An Early Look at Jordan Montgomery and Blake Snell

John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

About two months ago, pitchers and catchers reported to spring training, marking a ceremonial end to the winter and the beginning of a new season. But as players showed up to camp and exhibition games began a couple weeks later, two pitchers were notably absent.

Blake Snell and Jordan Montgomery, our fifth and sixth ranked free agents entering the offseason, each signed contracts dangerously close to the start of the season, with the latter coming off the market just two days prior to Opening Day. Both had to settle for much shorter-term deals than they were expecting, with combined guarantees undershooting our crowdsourced projections by $188 million.

As the first to sign, Snell was the first to make his debut, starting the Giants’ 11th game of the year after pitching in simulated games against his teammates. Montgomery reported to Triple-A, making two starts in Reno before being activated by the big club last Friday. His first start of the year, interestingly, came against the Giants and opposite Blake Snell, so it offered an early look at how this unconventional offseason might have impacted each pitcher.

Snell vs. Montgomery was an exciting matchup thanks to their track records of excellence and the intrigue surrounding their offseasons, but also one that came with many unknowns. How would Montgomery fare in his first major league action of the season? Would Snell bounce back after two consecutive poor outings? How much rust would each deal with after a month of ramp up time?

Snell’s top of the first inning was relatively uneventful; he used his slider and changeup to record three straight outs after a leadoff single. Next, it was Montgomery’s turn to face a Giants lineup stacked with right-handed platoon hitters like Austin Slater and Tom Murphy. Slater led off, and Montgomery’s first offering of the year was a sinker that clocked in at 91.4 mph, two ticks shy of last year’s average. He sat in that velocity band throughout the game, a symptom of the late start to his spring. Slater eventually grounded out on a curveball low in the zone, and the next two hitters were also retired on routine grounders.

Outside of being left-handed pitchers on short-term contracts, Snell and Montgomery have little in common, especially with respect to their pitching styles. Snell refuses to conform to the so-called strike zone, rapidly changing batters’ eye levels with fastballs above it and breaking balls below it. His brand of high-strikeout, high-walk baseball has netted him two Cy Young awards, though he ran a more pedestrian 96 ERA- across the four seasons separating them. Montgomery, on the other hand, prefers to live in the zone with his plus command and arsenal of downward-breaking pitches. He’s never reached the heights of Snell’s peak years, but has outproduced him by WAR over the past three years.

Snell pitched a clean second inning, capped off by a seven-pitch showdown against Gabriel Moreno. After falling behind in the count 3-1, he got Moreno to swing and miss below the zone, then foul off the next pitch to keep the count full. He threw two fastballs and four sliders to get here. So what did he do next?

This is an example of Snell at his best, the version that knows where each pitch is going even when not throwing strikes. Primed for a fastball or slider that would have ended up down the middle had it been aimed at the same spot out of the hand, Moreno went down on a curveball that dropped two feet more than any of Snell’s other pitches. Last season, Snell’s 310 swinging strikes on out-of-zone pitches ranked second in baseball, and most of them came on breaking balls that tunneled well with his fastball before falling off the table.

Unfortunately, Snell failed to execute this strategy for the rest of his start, as too many offerings leaked over the middle of the plate. In the third, a slider and changeup down the middle resulted in loud contact from Blaze Alexander and Ketel Marte. In the fourth, Alexander struck again, this time against the fastball. Snell allowed four more hits in the fifth before being pulled mid-inning, failing to complete five frames for the third consecutive start. The Diamondbacks collected nine hits, the most he’s allowed in a start since 2019.

Most of the hits Snell allowed were the result of the Diamondbacks capitalizing on pitches down the middle, which were uncharacteristically frequent from someone whose pitches tend to magnetize away from the zone. But in this three-start sample, Snell has been leaving more pitches over the heart of the plate, resulting in both more loud contact and fewer swinging strikes in the zone.

Blake Snell Heart% by Pitch

2023 2024
Fastball 24% 25%
Curveball 12% 19%
Slider 14% 16%
Changeup 16% 29%

SOURCE: Baseball Savant

While Snell’s command certainly isn’t where it was last year, Montgomery had no such issues locating his pitches throughout his start. He landed an impressive 23 of his 30 sinkers in the strike zone, taking advantage of its high groundball rate; batters have slugged under .375 against in each of the past two seasons. With a strike-stealing machine in his arsenal, many matchups against Montgomery ended in either an early groundout or a pitcher-friendly count that allowed him to deploy his curveball and changeup, the latter of which earned four of his eight whiffs on the night. While he spiked a few curveballs in the dirt, he had excellent feel for locating his changeup, consistently landing it on the armside half of the plate.

Without his typical velocity, Montgomery struck out just three batters (one of which came on a pitch clock violation). Instead, he recorded outs by keeping his pitches away from barrels and limiting the quality of contact against him, tallying nine groundouts in six innings of work while allowing a hard-hit rate of just 32%. Aside from a Jorge Soler homer that marked the only blemish on Montgomery’s record, none of the other batted balls he allowed were particularly threatening; over two-thirds of them had an xBA below .200.

Another trend to watch from Montgomery’s start was his increased use of his changeup and curveball. He’s thrown his fastballs about half the time throughout his career, but he dropped that usage to about 40% in his first game with the Diamondbacks. This shift may simply be the result of good advance scouting — Giants’ right-handed hitters currently rank 28th in wOBA against non-fastballs — but it could also be part of Arizona’s teamwide shift toward more diverse arsenals, especially from its starting pitchers. This season, Merrill Kelly has added a slider to his kitchen-sink arsenal while Slade Cecconi is throwing far more splitters at the expense of his fastball. Montgomery’s curveball has been a successful out pitch and could potentially generate even more outs if he continues to throw it 30% of the time; during his career, batters have generated a pitiful .177/.209/.307 line against it.

Jordan Montgomery Pitch Usage vs. RHH

2023 Friday
Sinker 41% 37%
Changeup 26% 31%
Curveball 21% 28%
Four-Seamer 11% 4%

SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Montgomery was removed from the game after six innings and 78 pitches, and Arizona’s offense teed off in the late innings of the game, which ultimately resulted in a 17-1 wallop. Both starting pitchers still have more ramping up to do at the big league level, with Montgomery working back to regular season velocity and Snell still searching for his command after three bad outings. That said, I think there’s reason to be optimistic about both pitchers. Even with an 11.57 ERA, Snell’s peripherals are nearly in line with last season’s numbers, and he tends to improve as the year goes on, with a career FIP nearly a run better in the second half of seasons. Montgomery showed off his advanced pitchability despite his diminished stuff, with a possible arsenal change that could lead to improvements.

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