The summer trade candidate you need to know

June 11th, 2022

This year's trade market is still coming into focus, but we already have a good sense of who the most coveted player will be prior to the Trade Deadline on Aug. 2.

Starting pitching is always in high demand this time of year, and no available starter has more trade value right now than A’s right-hander Frankie Montas, who is scheduled to start Saturday against the Guardians.

Montas doesn’t have the name recognition of some of the top stars who were dealt last July, such as Max Scherzer, Kris Bryant and Starling Marte, but he has the potential to make a comparable impact.

The rebuilding A’s traded Matt Olson, Matt Chapman, Sean Manaea and Chris Bassitt before Opening Day and reportedly discussed deals for Montas as well but opted to hold onto him as the season got underway.

Their patience with Montas could pay off in a big way. They now have the most attractive starting pitching trade chip in a market that will likely lack other elite options. The 29-year-old is eligible for free agency after 2023, so he comes with an extra year of control, giving him added appeal.

Montas has done his part to increase his value, building on a stellar stretch that began last season and earned him a sixth-place finish in the American League Cy Young Award voting.

In 28 starts dating back to July 2, 2021, he has recorded a 2.54 ERA, a 2.93 FIP and a 193-to-49 K/BB ratio in 170 innings. His 4.5 FanGraphs wins above replacement figure in that span places him among the best hurlers in the game.

Most pitching fWAR since July 2, 2021 (through Thursday's games):

Zack Wheeler, 5.3
Corbin Burnes
, 5.2
Max Fried, 4.7
Kevin Gausman
, 4.7
Frankie Montas, 4.5
Logan Webb, 4.5

Again, that's over 28 starts, so no small sample size. Pitchers typically make 30 to 32 starts over a full season of work.

Montas took a long and winding road to get to this point. He initially signed as an amateur free agent out of the Dominican Republic with the Red Sox in 2009, then was traded three times in a four-year span, going from Boston to the White Sox to the Dodgers and finally to the A’s, who acquired him from Los Angeles with Jharel Cotton for Rich Hill and Josh Reddick in August 2016.

After pitching to mixed results with Oakland in 2017-18, Montas showed flashes of a breakout in 2019, putting up a 2.63 ERA with a 4.48 K/BB ratio over 16 starts, but an 80-game suspension for violating MLB’s Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program put a damper on his performance.

He took a step back during the shortened 2020 season (5.60 ERA) and followed that up with a 4.72 ERA through his first 16 starts of 2021 before turning it around.

Here's why potential trade suitors should be optimistic Montas can keep it up. (Numbers are through Thursday's games.)

1) His chase rate continues to rise

Montas is throwing the ball out of the zone more often than he throws it in the zone this season, but his walk rate actually has dropped for the second straight year to 5.7%, in part because his chase rate -- the percentage of swings on out-of-zone pitches -- has jumped again.

Montas' chase rate by season, since 2017:

  • 2017: 24.1%
  • 2018: 24.9%
  • 2019: 31.3%
  • 2020: 28.7%
  • 2021: 32.5%
  • 2022: 35.2% (ranks in 93rd percentile)

In general, swings at pitches out of the strike zone often result either in whiffs (and swinging strikeouts) or weak contact. Montas has taken this to the extreme, holding batters to a .126 average with 45 K's and zero extra-base hits in 87 at-bats ending on pitches outside the strike zone in 2022.

Montas throws five pitches -- a four-seam fastball, splitter, sinker, slider and cutter -- and induces a considerable number of out-of-zone swings with all of them. Four of his five pitches have a chase rate that is several percentage points above the MLB average on that specific pitch type.

Montas' chase rate by pitch type, 2022:

  • Four-seam fastball: 26.8% (MLB average: 23.6%)
  • Splitter: 45.5% (MLB average: 40.7%)
  • Sinker: 33.0% (MLB average: 25.9%)
  • Slider: 31.3% (MLB average: 31.7%)
  • Cutter: 32.1% (MLB average: 29.3%)

This chart shows all of his chases this season and illustrates the different locations he likes to attack with each of his pitches to get swings off the plate in all directions.

It's no coincidence that Montas' overall chase rate has gone up as his split-finger usage rate has increased from 12.9% in 2020 to 22.4% in 2021 to 27.0% this year. It isn’t just his best chase pitch but also ranks as one of baseball's best chase pitches, period.

Highest chase rate on individual pitch type, 2022
Min. 150 out-of-zone pitches of that type thrown

  1. Kevin Gausman's splitter: 57.4%
  2. Jeffrey Springs’ changeup: 49.7%
  3. Martín Pérez’s changeup: 47.4%
  4. Alex Cobb’s splitter: 47.3%
  5. Carlos Carrasco's changeup: 47.1%
  6. Tyler Anderson's changeup: 45.5%
  7. Frankie Montas’ splitter: 45.5%

Montas learned the split-finger on the suggestion of A's pitching coach Scott Emerson during Spring Training in 2019, and he says he's mastered it to the point where it's always a pitch he can lean on. He throws his splitter out of the zone nearly two-thirds of the time, but batters struggle to lay off it in part because of the way it plays off his four-seamer.

