe Sabathia will be able to come off the disabled list by then! That would be neat. It is a 10-day DL nowadays, remember. Maybe he’ll miss just the one start, and be able to return next week after sitting out a few days. That’s the best case scenario.

But, if Sabathia will need to miss more time, the Yankees will determine the next step when June 24th rolls around. That could mean rolling with Green/German again, or maybe turning Adams loose, or giving Luis Cessa a chance, or going with someone else entirely. Having options is cool. The most popular option, the one I think 95% of fans want to see, is Adams. The best and most sensible option is probably Green and German though. At least right now it is. The fact this is even up for debate is a good thing. Depth is wonderful.

Point is, I don’t think the Yankees are going to change the development plan of one of their top prospects to address a need at the big league level. I said the same thing about Gleyber Torres and third base. Sabathia being hurt doesn’t make Adams more MLB ready. He has some real development goals to accomplish this season, specifically improving his command, and doing that in the big leagues isn’t easy. I don’t think the Yankees will want to rush him, which leads me to believe it’ll be Green again.

Anyway, before the Yankees make any decisions, they have to see what the tests say and find out how long Sabathia will be sidelined. The severity of the injury is absolutely going to be a factor in their roster decisions. I know everyone wants to see Adams, and we very well might thanks to this injury, but my guess is the Yankees will use Green as a stopgap Sunday, then reevaluate things after the off-day.

Chad Green can be a better version of Adam Warren

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Chad Green is currently just a long reliever (and occasional spot starter), but he has the potential to be much more for the Yankees.

This season, Green has made eight appearances. He’s recorded at least four outs in all but one game and thrown at least two innings in five, including his Sunday start. He’s come in with the Yankees leading by three runs or fewer twice and with them down by two runs or fewer twice. Very few of those innings can be considered high leverage.

Simply put, he hasn’t been trusted to get the biggest outs, but he’s also had the opportunity to give the Yankees much-needed length at times to save the rest of the bullpen. He’s struck out 23 in 18 2/3 innings while sporting a 2.41 ERA.

It’s early, but his role looks strikingly similar to Adam Warren in 2013. Warren that season threw 77 innings over 34 games (two starts) and was the consistent long man for the team. He soaked up innings in losses (24 of them in all) and didn’t pick up a hold until Sept. 12, though it’s hard to say he wasn’t more than adequate in his role (3.39 ERA).

A year later, Warren earned himself an important middle innings role, moving up in the reliever food chain. As you surely know, he’s since maintained that role. He still takes multi-inning appearances on thanks to his background as a starter, but he’s primarily a middle reliever now and an effective one at that.

Warren (Getty Images)
Warren (Getty Images)

When looking at both Warren’s scouting report as a prospect and the report on Green, the similarities between the two are pretty clear: They both were considered potential starters who relied on their four-seam fastballs and solid sliders. Neither had established significant success with their changeups or their other non-slider offspeed pitches.

But they diverge in two significant ways. First, Green simply has better stuff. His fastball averages over 95 mph while Warren tops out around 95-96. Green’s slider has graded as above average while Warren’s was viewed as more an average offspeed offering. Baseball America had Green going into this season as a 50-grade prospect while they had Warren as a 45 going into 2012.

However, they had Warren as a 45-low and Green as a 50-high, indicating that Warren was at less risk to hitting his ceiling. Keep in mind, this was a time when Warren hadn’t reached the majors while Green already had 45 2/3 MLB innings. Green’s elbow injury at the end of last season definitely casts a shadow over him. Sprained UCLs and flexor tendons are nothing with which to trifle.

But Green’s potential reaches beyond Warren’s accomplishments. The 26-year-old righty may be simply the long man right now, but he’s also been quite effective (20 strikeouts and a 1.62 ERA in 16 2/3 innings). He finished with a 4.73 ERA last season yet had at least five strikeouts in six of his eight starts. His six innings of shutout ball with 11 strikeouts against the Blue Jays last Aug. 15 showed all of his potential.

He can fan batters with his plus-velocity on his fastball/cutter while mixing in his strong slider. Whether or not he can be a long-term starter comes down to his ability to harness his other offspeed pitches. Lefties hit .287/.351/.663 against him last year, so the changeup is key to that end. For what it’s worth, he told Suzyn Waldman before Sunday’s start that he’s worked on the changeup to the point that hitters have to consider it. He’s been better against LHBs in 2017, albeit in a smaller sample size. Furthermore, he’s yet to go multiple times through a lineup.

