Rox hitch wagon to Montgomery after he smooths out swing

March 5th, 2022

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Outfielder Benny Montgomery, the Rockies’ top pick in the 2021 MLB Draft and their No. 2 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, is much like a soap opera character.

(Please humor the Baby Boomer reference.)

Mom takes baby to Europe, comes back a year later and the baby is in middle school. Off to boarding school, and then six months later, the baby is a college grad. Next, the baby is missing and presumed, well, you know … and returns a year later a 30-something business tycoon. They grow up fast.

Montgomery, 19, actually isn’t much bigger than last year -- in the 6-foot-4 range and 201 pounds at weigh-in this spring -- is just a pound more than his 2021 listing. But the light-years leaps, if his pattern holds, should be seen in his swing when the Rockies’ Minor League camp opens Sunday at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. And the swing last year was good enough to earn him a .340 batting average in his 14-game entrée into professional ball in the Arizona Complex League.

“Just let yourself grow,” Montgomery said during instructional ball in October, when he spent days making swing tweaks. “I don’t know what I’ll look like, but I will be a lot bigger and a lot stronger -- or how long that will take, and I don’t know when that will happen.”

If Montgomery’s pattern continues, the leaps will be dramatic.

Ed Santa, the Rockies’ area scouting supervisor who followed Montgomery through his high school career and did hands-on work with him during the East Coast Pro Showcase in Hoover, Ala., before his senior year, still is bemused at video that surfaced immediately after the Rockies made the pick. It showed a hitter at the talented toddler stages of his swing, which meant a lot of full-body movement to reach hitting position.

“Benny had that hitch, and you always worried: Can he get it out of there?” Santa said. “He just continued to work on it.

“The next year, when we showed up to watch him, he had gotten rid of it. It was a different swing. MLB had video of him from the year before, and guys were like, ‘That swing? That’s the guy you drafted?’ I was like, ‘Let me send you this swing, when he hits the ball on the top of the roof in high school.’”

Nate Ebbert, longtime baseball coach at Red Land High School in Lewisberry, Pa., remembers Montgomery’s swing at its baby stage.

Ebbert’s program, and baseball in the Lewisberry area in general, has produced at a high level for a cold-weather state.

Cole Wagner, star of the Red Land team that reached the 2015 Little League World Series championship game, and his cousin, Luke Wagner, are playing at the University of Georgia. Catcher Jared Payne signed with Kentucky out of high school and now is playing at Charleston Southern. They were among players who formed the nucleus of Red Land High School’s program when Montgomery tried out for the team as a freshman in 2018.

Ebbert recalls that there were more fits at the start of Montgomery’s swing back then.

“Some good swings would just go into the ground -- ground balls,” Ebbert said. “But every once in a while, he would stay back and just swing on the right plane, and it would be one after the other, balls launched.

“I remember throwing to him his freshman year toward the end of the season. He hit, like, four or five in a row off the building. I threw the balls up I was holding and was like, ‘Why wouldn’t you want to do that all the time?’”

By then Ebbert was forming a relationship with Montgomery as adviser and mentor in baseball and beyond. Montgomery made T-shirts and developed his social media personality in Ebbert’s graphics and photography class.

But Ebbert had no idea how Montgomery felt about him during freshman year tryouts. Ebbert thought it better Montgomery continue his development on the junior varsity.

“I’ve never been more mad a human being in my life,” Montgomery said the day he was drafted. “Of course, that alone made me work harder to get to where I am. I learned work ethic -- getting knocked down, getting right back up. Ebbert and I, we’re the best of friends now. I talk to him every day if I can.”

Ebbert chuckled.

“That’s the funny thing -- I never knew until last year, when he told me,” Ebbert said.

The relationship helped form Montgomery’s baseball personality.

Montgomery is a serious sort. Even in high school, he would trek to Alabama once a month for hitting lessons with Out Front Hitting proprietor Casey Smith (who worked with former Rockies and current Yankees star DJ LeMahieu). Santa noted that instead of a coach or an agent, it was Montgomery, himself, who would put entries in a website to allow scouts and coaches to know his daily schedule -- where he would be playing or taking batting practice.

Ebbert, who early on made note of how over-eagerness led to some of the hitch in Montgomery’s swing, was a calm voice and gentle laugh. Ebbert recalls after a second straight loss Montgomery sat behind him on the bus fretting, while Ebbert chuckled.

“Don’t worry, we’ll be fine,” Ebbert said.

Red Land then ran off 12 straight wins. Montgomery’s three years on varsity included a state title in 2019 and a strong finish in ’21, with the COVID year (one Montgomery used to develop his swing) in between.

Diligent about his skills while at the same time free with his mind and athletic ability, Montgomery flashed speed and improved his swing during his senior year of high school.

The speed is legitimate. Rockies hitting coordinator Darin Everson said Montgomery is one of the three fastest players in the organization.

“He had a deep center field -- a little bit deeper than your normal high school field -- so he had to go get some balls,” Santa said. “It was like the over-the-shoulder catch sometimes, like the Willie Mays catch.”

Montgomery held up well physically during the long 2021, with the Rockies inviting him to instructional ball after the Minor League season to further acclimate him to the daily pro schedule. The Rockies hope the result is another forward leap in this swing, now that he has seen consistent velocity of pro pitches.

“The biggest thing we worked on in instructionals was getting his timing baked into his move a little bit more, which allows him to let his skills work,” Everson said. “Benny is a talented guy with a lot of barrel skills. If he can find the barrel, he has a chance to have a real good year.”

Montgomery believes if his swing keeps growing, he can quickly deliver bold and beautiful results.

“The pitching is way better -- I knew that coming in, but it’s definitely an eye-opener,” he said. “Everything has to be sound.”