SARASOTA, Fla. -- Jordan Montgomery may be the only left-hander in the Yankees’ rotation, but he is never alone. A quick scroll through his text messages serves as confirmation of that, as legends like Andy Pettitte and CC Sabathia have not shied away from offering their encouragement and wisdom.
“It definitely gives me confidence,” Montgomery said on Tuesday, having tossed two innings in the Yankees’ 4-2 Grapefruit League victory over the Orioles. “Getting a random text from Andy Pettitte and CC checking in on me, obviously they believe in me, too. They always told me, ‘You’re going to be pitching for a long time. Keep trying to get better year to year; just try to keep learning and adjusting.’”
With significant questions following ace Gerrit Cole in the starting rotation -- Corey Kluber, Jameson Taillon and Domingo Germán combined to pitch one Major League inning in 2020 -- the 28-year-old Montgomery figures to be an essential part of the Yankees’ push to reclaim the American League East.
Having returned from Tommy John surgery to make two appearances in September 2019, Montgomery logged 10 regular-season starts last year, pitching to a 2-3 record and a 5.11 ERA. He provided four solid innings in his playoff debut, taking a no-decision in Game 4 of the AL Championship Series against the Rays. Manager Aaron Boone believes Montgomery’s 2020 was better than his stats indicate.
“Last year was a big confidence builder for him,” Boone said. “We saw his stuff tick up from what it had been prior to the injury. I think that's a result of some of his training and physical growth and development. He had a couple of outings last year that weren't very good and that hurt him, especially in a shortened season. In three-quarters of the games, he was really good. I think he understands that.”
Remove a Sept. 2 start against the Rays in which Montgomery allowed four first-inning runs and recorded only two outs, and his ERA dips to a more palatable 4.36. Montgomery said that he wanted to improve on that performance in 2021 and dropped about 15 pounds during the offseason, adding that he is moving away from the “mass equals gas” pitching mindset.
“I’m excited; last year was good for me because coming off [Tommy John surgery], I probably wouldn’t have been allowed to throw that many innings,” Montgomery said. “I made so many errors fielding my position and had a lot of infield hits and bloop hits -- just stuff you can’t really control. I know I had a really good soft contact percentage [6.0%]. I was definitely happy with the way I pitched last year.”
Montgomery scuffled early in Tuesday’s outing. Cedric Mullins banged a hanging Montgomery curveball off the right-field wall for a leadoff triple, then scored on a Trey Mancini sacrifice fly. Montgomery issued consecutive walks and permitted an infield hit on a dribbler that he fielded before striking out the next two batters, pinning the bases loaded.
He was more in control during the second inning, inducing two groundouts and a flyout. That synced with Boone’s pregame observation that honing fastball command should be Montgomery’s biggest spring focus -- as the manager said, “When he's dictating counts with that pitch, his secondaries are really good.”
“I expanded when I needed to,” Montgomery said. “I felt like a lot of the pitches I made were really close and really competitive. I’m pretty happy with it.”
Having the likes of Pettitte and Sabathia on speed dial surely can’t hurt. Asked to summarize the hurlers’ advice to him, Montgomery grinned and nearly attempted to replicate Pettitte’s Louisiana/Texas drawl, then decided better of it.
“Pettitte’s always told me how much better my fastball is than his,” Montgomery said. “I’ve just got to throw it in there and attack guys. The fact that the Yankees keep praising me and expecting big things for me is nice. I’m just trying to keep getting better every year.”