However, based simply on the fastball and slider, he can be an effective late-inning reliever. Even the fastball alone got him through the heart of the Orioles’ lineup on Sunday when he didn’t have his best command. His ability to throw multiple innings adds to his overall effectiveness. And if he hits his ceiling, it can far surpass the reliability of Warren in the near future.

The time for Chance Adams to get an opportunity to help the Yankees is fast approaching

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Fifty-six games into the 2017 season, the Yankees are one of three teams to use only five starting pitchers this year. The Yankees, the Cardinals, and the Braves. That’s the list. And soon it’ll be only the Yankees and Cardinals. The Braves put Bartolo Colon on the disabled list two days ago and will call up top pitching prospect Sean Newcomb to start in his place this weekend.

At some point this year, possibly sooner rather than later, the Yankees will use a sixth starting pitcher. It’s inevitable in baseball these days. The question is whether they will use that sixth starter because they want to use one to give their other starters rest, or because they have to use one due to injury or poor performance. Obviously the former is much more preferable.

Whenever the time for a sixth starter comes, one of the names the Yankees are sure to consider is Chance Adams, arguably their top pitching prospect overall (eh) and inarguably their top pitching prospect at the Triple-A level (duh). Last time out Adams took a no-hitter into the fifth inning. The start before that, he struck out 12 in six innings.

So far this season the 22-year-old Adams has a 1.55 ERA (3.34 FIP) with 26.5% strikeouts and 10.4% walks in eleven starts and 64 innings split between Double-A and Triple-A. Last year he had a 2.33 ERA (2.96 FIP) with 29.1% strikeouts and 7.9% walks in 24 starts and 127.1 innings. To call the reliever-to-starter conversion a success would be a pretty big understatement. Adams has been great since joining the rotation.

While the overall numbers look nice, Adams is not a finished product sitting in Triple-A. He’s still working to improve his changeup to combat left-handers, and his walk rate is a wee bit too high, which pitching coach Larry Rothschild recently chalked up to subpar fastball command. He’s working on it though. Here’s what Rothschild told Brendan Kuty:

“I think everybody  — the guys who have been working with him in the minor leagues — I think he’s been talked to about that certainly when he was with us (in big league Spring Training). I think it’s just a natural maturation process. I think he’s perfectly capable of (improving his fastball command). I think at times, just watching the tape of him this year, where he’s been good.”

Can Adams help the Yankees right now? I think so, though I’ll admit I’m less confident in his ability to step right into a big league rotation and be consistently solid from the get-go the way Jordan Montgomery did. That’s not intended to be a knock on Adams! Montgomery was a really polished prospect who’s been a starting pitcher basically his entire life. Going through a lineup three times wasn’t that new to him.

Adams has the tools to help the Yankees soon as a starting pitcher, and like most young starters, chances are there will be some bumps along the way. That’s baseball. He’s got to get his feet wet at some point though, and I think that time is rapidly approaching. Joe Girardi shot down Adams replacing Montgomery in the rotation — “Really? Are you kidding me? Come on now,” said Girardi to Bryan Hoch when asked that over the weekend — so that won’t happen, nor should it.

On merit, the starting pitcher who most deserves to lose his rotation spot is Masahiro Tanaka, and even though I am in favor of giving him a little time out, I’m not sure it’ll happen. I think the odds are pretty good the Yankees will ride it out with him and hope he fixes things on the fly. In that case, pretty much the only way to get Adams’ feet wet in the big leagues is as a spot sixth starter. Call him up, make a start to give the guys a rest, then go back down.

There are some roster consequences to doing that, namely:

  1. Someone has to be designated for assignment to clear a 40-man roster spot.
  2. Someone has to be demoted to clear a 25-man roster spot, and they won’t be able to come back up for ten days.
  3. Adams would burn one of his three minor league options when he’s sent back down.

And maybe those things aren’t that big a deal. The Yankees could drop the wholly ineffective Tommy Layne from the roster, which would open both 25-man and 40-man spots, then call up any one of a number of players from Triple-A when Adams goes back down. Gio Gallegos, Luis Cessa, Ben Heller, etc. The Yankees would be tying up a 40-man spot for good though, so they’d lose some flexibility.

