Happy New Year! Matt and I wish you a healthy, happy and productive 2024.
On Saturday, Reds fans began receiving reports of a New Year’s surprise, gift-wrapped by GM Nick Krall and paid for by ownership. It looks like the club has signed free agent starting pitcher Frankie Montas to a one-year contract for $16 million. Montas has to complete a physical with the team, so the Reds have not yet confirmed the deal.
Montas is 30 years old, stands 6’2″ and weighs 255 lbs. Beyond those basic stats, what do we know about him? And what can Reds fans expect the right-hander to provide David Bell’s 2024 team?
In 2009, Montas signed as an international free agent with Boston out of a Dominican Republic high school. Montas progressed through the Red Sox system until 2013 when he was traded to the Chicago White Sox as part of the return for starting pitcher Jake Peavy, an All-Star. Two years later, Montas received a September call-up with the White Sox.
That same winter, the 22-year-old Montas was moved again, this time in a three-team trade with the LA Dodgers and, yes, the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds sent Todd Frazier to the White Sox who shipped Montas and two other players to the Dodgers. The Reds received Jose Peraza, Scott Schebler and Brandon Dixon from LA. At the time, Montas was ranked the #54 prospect by MLB (Peraza was #38).
With the Dodgers, Montas missed the first half of 2016 with a rib injury. Later that season, LA traded him, along with two other players to the Oakland A’s for OF Josh Reddick and SP Rich Hill. Montas saw his first significant major league time with the A’s in 2017 as a reliever, pitching in 23 games. In 2018, he split time between Oakland’s Triple-A club and the big league team in a starting pitcher role.
Big League performance
In 2019, Montas was about half-way through a breakout season when MLB suspended him for 80 games for using performance enhancing drugs. Then, in the COVID shortened 2020 season, Montas took a big step back, with his xERA increasing from 3.43 to 4.67 and xFIP rising from 3.47 to 4.36.
Still pitching for the A’s in 2021, Montas began a streak of 51 starts that ran through all of 2021 and until the 2022 trade deadline. Over that time, he pitched to a 3.87 xERA and 3.49 xFIP. His strikeout rate (26.3%) was above average and walk rate (7.1%) well below average. Montas had a league-average 44% ground ball rate. In 2021, he finished 6th in voting for the AL Cy Young Award, a season when he made all 32 starts and pitched 187 innings. The A’s named Montas their Opening Day starter in 2022.
At the 2022 trade deadline, Oakland made him the headliner in a deal with the New York Yankees. The Yankees had tried to acquire Luis Castillo from the Reds but had come up short. Montas was their Plan B. But from the beginning of his time in pinstripes, Montas experienced shoulder pain that plagued him through eight troubled starts. The Yankees shut him down in mid-September.
In February 2023, Montas underwent arthroscopic shoulder surgery to clean up his labrum. He did recover and rehab in time for two minor league and one big league appearance last September, totaling 4.1 innings. With Montas’ reserve clause time exhausted, the Yankees kicked the tires on re-signing him but ultimately let him leave to free agency.
Frankie Montas is a power pitcher with a five-pitch portfolio. About half his offerings are 96-mph four-seam fastballs and sinkers. Off-speed, Montas throws an 86-mph splitter about a quarter of the time and mostly to lefties, as well as an 87-mph slider to get right-handed batters. Montas also has a fifth pitch he throws a half-dozen times in an average game — an 89-mph cutter that he uses to jam left-handed batters. We’ll go in-depth on his arsenal in a later post, but to whet your appetite, here’s Montas whiffing Aaron Judge on his splitter. This was June, 2022 about a month before Montas switched teams.
Is Montas healthy?
The appearances Frankie Montas made at the end of the 2023 season suggest his health has progressed. Yankee manager Aaron Boone had optimistic comments about Montas after the pitcher’s appearance with New York on September 30:
“This guy has been a very good pitcher in this league. Still a relatively young man. He’s gotten to spend now over a year with us and over the last several months as he’s ramped up his rehab process, I think he’s ingratiated himself down there in the work he’s put in and the leadership he’s shown with some younger guys down in Tampa.”
As with every new acquisition, the Reds will do a full work-up on Montas before the contract becomes final. You have to assume that includes a close look at the health of his shoulder.
