The Call Up: Jordan Montgomery

Jordan Montgomery wasn’t supposed to be the Yankees’ fifth starter. Sure, he was part of the competition in spring training, but others appeared to be more serious and qualified candidates. After all, Montgomery wasn’t on the 40-man roster, had only thrown 37 innings in Triple-A, and there were other options with major league experience. Nonetheless, he overcame those roadblocks and was named the fifth starter this week. Today, he’ll make his major league debut at Yankee Stadium against the Rays. What should we expect this year and down the road?

What the scouts say:

Montgomery isn’t an upper echelon prospect, but apparently a safe bet to be a productive major leaguer. Based on publically available scouting reports on Fangraphs (Eric Logenhagen) and MLB.com (Jim Callis/Jonathan Mayo), the former fourth-round pick has or will have at least four average or better pitches along with average command:

A couple of relevant excerpts (from Fangraphs and MLB.com Yankees prospect lists):

He’s a low-risk No. 4 or 5 starter for me with a chance to be a solid 50 [on the 20-80 scale] on inning-eating volume or if the changeup develops past my projections.
— Eric Logenhagen, Fangraphs
A good athlete, Montgomery repeats his clean delivery well, which allows him to locate his pitches where he wants. He’s a safe bet to become a back-of-the-rotation starter, and if his newfound velocity is for real, he could be more than that.
— MLB.com

That’s pretty good! It’s not an ace profile by any means, but having a safe bet to be a back-of-the-rotation innings eater is incredibly valuable. Clearly, given the arsenal he possesses and impression in spring training, the Yankees don’t feel like he needs any more time in the minors. There's no reason to wait any longer if he is the best option now.

What the projections say:

2017 projections aren’t enamored with Montgomery. Assuming a league average ERA similar to last season (3.99), both systems expect him to be a quite a bit below average. ZiPS foresees a 4.87 ERA/4.76 FIP and Steamer is slightly more rosy at a 4.65 ERA/4.77 FIP. That being said, he projects far better than Luis Cessa and Bryan Mitchell, two hurlers he beat out for the fifth spot:

ZiPS

  • Green: 4.69 ERA/4.53 FIP
  • Cessa: 5.33 ERA/5.12 FIP
  • Mitchell: 5.74 ERA/5.43 FIP
  • Warren: 4.24 ERA/4.31 FIP

Steamer

  • Green: 4.29 ERA/4.27 FIP
  • Cessa: 4.83 ERA/4.80 FIP
  • Mitchell: 4.69 ERA/4.77 FIP
  • Warren: 4.47 ERA/4.57 FIP

He’s not far off from Chad Green either, who he also surpassed. Ultimately, while the short-term forecasts aren’t big fans of Montgomery, it’s not like they project him to be awful. A mid-to-high 4 ERA pitcher, especially a rookie, can survive in the back of the rotation. 

Let’s turn to long-term projections. At 3.6 KATOH and 3.2 KATOH+ projected WAR in his first six seasons, Montgomery falls just outside of baseball's top-100 prospects. I spoke to Chris Mitchell, proprietor of KATOH, to get a better understanding of the system’s evaluation of the Yankees’ newest pitcher. Here's his synopsis:

Montgomery induced a healthy amount of strikeouts in the upper levels last year while also keeping his walks in check [which KATOH likes]. He doesn’t project to be anything special, as 24 year-old pitchers with merely good minor league numbers aren’t exactly rare. But six-foot-four starters who master Triple-A often stick in the big leagues in some capacity.
— Chris Mitchell, Fangraphs

If you're scratching your head at what seems like a low WAR projection from KATOH, I understand. On the forefront, it sounds bearish, but don't get hung up on it just yet. Chris noted that KATOH tends to favor hitters in the KATOH Top-100 prospect list:

Primarily, it’s just that even the best pitching prospects are risky. They get hurt; they lose velocity; they move to bullpen — all with little notice. Even the pitchers who do pan out are less likely to sustain their success over several years than their hitting counterparts.
— Chris Mitchell, Fangraphs

That makes plenty of sense. It's as if pitchers get an across the board demerit just because of the position they play, so keep that in mind for Montgomery's forecast.

Further, Chris sent me Mahalanobis comps for Montgomery. This list contains past pitchers with similar statistical profiles to Montgomery in the minor leagues and shows how those pitchers performed. It's not a precise comp, as no one would compare Kevin Correia (a righty) to Montgomery (a lefty). It's meant as an exercise that depicts an array of potential outcomes for pitchers with similar historic projections. Note: the smaller the “Maha distance”, the closer the comp.

No, there aren't any sexy names in this group, but a couple of them carved out a few solid seasons in major league rotations, particularly Shawn Estes and Wade Miller. I'd sign up for what either of those two did in their early careers. Take a look at their player pages; what they did might surprise you.

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Montgomery probably won’t be a stud according to both traditional scouting and analytics. Nonetheless, it’s evident that he’s capable of being a reliable number four or five starter, potentially right away. And with a low risk profile, it doesn’t sound like his odds of failing are high. It should be fun to watch his debut this afternoon in the Bronx.