The minor league options thing might not be that big of a deal either. Should Adams go up and down these next three years, he’ll qualify for a fourth option because he’d burn his original three within his first five pro seasons. Also, if the Yankees need to think about using an option on Adams in 2020, something’s gone wrong. He should have established himself as a big leaguer by then. The 40-man is a bigger issue than the minor league options, I think.

The Yankees aren’t shy about throwing prospects right into the fire. Luis Severino made his big league debut against the Red Sox. Gary Sanchez was called up for a game last May specifically to face Chris Sale. I suppose the Yankees could call up Adams to make a spot start against the Orioles this Sunday, the day he lines up to pitch, which would allow them push Tanaka back a day so he could face the lowly Angels in Anaheim on Monday. Not the worst idea.

Either way, I get the sense Adams is going to make his big league debut very soon, as in before the end of the month. Hopefully it is on the Yankees’ terms (he’s ready) and their hand isn’t forced (someone is out and they need a starter). The Yankees are going to give Adams every chance to be part of the rotation long-term, and part of the process is allowing him to get his feet wet this summer. His time is coming and soon.

Yankees have reached a tipping point with Masahiro Tanaka

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Last night, for the fourth time in his last five starts, Masahiro Tanaka allowed at least five runs and put the Yankees in a pretty sizeable early hole. He’s also allowed multiple home runs in four of his last six starts. Five runs in five innings against the Red Sox gives Tanaka a 6.55 ERA (5.60 FIP) in 12 starts and 66 innings this season. It has been especially ugly of late.

As he’s gone through this brutal stretch lately, two problems have persisted for Tanaka. One, his location has been pretty terrible. The homers he’s giving up are on pitches right out over the plate. And two, his splitter and slider don’t have the same bite. Some do! But many are flat. Look at the home run Mitch Moreland hit last night:

That’s a slider and it does nothing. A total cement mixer. It spins and spins and that’s it. Tanaka doesn’t overpower hitters. Never has. He succeeds with movement and location, and hey, it’s worked out wonderfully for him for a long time. Now Tanaka has neither the movement nor the location, and, well, that’s you get a 6.55 ERA.

At this point, given the depth of Tanaka’s recent struggles, the Yankees have reached a point where they have to seriously consider making a change to their rotation. I was cool with maintaining the status quo two weeks ago. Then it was only back-to-back bad starts. Every starter does that at some point, right? Tanaka is no different.

Now it’s four bad starts in the span of five starts. The home run problem has become extreme — Tanaka has allowed 13 home runs in his last 23.2 innings (4.94 HR/9!) — and there’s no indication they’re going away. The Yankees have lost Tanaka’s last five starts and he’s been the biggest culprit in four of them. Something’s gotta give.

Okay, so now what? What do the Yankees do with Tanaka? Realistically, there are only three options:

  1. Place him on the phantom disabled list with a made up injury and give him time to figure things out on the side, or in minor league rehab games.
  2. Keep him on the active roster and skip his next start. Instead of carrying an eighth reliever, carry a sixth starter. Easy peasy.
  3. Keep him on the active roster and put him in the bullpen, and let him throw mop-up innings for the time being.

I have no idea which one is best for Tanaka. The phantom disabled list sounds great because it buys the Yankees an indefinite period of time to fix Tanaka … as long as he’s willing to play along. He’s a competitor and he wants to play. Sitting on the disabled list while healthy would not sit well with, like, 99.9% of all players, and they’d go to the union. It’s not quite as simple as it sounds.

Tanaka to me looks healthy. Maybe he’s not! But I’ve watched an embarrassing amount of baseball in my lifetime and I’ve seen my fair share of injured pitchers on the mound, and Tanaka doesn’t look injured. The velocity is there and his delivery is smooth. He looks like himself, just with crappier pitches. Injured pitchers don’t look like themselves.

I think Tanaka’s issues are 100% mechanical. Mechanical and confidence related. I don’t care who you or what you’ve accomplished in your career. Get hit around like this and your confidence is going to take a hit. As long as Tanaka is not hurt, I think he’ll figure this out. He’s too good and too smart of a pitcher not to. I don’t think he’s broken beyond repair. Not even close.

Remember, Tanaka didn’t look like himself at the start of the season, even when he was pitching reasonably well. His location wasn’t great and he was falling behind in the count a bunch, but he was able to grind through starts without letting them blow up. That hasn’t been the case lately. This is something that is getting progressively worse.

