Entering 2023, the Yankees looked like they’d have one of the best rotations in all of baseball, but after a myriad of injuries limited and worsened the majority of the rotation around Gerrit Cole, they failed to meet expectations. A consistent theme of disappointment rang through the organization all season, with the Yankees finishing in the bottom half of the league in ERA- and fWAR from their starters. Aaron Judge has spoken out about wanting players who can get through the full 162-game season, and the Yankees notably had a workhorse starter prior to this season.
When they made the shocking decision to deal away homegrown starter Jordan Montgomery for Harrison Bader at the 2022 trade deadline, it looked like a win-now move for a red-hot Yankee team. They tried to push all of their chips in with that decision, and while Bader put up an amazing postseason and looked poised to help the Yankees in their title chase in 2023, things fell apart. Montgomery flourished with newfound experience under his belt and has guided Texas to three wins in his three playoff starts, turning in two sparklers against Tampa and Houston.
The Yankees need insurance in their rotation, and with Bob Nightengale of USA Today reporting their interest in the 30-year-old left-hander, is it time for a reunion in the Bronx?
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What’s Changed With Montgomery Since Leaving?
If you’re living under a rock, you may have missed out on the fact that Jordan Montgomery’s ERA and FIP have improved dramatically since leaving the Bronx, so what gives? At first, it seemed as if he was a product of a weak NL Central, but he was dealt to the run-heavy AL West and has flourished, with a 2.79 ERA in that sample size and a 2.08 ERA in his three postseason starts. Looking at his pitch mix, let’s see if we can find any discernable changes in pitch usage:
|Pitch Type||2022 Usage (w/NYY)||2022-2023 (w/STL and TEX)|
The biggest difference in terms of pitch usage stems from the four-seam fastball, which he’s used instead of his cutter mostly, and as a whole, and while in 2022 with the Cardinals, the pitch saw plenty of success, leading to a .330 wOBA on the pitch in that timespan, in 2023 the pitch has more closely resembled his Yankees’ tenure in usage and results. It’s a negative run-value pitch (-3.3) and has dropped in usage by nearly 7% from 2022 to 2023, with the biggest change coming in his sinker usage.
Despite a dropoff in Stuff+ from 111 to 91 this past season, his sinker has been a money pitch for him, generating soft contact on the ground and resulting in a +16 Run-Value, with his steep release with the pitch making it hard for opposing hitters to reliably pick up. With the Yankees, it served more as a pitch he used in the 30-40% range, chasing swings-and-misses with his excellent secondaries, but it was a shift to being more aggressive in-zone with his sinker that allowed him to find that next gear.
In terms of Vertical Approach Angle (VAA), Montgomery’s -6.8° angle on release for the pitch would put him around the 95th Percentile in the steepness of release, and it’s likely what plays into the deception of the pitch. His wOBA against has regressed since leaving NY on the pitch, from .275 at the time to .313, but this could come down to something that data and numbers can’t capture, and that’s experience.
Jordan Montgomery is now 30 years old with over 140 starts under his belt, he’s pitched for a while, and entering 2022, he only had 76 under his belt with two full seasons of experience. He’s a late bloomer; the UCL injury he suffered that caused him to miss most of 2018 and 2019 set his development back a ton, and while the Yankees shouldn’t be pardoned for trading him, they shouldn’t be held to the fire for not developing him. We’ve seen with Gerrit Cole, CC Sabathia, and even Justin Verlander that pitchers learn as they pitch, and things like reading hitters and confidence improve with time.
He’s a veteran pitcher given the reigns to be a frontline starter, something the Yankees allowed him to be in 2020 when he started a do-or-die Game 4 in the ALDS and then in 2021 when he was their clearcut second-best starter. Had the Yankees advanced in the 2021 postseason, he likely would get the ball in a Game 1 scenario, but come 2022, they simply had more talent that they knew what to do with. Again, they should not have traded Jordan Montgomery. Hindsight or not it was a risky move, but the Yankees aren’t why he wasn’t the pitcher he’s become since departing.
