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Frankie Montas has figured it out

The Oakland A’s right-hander has become one of baseball’s best pitchers.

Oakland Athletics v Cleveland Indians Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

At last year’s trade deadline, my colleague Patrick Brennan extolled the value of a Quad-A first baseman the Yankees acquired for two relievers named Luke Voit. Of course, Luke Voit turned out to be LUKE VOIT! and Brennan’s article was our best trafficked piece of the year.

Now we actually take his written work seriously (uh, I mean, we always have, Patrick). So when he makes a prediction about a potentially improved post-prospect, it’s worth paying attention.

On April 2, after just one regular season start, NostraPatrick proclaimed Oakland A’s hurler Frankie Montas ready to break out. The 26-year-old former top 100 prospect had been traded thrice, never really sticking around in the majors. He always had a live arm, with a fastball touching triple digits, but suffered from three main problems:

  1. A 2:1 strikeout:walk ratio, with not enough of the former and too much of the latter.
  2. An inability to get left-handed hitters out. Opposite side batters slashed .319/.407/.588 with a .418 wOBA against him from 2015-18.
  3. Injuries. Specifically, knee and rib cage surgeries that halted his development.

Patrick “Professor Trelawney” Brennan’s crystal ball informed him that 2019 would be Montas’ year. Aside from the usual divination methods, his premise was that throwing a newly-learned splitter would help Montas finally retire left-handed hitters.

Lo and behold, Montas leads the AL with a 2.73 FIP. His 2.91 DRA ranks fourth in the league and his 2.40 ERA is third. His strikeout rate increased by 63 percent from 15.2 percent of batters faced to 24.7. By any measure, he has become an ace.

About that Splitter...

Unmistakably, the splitter has made all the difference. He’s thrown 160 of them this year, including 115 against lefties. Opponents have been unable to do damage on the pitch, mustering just a .229 wOBA with a 47.6 percent whiff rate. He’s used it as a put-away pitch 31.3 percent of the time— more than any other pitch.

The brand new splitter is being used at the expense of his sinker, which was his go-to pitch last season. Now, his sinker usage is down to 37.8 percent from 55.4 percent a year ago. This was a necessary change; batters amassed a .397 wOBA against the pitch last year. That number is down to .331 this year, as one would expect since hitters face it less often.

As expected, the difference in pitch outcomes against lefties has been especially dramatic.

Frankie Montas vs. LHH

Pitch 2018 Usage 2018 wOBA 2018 xwOBA 2019 Usage 2019 wOBA 2019 xwOBA
Pitch 2018 Usage 2018 wOBA 2018 xwOBA 2019 Usage 2019 wOBA 2019 xwOBA
Sinker 60.6% .447 .422 41.6% .355 .371
Slider 18.5% .185 .241 21.3% .176 .177
Four-Seamer 15.1% .297 .357 13.3% .465 .385
Changeup 5.8% .208 .387 -- -- --
Splitter -- -- -- 23.6% .246 .221

The effectiveness of his splitter rubs off on the rest of his arsenal. Lefty batters can no longer just sit on the heretofore ineffective sinker; they have to respect the split. As a result, the sinker and slider have both been more successful this season. (Scrapping the changeup didn’t hurt either.)

Staying Ahead

Splitters are great swing-and-miss pitches, but like Brennan’s tea leaves, they can’t be used all the time. (Who could drink THAT much tea?) By design, the pitch is supposed to look like a fastball down the middle, then drop out of the zone. With two strikes, the batter needs to protect the plate and often swings through the pitch. If the batter is ahead in the count, though, it can be ignored for a ball.

To set up the splitter, Montas needs to get ahead of hitters. While his 7.4 percent walk rate in 2018 was fairly average, it was north of 13 percent in prior years. This season, he dropped it down to 5.3 percent, which is in the top 20 of all qualified MLB starters. He’s doing a better job of staying in favorable counts:

Montas on 0-0 and 1-1

Count 2015-18 strike % 2019 strike %
Count 2015-18 strike % 2019 strike %
0-0 59.3% 61.1%
1-1 65.2% 69.8%

It all plays together. By throwing more strikes in even counts, he’s able to feature the splitter. By using the splitter, his other pitches work better. With all his pitches more effective, he’s able to get lefties out. Now that he gets lefties out, he’s an excellent pitcher.

Without any one of these cogs, the whole machine falls apart. It’s truly impressive that he’s pieced them together all at the same time so they compliment one another. Who could’ve predicted that?

Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at Tweets @depstein1983