Return to previous performance
A healthy shoulder is one thing. Returning to play is another. Reaching your previous level of performance is an even more challenging milestone.
Recent research on MLB players who underwent arthroscopic shoulder labrum repair from 2002 to 2020 shows the rate of successful return-to-play for pitchers is between 40-69%. About half of pitchers return to their previous level of performance within three years.
“Our results demonstrate that positional players RTPP (return to previous performance) after three seasons at a higher rate than pitchers, 72% versus 46.2%, respectively. While both pitchers and positional players place substantial demands on the shoulder, these data together suggest that pitchers have more trouble returning to high-level competition and performance. This phenomenon may be attributable to pitchers’ reliance on proper shoulder function and mechanics, which may be compromised due to altered anatomy and biomechanics postoperatively.” (Castel, 2023)
In earlier research, Jay Jaffe found 67 players who had undergone some kind of labrum surgery, including Roger Clemens. Only nine of the 67 returned to a level of success similar to what they had before their surgery.
There are degrees of seriousness in shoulder injuries. The good news regarding Montas is, according to the Yankees, the pitcher’s surgery in February revealed his rotator cuff was fine. Still, Montas fell short of Yankee hopes he could return for much of the second half of the season.
What’s the best case?
Let’s bracket off the health and return-to-performance concerns for a minute. If Montas does “return to performance” what is his upside?
The 51 games Montas pitched in 2021 and 2022 show the best of Montas’ pitching. Spanning a year and a half, more than 50 starts, it’s a decent sample size. To be generous, you could even roll in his 16 starts from the 2019 season. Remember, we’re looking for his upside here. Ignore Montas’ 2020 slide because of COVID wrecking normalcy and Montas’ eight injury-tainted starts in 2022 with the Yankees. That leaves 67 best-case games from 2019, 2021 and 2022.
In those starts, Montas put up a 3.80 xERA and an xFIP of 3.47. If you want a single composite number for a pitcher, my advice is to take the average of those two stats.*
[*xERA and xFIP are park-neutral and eliminate vagaries of defense and BABIP luck out of the pitcher’s control. Both metrics are scaled to ERA for familiarity purposes. The difference between xERA and xFIP is the former assigns the pitcher full responsibility for the contact quality he gives up, while the latter assigns the pitcher responsibility for only walks, strikeouts and his ground-ball rate. Averaging a pitcher’s xERA and xFIP is based on the notion the pitcher has some, but not complete, control over contact quality. Both xERA, xFIP and the average are vastly superior to ERA as a measure of how the pitcher actually pitched.]
In Montas’ case, an average of xERA and xFIP would put him right around 3.63.
Again, that’s the upside, looking at his 67 best starts across parts of 2019 and 2022 and all of 2021. At 3.63, Montas would be the clear ace of the Reds staff and comfortably in the top 20 starters in MLB.
What about Montas’ home/away split?
Frankie Montas pitched half his games in the cavernous Oakland Coliseum. As you would expect, hehad a much better ERA pitching at home than away.
Should Reds fans be concerned that Montas won’t be able to duplicate his ERA in hitter friendly Great American Ball Park?
Yes and no.
The beauty of evaluating pitchers with xERA and xFIP is it takes park dimensions out of the equation. xERA uses the typical outcome of the pitcher’s actual contact quality surrendered across all parks. xFIP evaluates pitchers based on outcomes that are unaffected by the park. That best-case upside estimate of 3.63 is independent of park factors.
On the other hand, GABP is less friendly to pitchers than typical outcomes, about 5% less so. That doesn’t affect a pitcher’s xFIP, but it does his xERA. Add that increment to 3.80 and you’re right around 4.00.
What do expert projections say?
We have access to two expert projections for ’24. Each puts Frankie Montas just above 4.00. The Marcel system at Baseball-Reference projects him at 4.01 ERA in 74 innings pitched. Steamer at FanGraphs puts Montas at a 4.08 ERA with 24 starts and 137 innings.
Where does Montas fit with the Reds?