Sometimes change benefits people, and a new environment and new headspace can lead to better results, but holding the Yankees to the fire for that feels like misplaced anger. They got a 3.77 ERA out of him between 2021 and 2022, a pretty good starter who also was capable of pitching deeper into games as the season carried on, and has taken those skills to new heights with the trust Texas has in him as their defacto ace in the absence of Max Scherzer and injuries Nathan Eovaldi suffered late in the season.
That being said, this all leads to the biggest question regarding a free agent signing, and that’s whether the Yankees should bring him back.
Why the Yankees Need Jordan Montgomery Back in Their Rotation
The Yankees may not look the part, but they desperately need reliable starting pitching for the 2024 season. In terms of run prevention, their 106 ERA- ranked 20th in the Majors while having a 1.49 HR/9 (25th) and just the 19th-most innings pitched in the sport. They were unacceptable for the expectations placed on them, and a lot of that had to do with injuries, and going forward durability should become a point of emphasis for the team.
Jordan Montgomery has the 13th-most innings in baseball since 2022 (367 IP), a reliable starter who made 30 or more starts in 2021, 2022, and 2023 and likely would have made 32 starts in 2021 if he didn’t test positive for COVID during August. He’s pitched really well in those three years as well, one of just 17 starters in that timespan to record double-digit FanGraphs’ WAR (10.2) and one of just 15 with over 90 starts made. He’s durable, he’s reliable, he prevents runs, and he’s got plenty of experience in the American League East.
Sure, Montgomery could look more like a 3.50 ERA starter and not a 3.20 ERA starter in 2024, but if he does so with 32 starts and 180 innings, the Yankees are going to get the reliable every-fifth-day guy that they desperately need. It gives more breathing room to Rodon and Cortes, who are returning from injury-riddled disaster seasons, it allows Michael King to try to reach his innings-pitched goals for the year, and it gives you the guy behind Gerrit Cole to remain a mainstay in your rotation.
Perhaps Clarke Schmidt could take that next step with the Yankees in 2024, giving the Yankees Cole-Montgomery-Schmidt as their 1-3-5 in the rotation, which would also increase the stability in their rotation. Entering the season with three starters who made over 30 starts in 2022 would be a really nice change of pace for a Yankee team that didn’t have that same stability on Opening Day, and it wouldn’t require the incredible financial investment that removes you from bidding for perhaps a Juan Soto or any other options that could become available this offseason or next.
His strikeout-to-walk numbers aren’t anything more than solid, but the ability to manage the quality of contact and sequence well should keep him a stable arm at the top half of their rotation. The Yankees desperately need stability in their rotation, and Jordan Montgomery provides that, even if his profile isn’t the one that traditionally is associated with high-end results. Financially, Montgomery isn’t going to command the money that a Yoshinobu Yamamoto will, but I think it’ll be north of $100 million.
A six-year $110 million deal would be one that I imagine nets Montgomery, and while that requires a large financial investment from the Yankees, $18.3 million shouldn’t hamper them from signing an impact bat for their lineup. Again; I understand that last season will leave some really sore memories of the Yankees giving big-time money to a starter and failing to make enough changes to impact their lineup, but winning a World Series will require investment on both sides of the ball.
Montgomery is in his prime, has the kind of arsenal that should age well, and has excellent tunneling with his curveball that could unlock another level as he did with the Texas Rangers. He dialed up the sinker usage against lefties but toned it way back against righties, knowing he can use his excellent secondaries to generate swings-and-misses, and with a more varied look with that pitching staff, he’s increased his Swinging Strike Rate, Chase Rate, and xwOBACON, changes that the Yankees as mentioned earlier initially made with the southpaw.
That 27-year-old left-hander who evolved into one of the most reliable arms in the organization has taken those very same concepts that Matt Blake instilled, and he deviated from in St. Louis, before going back to them and reaching new heights. The Yankees were wrong to believe that he was replaceable; but they were right to believe that when he’s right, when he’s mixing in all of his pitches well instead of being fastball-reliant, and with newfound confidence and maturity, he could help anchor their rotation once more.