Because of that, I don’t see how the Yankees can send Tanaka out to the mound in five days, to face the same Orioles lineup that roughed him up for seven runs in 5.2 innings last week. We’ve kinda run out of excuses here right? The Austin Romine vs. Gary Sanchez narrative went away last time out. Last night put to the bed the extra rest idea too. He’s struggled at home and on the road as well.

So, call up whoever for a spot start against the O’s this weekend — I’d probably go with Luis Cessa rather than shuffle the 40-man roster to call up Chance Adams, only to burn an option when he goes back down — then reevaluate. If the Yankees want to get Tanaka back out there, he’ll get to start against the weak hitting Angels or Athletics on the West Coast next week. That’s much better than the Orioles at Yankee Stadium.

The scariest thing about Tanaka’s struggles is that no one seems to have an answer. Perhaps the Yankees have a diagnosis behind the scenes and are working on a solution without telling us. I hope that’s the case. Even then though, after this recent stretch, giving Tanaka a bit of a time out would be best. The Yankees are in contention! They should give themselves the best chance to win. Right now, Tanaka does not do that.

The Yankees and their uncanny ability to get opposing hitters to chase out of the zone

(Rob Carr/Getty)
(Rob Carr/Getty)

Last night, five days after manhandling the Athletics, Masahiro Tanaka got hit hard for the third time in his last four starts. He was behind everyone, and when he left a pitch out over the plate, the Orioles made him pay. We’ve seen a lot of that from Tanaka this season. His location wasn’t there and he didn’t have a finish pitch.

The O’s don’t have the most patient lineup in baseball. They have the fifth highest chase rate (31.7%) and the ninth highest swing rate (46.6%) in baseball, so they’re going to take their hacks. And yet, Tanaka could not get them to expand the zone and chase off the plate. From Baseball Savant:

masahiro-tanaka-oriolesNot many swings out of the strike zone there, especially on pitches down and away to righties. (The O’s had eight righties in the lineup tonight.) Luis Severino did a good job getting the Orioles to chase Tuesday, both with his slider and changeup. They’re a lineup prone to expanding the zone and chasing off the plate. It’s what they do.

For the Yankees, starts like last night’s are uncommon. Their pitching staff collectively excels at getting hitters to chase pitches out of the strike zone. No team in baseball is better at it, in fact. Here’s the chase rate leaderboard:

  1. Yankees: 34.1%
  2. Dodgers: 33.1%
  3. Astros: 32.3%

Pretty big gap between the Yankees and the Dodgers. This isn’t some fluky small sample size noise either. Well, it might be, but look at last season’s chase rate leaderboard:

  1. Yankees: 33.5%
  2. Astros: 32.1%
  3. Mariners: 32.0%

Again, there’s a huge gap between the Yankees and everyone else. The gap between No. 1 and No. 2 is the same as the gap between No. 2 and No. 14. From 2014-16, New York’s pitchers generated baseball’s highest chase rate at 32.6%. The Nationals were a distant second at 31.9%. The MLB average was 30.5% those years. The Yankees were well above that.

On an individual level, it’s no surprise the Yankees dominate the top of the chase rate leaderboard this year. Michael Pineda (40.3%), Jordan Montgomery (36.8%), and Tanaka (37.0%) have three of the five highest chase rates among qualified starters, alongside the great Zack Greinke (40.8%) and, uh, Clayton Richard (37.5%). Last season’s chase rate leaders:

  1. Michael Pineda: 37.8%
  2. Masahiro Tanaka: 37.6%
  3. Noah Syndergaard: 37.2%

Corey Kluber was a distant fourth at 35.4%. Go back to 2015 and Tanaka would have had the second highest chase rate in baseball at 36.6%, behind only Carlos Carrasco (38.7%), but he fell six innings short of qualifying for the ERA title.

Things are a little different among New York’s relievers this season when it comes to getting chases out of the zone — Jonathan Holder (41.6%) is third among all relievers and the only Yankee among the top 30 relievers in chase rate — though those guys haven’t thrown many innings. The starters have much more influence over the overall team chase rate.

Intuitively, getting hitters to chase out of the zone is a good thing. When they’re offering at pitches out of the strike zone, they’re usually either swinging and missing, or either getting jammed or hitting the ball of the end of the bat, resulting in weak contact. To wit:

  • 2017 swings on pitches in the zone: .301 AVG and .519 SLG
  • 2017 swings on pitches out of the zone: .177 AVG and .245 SLG

There is a pretty clear advantage to getting hitters to swing out of the strike zone. Every once in a while you’ll see a hard-hit ball on a pitch out of the zone, but it doesn’t happen often. When it does, you usually tip your cap to the hitter. Sometimes you get got.

