Let’s break down the Cardinals’ two new starters.
Happy Saturday, everyone!
In my world, it’s Thursday night. The Cards won the first game of the doubleheader and are up 2-1 on the Cubs in the bottom of the 6th inning of the second game.
Maybe things go terribly between this moment and when you read this on Saturday (they didn’t!), but right now, right here, I’m still riding the high of a surprising trade deadline and a walk-off NOOOOOOOOOOOT.
Baseball is supposed to be fun. It’s fun to beat up on the Cubs. It’s fun to see the Cards so active at the deadline. It’s fun to watch the Brewers implode a little. It’s fun to have the mighty Yankees coming to town. It’s fun to have pretty serious dreams of a division crown and a march into the postseason with two offensive MVP candidates and a rotation that can go 4 deep with solid production.
It’s that last part that I want to talk about today. What should we expect from the Cardinals’ newest starters Jose Quintana and Jordan Montgomery?
If you caught the VEB Podcast this week, the writers and I provided some off-the-cuff analysis of the two lefty hurlers. I want to try to build off that a little and put some of that content in written form for those of you who don’t pod… or cast… or well, you get the idea.
Here’s everything you need to know about Jose Quintana and Jordan Montgomery.
We’ve already gotten a first taste of what Quintana can add. As I type this Quintana’s outing in the 2nd game is ending with Jordan Hicks’ entry. (A move I very much oppose… why is Hicks in a high leverage situation?) Quintana went six strong innings, allowing one hit on an HR, walking 2, and striking out 7. 54.5% of his balls in play were grounders.
That’s a pretty typical outing for Quintana. Heading into the game, he had a 3.50 ERA and a 3.23 FIP. His expected FIP (xFIP) is higher at 3.79.
xFIP adjusts a pitcher’s FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) to a league-average home run rate. At just a 7.0% HR/FB rate and a .66 HR/9, it’s no surprise that xFIP would punish him severely. His current HR rate is probably one he can’t maintain forever.
Expected stats, though, aren’t real. Let’s camp there for a second.
Quintana is moving from Pittsburgh to Busch stadium. PNC Park plays slightly above average with a 101 park factor. It is below average, though, in HRs allowed at 87. He had a low HR rate in a place that doesn’t allow many HRs.
Now he’s coming to Busch and we all probably know what Busch does to homers.
Since the development of Ballpark Village, Busch plays as an extreme pitchers’ park, with a 95 park factor over the last three years. It is particularly brutal on power hitters, with an 82 rating on HRs allowed.
So, yes, if Quintana regressed to a league-average homer rate his FIP will regress as well and his ERA along with it. That’s what xFIP tells us.
But expected stats aren’t real stats. And they don’t attempt to account for the playing environment the stats are produced in.
Quintana’s HR rate likely will regress but it seems very unlikely that it will fall to average considering his performance this season. His career .94 HR/9 rate is also considerably below the league average.
When he’s right – and he’s been right this season – he just doesn’t give up long balls regardless of his playing environment. And this season his environment has only helped him.
As does the way he pitches. Quintana has a good ground ball rate – 45% this year. He’s a little below average in K rate but generates more whiffs and chases than you would expect for a guy who doesn’t have a ton of spin and lives around the edges of the zone.
All of this is a roundabout way of saying that Quintana’s approach to pitching is perfect for what the Cardinals want because they thrive in StL. He’s a control pitcher who can get whiffs and chases and rarely gets burned. His approach plays to the defense, which the Cardinals still have plenty of, despite Bader’s absence.
There’s every reason to expect that Quintana will replicate or lower his current 3.50 ERA. That’s worth more to me than Johan Oviedo’s inconsistency and Malcolm Nunez’s potential. It should buy the Cardinals quite a few wins down the home stretch. And I wouldn’t mind seeing him come back next year, especially if Wainwright exits.
I should probably just type “see Jose Quintana above” here and call this one done. Much of what I just said applies to Montgomery.
After some impressive seasons in the minors, Montgomery broke in with the Yankees as a full-time starter in 2017. That year he put up a 3.88 ERA and a 4.04 FIP in 155.1 IPs over 29 starts. That’s a 2.6 fWAR. Over 200 innings, that projects up to a 3.3 fWAR pace – just a hair above average.
