Can Mike Montgomery boost the Royals rotation in 2020?

Left-handed pitcher Mike Montgomery’s return to Kansas City was one of the more peculiar stories to occur during the 2019 season. Traded from the Chicago Cubs to the Kansas City Royals for catcher Martin Maldonado, Montgomery’s arrival was a homecoming of sorts. Montgomery was drafted 36th overall in the 2008 ML Draft and was expected to be a front of the rotation starter for the Royals for years to come shortly after he was drafted. Montgomery was rated as the top Royals prospect by Baseball America in 2010 and 2012, which included him being ranked #39, #19, and #23 overall by BA from 2010-2012, respectively.

However, despite the lofty accolades, Montgomery was not able to realize those expectations in KC, as he was included in the James Shields trade with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2012. And unfortunately for Montgomery, to put salt in the wound, not only did he live up to his lofty rankings early in his professional career in KC, he failed to live up to them anywhere, as Montgomery bounced between the rotation and bullpen between 2015 and the first half of 2019 with the Seattle Mariners and Chicago Cubs.

After coming over to Kansas City, Montgomery found a regular spot in the rotation, as he started 13 games with the Royals in 2019 (it was the first time he started all the game he appeared in since 2015 with the Mariners). While Montgomery had mixed success with the Royals over 64 innings of work, it seems likely that Montgomery, barring injury or a disastrous spring, will have a spot in the Royals rotation in 2020. (Of course, the Royals do need to sign him in arbitration, but it seems likely that will happen.)

That being said, with so many quality top prospects like Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar looking to debut in 2020 (and maybe Daniel Lynch and Kris Bubic, though they probably are a year away), will Montgomery be able to keep a rotation spot in 2020? Or will he eventually fade and give way to Singer and Kowar and be back in the bullpen like he was in Chicago (or worse, traded or released)?

Let’s take a look at what Montgomery will add to the Royals rotation in 2020.


Montgomery proved to be a groundball machine in 2019

Brad Keller, the Royals’ Opening Day Starter 2019 (and likely on in 2020), is known for being a groundball machine. However, even though he pitched less innings in Kansas City in 2019 than Keller, Montgomery proved to be even better than Keller when it came to inducing ground balls, a solid skill to have considering the Royals sport a solid defensive middle infield that consists of Adalberto Mondesi and Nicky Lopez (and maybe Whit Merrifield if he stays at second next year).

Montgomery led all Royals starters who pitched 20 or more innings when it came to GB/FB ratio and GB percentage, as he sported a 1.87 ratio and 51 GB percentage, respectively. His numbers were .15 and 1 percent better than Keller in those categories, respectively, which shows that Montgomery has serious potential to be Keller-like in terms of pitching effectiveness in 2020. Furthermore, the 30-year-old left-handed pitcher also has a stronger ability to miss bats in comparison to the Royals’ top pitcher. Montgomery posted a better strikeout rate (18.3 percent to 17.2) and K/BB ratio (2.43 to 1.74) than the Royals ace in 2019, so there is some hope that Montgomery could be a dark horse when it comes to strengthening the Royals rotation in 2020.


Montgomery has to work on keeping the ball in the yard and limiting hard contact, however

While the groundball and strikeout numbers bode well in Montgomery’s favor, his struggles with the long ball and allowing batters to barrel the ball with ease didn’t work in his favor in 2019. After being one of the better pitchers in baseball when it came to preventing hitters from barreling the ball (3.2 and 3.7 percent in 2017 and 2018, respectively), that changed significantly in 2019, according to Baseball Savant. His barrel percentage rose to 8.2 percent in 2019, which consequently spiked his hard hit percentage to 44 percent, which ranked in the bottom 3 percent of the league.

This huge spike in these respective categories also had consequences when it came to the scoreboard. His HR/FB percentage of 21.8 was the second-highest of Royals starters who pitched 20 or more innings (Jorge Lopez’s was higher at 22 percent…to the surprise of no Royals fan who paid attention in 2019). Thus it makes sense why Montgomery posted a higher FIP (5.23) than ERA (4.64), showing that things could have been worse for Montgomery and the Royals if he started more games in 2019.