If Frankie Montas ends up with an ERA just around 4.00, that would put him at the head of the Reds staff based on projections for the other returning pitchers. Here is the average of Steamer and Marcel ERA projections for each:
- Frankie Montes (4.04)
- Nick Lodolo (4.13)
- Andrew Abbott (4.22)
- Hunter Greene (4.37)
- MLB Starters ’23 (4.45)
- Graham Ashcraft (4.70)
- Brandon Williamson (4.83)
The one-year contract
The Reds and Frankie Montas agreed on a one-year contract. From Montas’s perspective a one-year deal gives him the opportunity to re-establish his value as a starting pitcher and possibly sign a longer, more lucrative deal next offseason. Pitching half your games in GABP is an interesting choice for that.
From the Reds side, a one-year free-agent deal allows the Reds to avoid two paths they may see as less desirable. Montas didn’t cost the Reds any prospects. And the club isn’t on the hook for a pricey, long-term free agent contract. One-year deals minimize the risk for the club.
But one-year deals also limit rewards compared to multi-year deals, a factor that may become highly relevant in the case of Frankie Montas. If Montas gets off to a slow start the first couple months of 2024 due to rust — after all, he didn’t pitch last year — the Reds would be left with only a few months to recoup the benefits of the signing. Meanwhile, they would have used rotation slots getting Montas through that difficult time while trying to compete for the NL Central division.
Further, the return-to-performance research on pitchers indicates a success rate much higher over three years than it does for the first year back. According to Castel:
“Following arthroscopic shoulder labral surgery, most MLB pitchers and positional players were able to RTP (return to play) successfully but experienced shorter careers thereafter. These players also experienced declines in game utilization and performance one season after surgery but were able to return to baseline at three seasons after surgery.”
The Reds may have bought Montas’ underperformance season after surgery. While it’s good to have limited risk exposure because of the one-year deal, the Reds might have had a better chance of gaining max value from the deal if Montas was with the club two or three seasons.
What about the money?
Including the $16 million for Montas and $2.5 million signing of reliever Buck Farmer, Reds payroll now stands around $103 million. That includes more than $13 million for buyouts of Joey Votto, Mike Moustakas, Wil Myers and Curt Casali and uses estimates of pending arbitration awards for a half-dozen players.
Here’s how $103 million compares to recent club payrolls:
- 2023 ($87m)
- 2022 ($107m)
- 2021 ($131m)
- 2020 ($149m)
- 2019 ($132m)
- 2018 ($101m)
Average 2023 MLB payroll was $148 million.
If Frankie Montas passes his physical, stays healthy and quickly returns to his previous performance level, he will provide solid value to the Reds as a starting pitcher.
At $16 million, the Reds would break even in value if Montas has a 2.0 WAR season, because the going free agent market rate for one WAR is about $8 million. If Montas were to somehow put up a 3.0 WAR season, the Reds would be getting excellent value.
The flashing caution lights: Data shows pitchers who are coming off the surgery Montas had in February face significant obstacles to staying healthy, pitching and returning to their past performance. It’s not impossible. Some pitchers do recover quickly and pitch well.
If Montas has health or performance issues that prevent him from pitching often or well, his WAR could easily dip below 2.0. 2021 was a 4-WAR season for Montas but he pitched in all 32 games (tied for league high) to accomplish that. Montas pitched one inning in 2023. How many innings can/should the Reds count on?
What’s next for the Reds?
Does the Montas signing signal the end of the Reds’ pursuit of top-line starting pitching?
When you read the expert projections for the Reds returning starters and understand the considerable risks that come with just about each one, the club could still use another top-of-the-rotation arm to solidify the staff.
We haven’t yet heard from the Reds front office one way or another. Available resources are no excuse for stopping. Based on the historic record, they have ample payroll space and an untapped wealth of prospect capital.
The front office and ownership could choose to shut it down after the Montas deal becomes finalized. In 3-4 months, they would have the opportunity to trade for more pitching. Waiting would give them greater clarity of need and standing, including knowing how Frankie Montas is doing.
But pressing the pause button also runs the risk that early rotation injuries and/or underperformance could cause the Reds to drop out of the NL Central race before they can hope to fix it.
The answer to the question lies in how the club views the upcoming season.
Is 2024 one more (perhaps final) stage of the rebuilding process? Or are they serious about contending right now?
Featured image: Yankees Facebook