Then Montgomery had some ups and down with injuries. And there was the COVID year, where he was healthy and effective. Last year he made 30 starts for 157 innings with a 3.83/3.69 ERA/FIP for 3.3 fWAR. And now sits at 3.69/3.91 FIP and he’s on a 2.5 fWAR pace.
He’s 29 now with 500+ innings under his belt and with a year of control remaining for the Cardinals. His career stats look pretty much just like every other full season he’s had – 3.94 ERA, 3.90 FIP, 8.7 fWAR. That’s a 3.5 fWAR pace over 200 innings.
Montgomery’s critical attribute is consistency. The Cardinals can count on him providing a high 3’s ERA/FIP and 2.5-3.5 fWAR over 150 innings.
We would probably call that “solid #4 production” because our expectations of starters are a bit out of whack with reality. That’s actually “good #3” numbers.
For the Cardinals, though, he slides into that #4 spot, bumping Dakota Hudson back and Andre Pallante into the bullpen. (Or hopefully a piggyback situation? See Friday night as an example. I’m very much in favor of that alignment.)
What about his peripherals? Montgomery is going to give you a solid K rate – between 7.5 and 9.6 K/9 high to low. He’s going to limit walks – 1.8 to 2.9 BB/9. Pitching primarily in Yankee stadium hasn’t helped his HR numbers. He allows 1.18 HR/9 over his career and he’s right on that career average this season.
Yankee Stadium is pretty neutral overall but it’s very beneficial to home runs. (See Carpenter, Matt.) It has a 116 HR factor – a 34-point difference over Busch. Considering that Park factors are set on a 100 scale, that’s a gigantic gap.
Montgomery’s HR rate is likely to drop significantly pitching in StL. That means his one relative flaw could become an environmental strength even if nothing else changes about his game. That will drop his average-ish ERA/FIP down to well above average.
How much would it drop it? Would you agree with me if I said that Dakota Hudson was homer prone for a Cardinals starter? Well, his career HR/9 rate is just .90. This season it’s just .71.
That’s the kind of difference a ballpark can make. What if Montgomery’s HR/9 falls from 1.18 to 1.1? Or 1.0? Or, let’s get crazy and make it .9!? Let’s go all the way to plaid and imagine it falling all the way down to Hudson’s .71?! Inconceivable!
But it’s not, though.
His approach helps, too. He is relying more on his sinker, throwing it over 40% of the time this season compared to 22% last year (27% in his career). That hasn’t helped his HR rate so far but it’s been a good pitch for him by value and has led to more ground balls.
Behind the Cardinals’ defense, those extra ground balls are outs. Maybe no more than with the Yankees, who have a good defense, too. But the few fly balls he allows won’t leave the park like they do in the Bronx. Or in the other AL East ballparks.
It’s just really hard for me to imagine that Montgomery will be anything but a consistent starter for the Cardinals and the ballpark, plus his sinker usage, should only improve his performance.
Montgomery’s not an exciting acquisition, but he’s going to do so much to stabilize a volatile rotation position and that will mean a lot for the Cardinals. And my heartburn.
The Cardinals did well at the deadline, targeting arms that have skills that are likely to translate well to their new playing environment at a relatively low cost. It’s tough to give up Bader, but he wasn’t going to do much for this team’s playoff run this year. Montgomery will. Next year, their production is likely a wash, as both players project for just under 3.0 fWAR. The difference is that Bader’s projection comes in just a little over 400 PAs because he can’t stay healthy.
For this team with this roster, if I had to choose between a dynamic defensive center fielder who hasn’t been able to complete a full season in his career or a boringly consistent starter who takes the ball every fifth day, I would choose the latter.
Meanwhile, I wish Oviedo and Malcolm Nunez all the best. I really do. But give me the homer-suppressing, whiff-getting, walk-limiting, veteran-provey starter any day.
I love the moves the Cardinals made. And I think Cards fans, frustrated by the lack of consistency from the back end of the rotation, should love them too.
Quintana did his part. Now we’ll see how Montgomery does tonight against his old club! Should be must-watch stuff.
Happy Saturday, VEB! Enjoy this playoff run. I will be.