The two pitches have similar spin direction out of his hand -- the spin axis of each pitch is 30 degrees apart on average -- making it tougher for the batter to determine what’s coming. By the time the two pitches reach the plate, their spin direction is 60 degrees apart, with his four-seamer carrying through the zone and his splitter running down and toward his arm side.

Spin-based movement (the left chart) shows the spin direction of each pitch out of the pitcher's hand, while observed movement (the right chart) shows the spin direction when the ball reaches the plate.

"The 97 mph fastball that planes out and then the split off of it at 88 to 89 is a great combo," A's manager Mark Kotsay said after Montas struck out 12 batters on May 15. "It gets to the hitting zone and just falls down. I faced some good splits in the past. Curt Schilling comes to mind right away. John Smoltz and some others. It's one of the better split-finger fastballs in the game right now."

Montas throws his four-seamer (96.0 mph) and splitter (86.3 mph) with nearly 10 mph difference on average, and his splitter drops almost 22 inches more and gets nearly five more inches of arm-side run on its way to the plate, leading to sequences like this:

2) His four-seam fastball is an elite strikeout pitch

While Montas' four-seamer has value as a setup pitch for his splitter, the benefits go the other way, too.

With batters always needing to be on the lookout for his splitter in two-strike counts, the righty has been able to use his four-seamer to rack up strikeouts -- 31 of them, to be exact, in 70 plate appearances ending on the pitch. Only one pitcher has a higher K-rate on four-seamers this year (min. 50 PAs).

Highest strikeout rate on four-seam fastballs, 2022
Min. 50 PAs ending on four-seamers

  1. Chris Bassitt: 44.6%
  2. Frankie Montas: 44.3%
  3. Eli Morgan: 39.6%
  4. Gerrit Cole: 38.1%
  5. Eric Lauer: 37.6%

All of his looking strikeouts on four-seamers have come near the bottom of the zone. Obviously, we can't know for sure, but it's fair to assume that in many of these cases, the hitter thought they were laying off a splitter in the dirt, only to have Montas sneak a four-seamer by them for strike three.

A breakdown of Montas' four-seam fastball strikeouts in 2022.

Meanwhile, most of his swinging K's have come up in the zone, where his four-seamer really shines. Why? Because high-spin four-seamers have a "rising effect," helping the pitch to defy gravity slightly longer than the batter expects. This leads to more swings and misses, especially on elevated pitches, as the hitter swings under the ball.

Montas' four-seam fastball spin rate is above average at 2,352 rpm, and the pitch gets 1.2 inches more "rise" than average, compared to four-seam fastballs thrown with similar velocity and release points.

“Usually, I feel like guys are thinking about my splitter and how not to get to it,” Montas after his May 15 start. “But they forget my fastball is not that bad, either. It’s tougher for hitters when you have to worry about two plus pitches.”

3) He's making better use of his arsenal

This one's simple. Montas' performance has improved as he's moved away from his least effective pitch.

Here's his batting average and slugging percentage allowed on sinkers, year by year, over the past three seasons.

  • 2020: .346 BA / .617 SLG
  • 2021: .311 BA / .471 SLG
  • 2022: .328 BA / .525 SLG

And here's his sinker usage rate during that same span.

  • 2020: 38.1%
  • 2021: 29.2%
  • 2022: 21.7%

He started to dial back his usage of the pitch early last season. After throwing it 41.6% of the time in April, he dropped to 26.9% the rest of the year, including 25.3% after the start of July, when he began the run that would put him in the Cy Young conversation.

In his start against the Red Sox on Sunday, only nine of Montas' 104 pitches were sinkers, the lowest sinker usage rate (8.7%) he's had in a game since May 20, 2017.

In turn, Montas' splitter usage has increased, as we noted earlier. His batting average and slugging allowed on splitters this season? .154 and .231, respectively, in 96 plate appearances.

What's the cost?

If you’re wondering what the price tag for Montas might be, you don’t have to look very far into the past for a trade comp.

Just last summer, the Twins traded right-hander José Berríos, who had one year of team control remaining after 2021, to the Blue Jays for two players who ranked among MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 prospects, infielder/outfielder Austin Martin (No. 16 at the time) and pitcher Simeon Woods Richardson (No. 68).

Berríos was 27 when the trade went down, two years younger than Montas is now, but Montas has better numbers over the past three-plus seasons than Berríos had in the same amount of time leading up to the deal.

  • Montas, 2019-22: 3.43 ERA, 3.42 FIP, 9.91 K/9, 2.63 BB/9
  • Berríos, 2018-21 (pre-trade): 3.73 ERA, 3.84 FIP, 9.21 K/9, 2.65 BB/9

The Berríos package might seem like a steep price, but few pitchers have been better than Montas dating back to the summer of 2021, and the bidding will likely reflect that in the weeks and months to come.