Frankie Montas has been a welcome shot in the arm for the A’s surprisingly solid rotation. Forced up mainly due to injury, Montas has eaten innings flawlessly for an A’s team constantly in need of arms. Can he keep it up?
Improved control and somewhat improved command
The obvious improvement for Montas so far is his control. His walk rate has plummeted from 13.2% last year (would rank second highest among starters if he qualified) to just 3.6% this year (would rank third lowest among starters). It’s not totally surprising to see the walk rate down as Montas has done well throwing strikes in the minor leagues. That hasn’t translated to the bigs, likely because of nerves and a fear of giving up damaging hits until this year.
His command has looked better too, as Montas has thrown to the edges more than than last year and at a respectable rate. He’s still not quite Greg Maddux though, as he’s throwing the ball dead center of the zone 10.8% of the time, up from last season.
A mini Kendall Graveman
Kendall Graveman took some time to figure it out in the bigs if you can even say he’s done that. He’s shown flashes of goodness and some of his best moments have come in some of his most predictable times. When Graveman has been more or less a two pitch pitcher, he’s been brilliant for significant stretches.
The why is complicated as pitching often is, but undoubtedly a portion of it is command related. Graveman’s sinker and cutter are his bread and his butter, two pitches he’s thrown thousands of times in his career. His sinker, which he’d throw nearly 90% of the time, became an any count pitch while retaining its out potential. No easy thing to do.
Frankie Montas has done something similar, upping his sinker percentage from 29.5% to 70.4%. This has helped in a variety of ways. For one, it’s played a huge role in his lowered walk rate. He’s always had better control with his sinker than his other offerings and he’s throwing his sinker in the zone more (63% in 2018 vs. 57% in 2017) this year. Increasing a pitch that’s frequently in the zone will cut down on the walks, increasing the amount that pitch is in the zone will obviously amplify that effect. Math.
The worry in doing so if effectiveness, as pitches throwing any pitch with too much frequency can show diminishing returns. That hasn’t been the case thus far for Montas who is getting groundballs with the sinker a little more frequently than in years past. Basic math tells us once again a higher rate with a higher amount of pitches leads to more of a certain outcome, in this case more groundballs. Montas is far from a groundball pitcher, but his rate is up to a respectable 41% overall with 47% of sinkers hit being hit on the the ground. Smart move if you have a certain Matt Chapman backing you up.
A weak opposition
Anytime a young and exciting pitcher posts a sub 2.00 ERA, it’s important to temper your expectations. Montas isn’t a total fluke, his FIP is at a healthy 3.11 and there are positive indicators alongside his good stuff.
He’s yet to play a truly impressive team. The Diamondbacks were a hot mess when they came to town and the Royals are the Royals. He’ll have a major test this week against the Astros, one of the best offenses in baseball. They’re patient, they’re smart, and typically hit pitches in and out of the zone night in and night out. Montas will need to combine the guile he’s shown early with the stuff he’s mostly tucked away. In short, he’ll need to continue his evolution as a pitcher.
This is an A’s blog so we harp on the positive and downplay the negative. This section will be short and sweet - Montas has certainly been lucky thus far. That doesn’t preclude him from being good, nor does it mean he needs to make a change but it does mean there’s room for his excellent start to turn sour, fast. His .238 BABIP is rather low and so is his 16% K rate. He’s giving up a fair share of line drives and flyballs and those balls may well find gaps or bleachers on a worse day.
The power of patience
As of my fingers typing these words, Max Muncy has a 170 wRC+ which would be top five in the league if he qualified. He’s just short of qualifying. Richie Martin has learned how to hit, and maybe, just maybe, Frankie Montas can be a big league starter.
We’re still too early to say any of those things with certainty but even if none of those players keep up their pace, the truth remains: some players take a little longer to hit their stride. So long as the tools are there, and the tools are certainly there for Frankie Montas or Franklin Barreto or Jorge Mateo, there’s a chance.
Baseball also isn’t linear. Montas may well have a stretch of terrible before having another solid run. A sub 2.00 ERA isn’t his final form and it’ll be a while before we know what is. No matter what, it’s good to see Frankie Montas showing signs of big league life.