Frankie Montas is one of those pitchers where you’re often unsure of where he fits. Does his raw stuff play better as a reliever, or can he work deeper into ball games as a starter? Those questions have largely gone unanswered for quite some time. With the 2018 season in full swing, we’re getting our first glimpses of Montas and what may be his best role for the Oakland Athletics.
Montas isn’t a new face in Oakland; he’s in his second season with them, and his third major league season overall. He has been traded quite a few times, but they’ve mostly been deadline deals that involve a desired rental. Montas was a successful starter in the minors between 2014 and 2015 by all accounts. However, one things seems to have hindered him.
During his major league debut with the Chicago White Sox in September of 2015, he was directly called up from Double-A to the majors for his debut.. He showcased a couple of solid innings in low leverage appearances out of the bullpen, before the White Sox tested him in long relief where we was hit-or-miss. They then tried him out as a starter where he struggled mightily. His strikeout numbers were solid but the walks and runs were just too high to be successful in the rotation.
He ended up being traded to the Dodgers that offseason and made a few successful appearances in 2016 before being traded to the Oakland Athletics, his current team, in the deal that sent Rich Hill to Los Angeles. In 2017 started in the major league bullpen for the Athletics but was awful, so he was sent down to Triple-A and stretched out to a starter.
He only started in two of his 30 games in the big leagues, up to this season, but the Athletics are taking a new approach in 2018 as all nine professional games he’s appeared in, he’s started. They’ve given him a consistent role which has helped him settle in and find success. Although his run averages were high in Triple-A, his peripherals are right where you’d want them to be with a 19.2 percent strikeout rate and a walk rate of 7.6 percent.
He was called up around a week ago, and since his call up in two starts he has looked incredible. His first start was a bit up-and-down but it was a close game against the Arizona Diamondbacks who have a solid offense. His second start on Friday again the Royals was stellar, an eight inning scoreless outing for Montas with two strikeouts and zero walks. Although the strikeout numbers aren’t what you’d expect, for someone who throws a fastball in the mid to upper 90’s, 17 percent in his two starts isn’t too bad. He’s also not walking many batters either—only 3.8 percent.
Regardless, in the 14 innings he’s pitched in 2018, he’s given up just the one run, and only two walks with nine strikeouts.
Part of the success from what I am seeing is throwing over 80 percent fastballs and around 75 percent of strictly two-seamers. He’s getting a lot of hard contact and with a batting average on balls in play hovering at .250, not to mention a 4.31 xFIP, so it suggests he’s getting a bit lucky. His swinging strike rate is just a touch over seven percent coupled with an in zone rate almost 55 percent does not bode well with a high velocity fastball that is used over 70 percent of the time.
He receives decent horizontal movement with the four-seamer and somewhat high horizontal movement with the sinker. However, since moving into the rotation this year, his four-seamer has flattened out a bit in terms of vertical movement. That may explain why he was using the four-seamer at a 37 percent average out of the bullpen last season and between 10 and 20 percent this season as a starter. His slider usage has also decreased thus far by about seven percent and his changeup rate has been cut in half from a little over five percent to 2.2 percent.
He’s really relying on that sinker and that could and will likely come back to bite him should his current pitch usage remain the same. It’s only a matter of time before balls fly to different locations that can’t result in outs and batters will start to barrel the pitch up aided by the high velocity it’s moving at. With decent movement on the sinker, it can be a very solid main pitch, but he also has to use and develop his secondary pitches more.
Right now he has a slider and a changeup but the usage of both has decreased from his season in the bullpen last year. The small sample size of pitch values of the slider and changeup suggest that both can be successful secondary pitches; it seems more of a matter of confidence to throw them in different situations. Last season he had a combined whiff rate of almost 24 percent, where as this season he’s only getting a 17 percent whiff rate.
It’s still early to say he should have found a feel for those two pitches already but for right now, Montas is riding a wave of luck that will eventually run out. Should he follow the same course with the sinker usage he will likely end up with another disappointing season. However, if he’s willing to work on his secondary pitches and mix in a bit more four-seamers, he could find a successful season that gives him the confidence to be a middle of the rotation starter, something that’s very valuable to the Athletics given he’s only 25 years old. We’ll have to wait and see how he approaches his next handful of starts before we can make a final judgement.