It makes sense that Pineda and Tanaka would be near the top of the chase rate leaderboard given who they are as pitchers. For all his faults, Pineda has a nasty slider, and he gets hitters to chase it out of the strike zone. Those sexy strikeout and walk rates aren’t an accident. Tanaka, when at his best, excels at keeping hitters off balance and getting them to expand the zone, mostly with his splitter but also his slider. He usually doesn’t beat guys in the strike zone. He beats them on the edges.

Montgomery is new to the mix this season and it’s still a little too early to say anything definitive about him as a pitcher. He’s more Tanaka than Pineda in that he relies on a deep arsenal and messing with the hitter’s timing rather than blowing them away, though we don’t know if his sky high chase rate is the real him yet. Could be general baseball randomness. Pineda and Tanaka, on the other hand, have long track records with this stuff.

So the question begs to be asked: why have the Yankees consistently posted an elite chase rate in recent years? One possible answer is this is all one big coincidence and there’s nothing really to it. Can’t rule that out. I don’t that’s it though. Do something once and it’s a fluke. Do it year after year, like the Yankees leading the league in chase rate, and it’s a trend. Again, the Yankees have baseball’s highest chase rate since 2014. That covers thousands and thousands of innings.

Why do the Yankees consistently post elite chase rates? I think it’s by design. They value swings on pitches not over the plate, so they design their pitching staff accordingly, and they create their daily game plans to get those swings out of the zone. That seems much easier said than done, like everything else. To make hitters chase, you need to make your balls look like strikes, and it takes a certain level of talent to have the movement and command to do that consistently.

I’m not really sure where I’m going with this. I just find it fascinating the Yankees have been able to lead the league in getting chases out of the zone for several years now. This almost certainly isn’t a fluke. It’s intentional. And there’s an obvious benefit to getting swings out of the zone too, especially since the Yankees play in an unforgiving ballpark and in an unforgiving division with other unforgiving ballparks. Being able to get swings on pitcher’s pitches is a nifty little skill the Yankees seem to have perfected.

The 2018 rotation is starting to take shape for the Yankees

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

How many teams have a comparable young position player core to the Yankees? The Cubs and Astros for sure. The Dodgers? I suppose so with Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger. They’re in the conversation. Point is, there aren’t many teams with an Aaron Judge and a Gary Sanchez at the MLB level, a Greg Bird working his way back, and a Gleyber Torres and a Clint Frazier in Triple-A. It’s pretty awesome.

The pitching staff is another story. The Yankees have sneaky good pitching depth in the farm system, though coming into the season, the future of the big league rotation was uncertain. It still is, really. Michael Pineda and CC Sabathia will become free agents after the season, and Masahiro Tanaka can opt-out as well. The holdover youngsters from last season (Luis Severino, Luis Cessa, Bryan Mitchell, Chad Green) offered promise. That’s about it.

Now, two months into the 2017 season, next year’s rotation is beginning to take shape. Who knows how things will play out the rest of the season, but at least things are moving in a positive direction. So far two things are true that we hoped would be true when everyone reported to Tampa in February:

  1. Severino can bounce back from his rough 2016 season and be a dominant starter.
  2. Jordan Montgomery can be a cheap and serviceable rotation piece.

We all kinda thought and hoped those two things would be true, but we didn’t know they would be true. And we still don’t, really. The evidence is pointing in that direction though. Severino has been very good overall and occasionally brilliant, such as last night. He’s been even better in 2017 than he was in 2015 in more ways than one. Severino looks like an entirely different pitcher than last season.

“Really good again. If we wouldn’t have pushed him the other day I probably would have left him in,” said Joe Girardi following last night’s game (video link). “… He had a lot of depth to his slider tonight. I thought his fastball, he hit a lot of locations with it … You feel good when he takes the mound. You really do. Because of the stuff that he has. I’ve seen the improvement in his slider. It has a lot more depth. And when he has the depth to it, it’s really tough to hit.”

