February 21, 2013; Port Charlotte, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Mike Montgomery (31) poses for a picture during photo day at Charlotte Sports Park. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Understanding Mike Montgomery's Journey Back to Relevance

Has it really been just three years? Mike Montgomery was the next lefty ace rising through the minor leagues, riding a mid-90′s fastball, a devastating changeup, and a developing breaking ball to push himself to the cusp of the major leagues. Montgomery established himself as one of the top 15 or 20 prospects in baseball  in the 2010 season, and the following spring training saw him push hard for a spot in the Royals’ rotation after logging just 59.2 innings above A-ball. Then he had a tough 2011, an even worse 2012, and only moderately better 2013, and here he is a 24 year old who still has not registered a single inning in the major leagues. What happened? His fastball command and breaking ball never improved as expected. Top prospects sometimes fail. But the thing about Montgomery is that the book is not closed on him yet. Montgomery headed to the Arizona Fall League this offseason as he continues trying to become a fraction of the major leaguers we thought he would be.

One cool thing about the Arizona Fall League is that several stadiums are equipped with Pitch F/X. Montgomery made his last appearance at Surprise Stadium, one such field, and doing so gives us insight into what the Rays are having him work on. In the 8th inning of Monday’s game, Montgomery came in for the Salt River Rafters and tossed a perfect inning, striking out one in the process. He threw 19 pitches, 14 of which were strikes. Let’s take a closer look at those pitches.

Of Montgomery’s 19 pitches, 10 were identified as fastballs, but two were clearly changeups. The eight actual fastballs ranged from 89 to 92 MPH in velocity, averaging 90.88 MPH overall, and they increased as his outing progressed, starting at 90 MPH before going up to 91 MPH then 92 MPH with one outlier 89 MPH pitch mixed in.  But the velocity was not the only thing that changed. Montgomery’s fastball from 89 to 91 MPH showed little sink, running away from left-handed hitters but that was about it. Montgomery managed to get just one of those pitches into the bottom part of the zone. The pitches at 92 MPH, meanwhile, were something entirely different. Instead featuring horizontal movement and little sink, they showed cutting action to the bottom part of the zone. All three wound up down, with two located perfectly on the corner (inside to a lefty, outside to a righty), and one taken below the zone for a ball. The pitch looked more promising then the others, but all three offerings wound up in the same general vicinity. Maybe that’s the only place where Montgomery can throw them for a strike. In lieu of his fastball command suddenly coming along, Montgomery will look to at least vary his velocity and movement with the pitch to give hitters different looks and make sure they can’t sit on a particular location.

In this game, Montgomery threw his breaking ball, the weakest of his three pitches, nine times. Separating out Montgomery’s fastball and changeup, that was more than any other offering and it was clear that he was making an effort to use it. But among those nine pitches, we saw several different things happening. Montgomery’s breaking ball ranged from 76 to 79 MPH, but despite that, only seven were classified as curveballs, with two being deemed sliders. Before we even go into the specifics, the alarm bell has to go off in your head that it was a slurvy pitch. In several instances it was. The hitters advanced Montgomery did not recognize them well enough to hammer them, but three of Montgomery’s breaking balls were clocked in the upper-70′s but featured just short break and wound up right down the middle. Two were fouled off and one was taken for a strike. A fourth pitch also featured little break, but fortunately for Montgomery, it ended up outside.

Then among the successful breaking balls, there was three distinct types. Montgomery threw two sliders, one at 76 MPH and one at 77, that broke hard and late away from left-handed batters, forcing a swing-and-miss. Then Montgomery threw two big 1-to-7 curveballs, one at 77 MPH and one at 78, that wound up down and away, and one of those caused a hitter to chase as well. And finally, there was one true 12-to-6 curveball that featured outstanding straight down break to force a groundball. The common thread with all of the five good pitches is that they were not in the strike zone, and four of five did not end up close. Montgomery shows promise with his breaking ball, but he can’t get anything on it when he tries to throw it for a strike and hitters can neutralize it if they don’t chase. Montgomery either needs to be throwing his breaking ball harder, turning it into a true slider, or he has to find a way to get the bigger break even when it’s within the zone.

It’s hard to quibble with Montgomery’s two changeups, one at 80 MPH and the other at 82 MPH. Both showed good sink and fade towards a left-handed batter. One telling thing, though, was despite both being located well, both were fouled off. Montgomery’s changeup is a great pitch in a vacuum–but it’s not nearly as effective when Montgomery can’t locate his fastball. We’ve seen with Jeremy Hellickson that it doesn’t matter how good of a changeup he has when he can’t command his fastball. Montgomery has the same issue to the extreme.

In the Arizona Fall League, Montgomery has two primary objectives: to refine his curveball and fastball command. Given that Montgomery continues throwing his breaking ball in the high-70′s, it seems that the Rays are trying to get him to eliminate the slurvyness and get the sharper curveball movement on it more often. Montgomery  has been trying to do that but has remained inconsistent, throwing some great curveballs but also hanging way too many. In regards to fastball command, though, Montgomery has gone almost nowhere. The good news, though, is that Montgomery is really pitching now, recognizing when a pitch isn’t working well and resorting to other options accordingly. Montgomery tried to locate his fastball, but when that failed, we saw him rely more heavily on his curveball before resorting to the harder, more cutter-like pitch. He labored, throwing 19 pitches without even allowing a baserunner, but through the adjustments he made, he was able to toss a clean inning.

Mike Montgomery’s stuff isn’t nearly as overpowering as we thought it would be by now, but the good news is that because of his savvy on the mound, he is just a small breakthrough away from being a back-of-the-rotation starter or at least a middle reliever. So many top prospects flame out because they can’t throw strikes or they can’t command their pitches with enough regularity. Montgomery throws enough pitches in the zone with his fastball, and his changeup makes sure the contact against isn’t too hard. The only question is whether he can make his breaking ball into a more consistent third pitch. The Rays are still hoping that his fastball command will click and the above-average major league pitcher inside of him will come out again. But even if that doesn’t happen, Mike Montgomery still has a future in the major leagues, and with enough progress in the Arizona Fall League, that could come as soon as next year.

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