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We're Only Making Plans for MiMo

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Mike Montgomery has been one of the bullpen's most consistent relievers, so why isn't he being used in more high-leverage situations?

"Hey, good job not giving up ten runs. Way to hold down the fort."
"Hey, good job not giving up ten runs. Way to hold down the fort."
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

They say dress for the job you want, not the job you have. That’s the only way I can explain whatever is growing on Mike Montgomery’s face: an attempt at a high-leverage beard, in the style of Brian Wilson or Bruce Sutter or whatever battery-acid accident was going on with Rodney’s goatee last year. If that’s what it takes, so be it; Mike Montgomery is currently being used in low-leverage situations, and this should change sooner rather than later.

So far this year, MiMo has appeared in 12 games, with an average leverage index of .44 (you can brush up on leverage index here, but basically it measures how intense the situation is, or how much of a game’s outcome depends on what happens at a given moment in a game; 1.0 is average). Only one of Monty's 12 appearances came in a game with a leverage index higher than 1.0, and three of them clock in at .05, .02, and .00. Do you know who else entered a game to pitch with a leverage index of .00? Jesus Sucre. Monty hasn’t been trusted with too many close games, but when he has, the results have been largely positive. With such a small sample size, we can examine all of them.

In the table above, I've highlighted the two outliers in Montgomery's performances so far--a particularly poor one against Texas, and a particularly strong one against Tampa Bay. In both those situations, MiMo was being used as an innings eater; in the April game, he relieved Iwakuma in the seventh and eighth innings but got pummeled by the Rangers for six hits and four runs. Exactly one month later, he relieved Walker after the wheels came off what was a spectacular pitching performance up to that point and kept the Mariners in the game by pitching 2.1 scoreless innings of relief. Chris Iannetta is (rightfully) hailed as the hero of that day, but Monty's clutch performance in which he gave up no hits and basically no walks (I don't even count the HBP, as that was Brandon Guyer, who I'm sure had a baseball-seeking magnet installed in his thigh over the off-season) kept the game close. Montgomery's rough outing against Texas might also be explained by the fact that they had just seen him for two innings of work the week before, in which he mowed through the heart of the Rangers' order in such a fashion as to inspire me to write this piece on his potential (at which some of you scoffed! I remember who you are, SCOFFERS).

Montgomery also pitched well in the only other semi-high-leverage situation he entered, in Oakland on May 4th (also known as the #Swelmet game). Entering in the sixth down two runs, MiMo faced the minimum over his two innings of work. He didn't strike anyone out; he got a line out, two ground outs, and three fly outs. At only 52 balls in play, it's still early to look at Monty's groundball/flyball ratios with any sort of certainty; however. his GB percentage is currently 60%, with a GB/FB ratio of 2.73. Even when these numbers drop, as they inevitably will, it's reasonable to expect Montgomery won't give up many home runs, especially in the spacious confines of Safeco.  Montgomery has never been known as a strikeout king, but at 72 batters faced, his strikeout rate of 22.4% should be fairly stabilized, which would be a career best. Part of this may be the secondary pitches he's developed to complement his above-average fastball. As the season progresses, he's getting more whiffs on everything but his cutter. Steamer projected MiMo to have 44 strikeouts all year; a month and a half into the season, he already has 15.

This level of production probably isn't sustainable. Montgomery is currently enjoying a BABIP of .224 and his FIP of 2.57 suggests his ERA of 2.29 will creep upward. But he's already been worth .3 WAR, which equals his total from all of last year. Lanky, blonde and unassuming, Montgomery might not look like a fearsome presence on the mound. He doesn't have Carson Smith's snarl or Dellin Betances's icy sneer or Luke Gregerson's whatever is happening on his face at the moment (I call it the Twin Peaks). In the season preview for the Seattle Times, MiMo's best case scenario was listed as "makes a seamless transition from a starter to a reliever, and gets tough left-handers out." Montgomery has shown he can do even better than that, holding down close games and getting out tough batters regardless of handedness. It's time to give him an opportunity to do so when the lights shine just a little brighter.