Montgomery, despite Monday’s clunker, has been solid through his first nine big league starts. The walks are kinda annoying (8.9 BB%) though I think it’s only a matter of time until those come down. Montgomery has a long track record of throwing strikes. He’s walking a few too many right now because many rookie pitchers walk a few too many. That’s how it goes. The most important thing is you can see Montgomery sticking in an MLB rotation. He has the tools to do it.

The Yankees went into Spring Training with a lot of pitching inventory and that’s good because you need depth, but they were still trying to sort out who can help them, both short and long-term. Who can they build around going forward? Who can soak up some innings to get them through the coming season? Those questions had to be answered. And so far this season, Severino sure looks like a keeper. Montgomery does too, even if he doesn’t offer the same upside.

Make no mistake, the Yankees are not out of the woods yet. They still have three more rotation spots to figure out going forward. At least right now they have a pretty good idea that Severino and Montgomery will be two of their five starters heading into next season. As recently as two months ago it wasn’t clear where those two fit in. Now they’re part of the solution both this year and the future.

Jordan Montgomery’s Adjustment

(Elsa/Getty Images North America)
(Elsa/Getty Images North America)

The Yankees season has largely been a story of adjustments. Or, perhaps, the greatest questions regarding the roster have revolved around adjustments: how would the league adjust to Gary Sanchez? Could Aaron Judge adjust to the majors? Could Luis Severino re-adjust to being a starting pitcher? How would Dellin Betances adjust to his career as an astronaut? And so on. For the most part, these questions have yielded positive answers, small sample sizes be damned (and dissipating at a rapid pace, to boot).

Heading into Tuesday night, we wondered how Jordan Montgomery would adjust to facing the Royals for the second time in six days. It was the first time that a major league lineup would see Montgomery twice, and it had an added layer of seeing how he would fare follow the worst start of his young career (5 IP, 4 H, 5 R, 3 BB, 4 K). The Royals are a bad offensive team – the worst in baseball on the season – but they have been heating up, and Montgomery is still a rookie. It may well have been the biggest test this side of his debut this season.

By now you know that Montgomery responded with a gem of a performance, pitching to the following line: 6.2 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 0 BB, 6 K. The lone blemish on that line was a solo shot by Lorenzo Cain in the 7th inning, the result of a 93 MPH that caught too much of the plate. It was nevertheless his best start to-date, and he outpitched Royals ace Danny Duffy. All of this raises a question, though – what changed in the last week?

The short answer is pitch selection and pitch location. Let’s look into Montgomery’s offerings on May 18:

(Brooks Baseball)
(Brooks Baseball)

Montgomery threw 83 pitches the first time he faced the Royals, and just over half of those (42) were some variety of fastball. He picked up just seven whiffs on the day, largely due to the fact that he threw just 11 sliders. As per PITCHf/x, his slider is worth 2.55 runs per 100 thrown and has a 22.1% swinging strike rate, which makes it his best pitch by a fairly comfortable margin. With that in mind, take a look at Tuesday night’s start:

(Brooks Baseball)
(Brooks Baseball)

This time around, 41 of his 98 pitches were fastballs, and he threw more than twice as many sliders (which led to twice as many swings and misses). Montgomery threw fifteen more pitches this time around, and essentially all of them were sliders. It was a completely different mix of pitches, and it helped to keep the Royals off-balance; and the results were excellent.

It wasn’t just a matter of throwing more sliders, though. Montgomery was also far more successful in keeping the ball around the edges, as well as in the bottom-third of the strike-zone.

 

(FanGraphs)
(FanGraphs)

In the first outing, Montgomery was, to oversimplify, throwing the ball down the middle or outside of the zone. And, given that most the pitches he threw were fastballs or change-ups, it’s no surprise that he was hit, and hit hard.

(FanGraphs)
(FanGraphs)

Montgomery threw a few too many pitches near the heart of the plate both times around, but he was clearly living on the edges far more often on Tuesday night. He was also pounding right-handed hitters down-and-in (and lefties down-and-away), and it worked quite well. The majority of his pitches move, and he has shown the ability to locate most of them well-enough, so the latter plot is exactly what you’d expect to see when Montgomery is on his game.

The usual “it’s only one game” caveat applies here, yet it is encouraging to see Montgomery make such a significant adjustment from one game to the next. He went with what has worked best for him this season, and held the Royals to 1 run in 6.2 IP. On most nights, that would be a winning effort – but I digress. One of the most often cited pluses on Montgomery’s scouting report was his pitchability, and that was on full display for at least one night.