At the trade deadline, it was obvious to everyone that the Royals were trying to deal catcher Martín Maldonado. He was only signed through the end of this year, hadn’t been as good defensively as previous years, and had been even worse offensively. All of those things combined to make it seem likely there would be no takers for the Puerto Rican catcher. The best that could be hoped for, it seemed, was cash considerations or an org filler guy who might find some magic in a change of scenery.
Then the deal was announced and everyone was shocked; the Royals had somehow turned a few months of a position player on the wrong side of the aging curve with declining stats into two and a half years of a guy who could be a reliever with some upside. And, even better, the Royals had a history with that player: Mike Montgomery, who was part of The Best Farm System In The History Of Whatever.
A few years ago Mike Montgomery had shown some flashes of being a serviceable starter for the Mariners but they ultimately moved him to the bullpen in 2016 where he became a shutdown swingman. The Mariners dealt him to the Cubs and he pitched the final out of their first World Series victory in more than 100 years. He put up decent number as in the same role for the next two seasons for the Cubs but they demoted him to a full-time reliever in 2019 and he became unhappy without the opportunity to start. That dissatisfaction, and lack of performance in even a relieving role, was what led the Cubs to be willing to deal the lefty for a backup catcher while their starter healed from an injury.
In Montgomery the Royals saw someone they could at least use to fill their rotation out in 2019 - it was a bit depleted due to injuries and dealing Homer Bailey. There also exists the possibility that if he finds any success the Royals could trade him again at some point in the near future for other pieces to fill in around the club. He’s unlikely to still be a regular in the starting rotation by 2021 as Brad Keller and Jakob Junis will still be around and the fast-moving pitching prospects of the 2018 draft class figure to mostly be arriving by then.
To everyone’s surprise, the experiment of putting Montgomery back into the rotation on a semi-permanent basis is...working? Generally, we can expect that a struggling starter can find more success in the bullpen by eliminating his weakest pitch and picking up a bit of velocity without the need to pitch for long outings. But things went pretty much the exact opposite for Mike Montgomery once he joined the Royals. His strikeouts went up, his walks went down. He allowed fewer line drives, more ground balls, and generally gave the appearance of a serviceable starting pitcher. He wasn’t amazing by any means, even with the Royals his final ERA was 4.64 with a worrying 5.23 FIP. He was giving up a lot of hard contact but getting away with it due to the increase in strikeouts and ground balls. But even so, he was worth about 0.3 fWAR or 0.5 fWAR for the Royals over 13 starts. If you multiply that over a full season you’d get someone pushing the limits of 2 WAR, which is a huge return for a catcher who looked about finished as a major league baseball player when the Royals dealt him.
That isn’t to say there aren’t still concerns with Montgomery. For one, there’s the aforementioned hard hit%. Among all starters who pitched at least 50 innings this year Mike Montgomery’s hard-hit rate of 47.8% is fourth-worst in the major leagues. He also averaged a little under five innings per start which simply isn’t going to cut it, even in the modern game where starters are going fewer innings than ever.
Still, the groundball rate when combined with the strikeout rate is promising. If he can figure out how to pitch just an inning or so deeper into games and get slightly weaker contact we would be talking about a solid big league starter instead of a fringe guy. He didn’t exactly reinvent the book on himself but he absolutely made a case to stick him back in the rotation next season and see if he can somehow take that next step in his age-30 season.
Before you vote in the poll check out this footage from the best start of his season when he struck out twelve Tigers in seven shutout innings. It was a lot of fun.
What grade would you give Mike Montgomery for his 2019 season?
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