While he is doing a good job of keeping the ball on the ground in comparison to other Royals starting pitchers, Montgomery needs to be better in terms of keeping fly balls in the park. If he can prevent hitters from squaring up on balls as much in 2020, then it’s possible that the home run to fly ball percentages would improve, which would make him more effective as a Royals starting pitcher.


Montgomery needs to find consistency with his command

Montgomery sports a diverse pitch arsenal, for according to Statcast data, his top-three thrown pitches are his sinker (26.7 percent), curve ball (21.2 percent), and changeup (21.2 percent). He also throws his cutter (17 percent) more than his fastball (13.7 percent). It’s one thing to be a junk-reliant pitcher. However, it’s another thing for a starting pitcher to rely on their fastball the LEAST in comparison to their other pitches.

And this diverse arsenal is probably a reason why his command was so inconsistent with the Royals. If hitters aren’t chasing out of the zone or if Montgomery is not hitting the right spots, it will be hard for Montgomery to get ahead in counts to put hitters in tougher situations at the plate. Royals fans could see this was the case when Montgomery’s game logs are analyzed.

In five starts with the Royals in August, Montgomery posted a 2.45 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, and 2-3 record. He also displayed solid command as he struck out 31 batters and only walked nine. These metrics show that Montgomery was locating with his pitches and finding the strike zone. However, the final month of the season proved to be disastrous for the left-hander. Despite pitching less innings, he allowed more hits (31 to 29), walked more batters (10 to 9), and struck out far fewer (15 to 31). Thus, it’s not surprise that Montgomery struggled during September, posting a 5.79 ERA, 1.76 WHIP, and 0-2 record.

Montgomery needs to find the strike zone more consistently so he can be more efficient on the mound. According to Fangraphs Pitch Info data, Montgomery hit the strike zone only 41.8 percent of the time, which is the lowest percentage of his career. One has to wonder if Montgomery, with a larger repertoire of pitches in KC (he increased the use of his cutter from Chicago to KC this year, according to Pitch Info), “over-analyzed” at-bats on the mound, which led to him trying to “paint” too much instead of just throwing and trusting his defense (which led to missing the strike zone or worse, mistakes that became “meatballs” for hitters) . A key stat that illustrates that this could have been an issue was that his pace (seconds between pitches) was the longest of his career at 24.5. That was almost a second higher than a year ago and nearly two seconds more than two seasons ago.

It may help Montgomery to be more decisive on the mound and shorten that pace. By doing that, he may be able to get ahead and finish batters by thinking less and simply just throwing. Granted, that isn’t easy to do without a top-notch fastball (which Montgomery doesn’t have anymore, unfortunately), but if he can develop a better understanding of his arsenal this Spring, that could transition to more efficient (and consequently, more effective) pitching in 2020.


Why Montgomery can help the Royals rotation in 2020

Montgomery certainly faded down the stretch, but that may have been due to him adjusting to a regular starter role after being primarily a spot starter and middle reliever in Chicago with the Cubs. As stated before, it’s likely that Montgomery will be a No. 3-5 starter in the Royals rotation in 2020. Even if the Royals sign a free agent pitcher or trade for one, Montgomery still is a better starting pitcher candidate than Glenn Sparkman or Jorge Lopez.

It’s too bad that Montgomery never lived up to the promise of his lofty prospect status. However, Montgomery in 2019 showed flashes of being a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter who could be a good stopgap for the Royals rotation as the young arms transition to the majors over the next two years. By the time Montgomery is a free agent after the 2021 season, his services not only will not be needed, but he could have done enough to maybe earn a decent contract on another Major League club.

Of course it won’t be easy. Without an effective fastball, Montgomery will have his work cut out in term of honing his command. But, if he can keep the barrels and hard hit balls down, the ball out of the upper zone, as well as batted balls on the ground for the defense to scoop up, it isn’t out of the question to think that Montgomery could be the Royals’ second or third-best starting pitcher in 2020.

And if Royals fans are still skeptical, check out pitchers he is similar to based on batted ball data from Statcast.

I think Royals fans would be okay if Montgomery could turn into some of those names on that graph in 2020.

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