A’s right-hander Frankie Montas is in the midst of a breakout season thanks to a new pitch

The Oakland Athletics haven’t had much reason to celebrate this season. They entered Tuesday with a 19-24 record that has them stationed in last place in the American League West. What positives the A’s season has contained are limited to individuals: Matt Chapman continues to look like a perennial MVP candidate; Khris Davis is en route to another big season; and so on. Perhaps the most encouraging of these individual success stories belongs to right-handed pitcher Frankie Montas, who is slowly but surely solidifying himself as a legitimate starter.

Montas, 26, entered Tuesday having twirled 45 innings of 2.78 ERA ball across his first eight starts of the season. Add in last year’s appearances, and he has a 121 ERA+ over his last 110 big-league innings. Montas has improved his strikeout-to-walk ratio this year, notching nearly four punch outs per free pass — that’s leaps and bounds better than last season’s 2.05 mark.

One of the keys to Montas’s improvement has been the implementation of a hard, diving splitter, a pitch he tinkered with during bullpen sessions last year at the request of pitching coach Scott Emerson. Montas has taken to using his splitter about 17 percent of the time, and that looks like a smart decision based on the results. The opposition has came up empty on nearly 40 percent of the swings they’ve taken against the pitch, the highest rate among Montas’ offerings. When they do make contact, they’re beating it into the ground. It’s fair, then, to write that the splitter has given him another bat- and barrel-missing weapon in addition to his slider — and that such a development could help him maintain his strikeout-rate gains.

It’s also fair to write that Montas is an odd bird compared to his peers. At a time when the sinker is dying across the league, he still deploys it as his primary pitch. If that isn’t weird enough, consider that everything he throws goes hard. His average range of velocity starts tops out around 96.5 mph and extends all the way to … um, 86.4 mph. That’s just 10 mph of separation across four pitches. Injured teammate Jharel Cotton, to cherry-pick an extreme example, gets more than 15 mph of separation between his fastball and his trademark slow-changeup and curveball.

There’s always some consternation about pitchers — especially starters — whose entire arsenal falls within a tight velocity band for obvious reasons: Big-league hitters can hit just about any velocity given ample opportunity; hence why changing speeds is considered so valuable. Montas is but one data point, yet he’s doing his best to put those concerns to bed.

Likewise, with every quality start by Montas — and he’s up to five in eight tries — he’s inching closer to being accepted as a mid-rotation arm. That’s a win for Montas and for the A’s, and should be celebrated as one — even if the celebration comes during a largely disappointing spring.

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