How having one more pitch helped change Frankie Montas’ career

Bob Melvin announces Frankie Montas will begin season as Oakland A's fourth starter

Pitcher Frankie Montas, right, is congratulated by catcher Nick Hundley after the A’s beat the Giants 5-0 on Sunday at the Coliseum. (Karl Mondon /Bay Area News Group)
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SAN FRANCISCO — It’s hard to overstate how much having a split-finger fastball at his disposal changed the trajectory of Frankie Montas’ professional career.

Thought perhaps to fit into a long relief role — if that —  for the A’s at the start of Cactus League play, Montas used his splitter effectively all spring and will instead will start the season as the fourth starter in Oakland’s rotation, manager Bob Melvin said Monday.

Arriving in Arizona last month looking to win a big league job, Montas, 26, pitched in five spring training games, starting two, and went 2-0 with a 0.56 ERA in a team-high 16 innings. Montas threw three no-hit innings Sunday with three strikeouts in the A’s 5-0 win over the Giants.

“I think what’s made him kind of who he is now is adding the split-finger and being a true three-pitch mix guy with the slider, and having command of all those pitches,” Melvin said before the A’s faced the Giants at Oracle Park.

“He’s a little bit of a different guy than we’ve seen.”

Montas will pitch Sunday when Oakland hosts the Los Angeles Angels in the final game of their four-game series at the Coliseum. Starting the first three games of series, which begins Thursday, will be Mike Fiers, Marco Estrada and Brett Anderson.

Tuesday’s game against the Giants, the last of the spring, will help determine who the A’s use as their fifth starter. Both Aaron Brooks and Chris Bassitt are set to throw. Brooks is out of minor league options, which could factor into the A’s decision.

The hard-throwing Montas began to tinker with the splitter at the end of last season. He worked on it in the winter, but really began to focus on it in spring training.

“Honestly when I started throwing it, it was to get people off of my fastball,” Montas said. “When hitters have to worry about three pitches, not just two, it makes it worse for them and better for me.”

Montas went 5-4 with a 3.88 ERA in 13 games with the A’s last season, including 11 starts.

So the way he stepped up and grabbed a job is a huge plus for the A’s, who may have otherwise had a huge hole in their rotation after Jesús Luzardo was shut down March 20 for at least four weeks with a rotator cuff strain in his left shoulder.

“I feel like it’s made a big difference in my career, with the way I pitch,” Montas said. “I feel like I look more like a pitcher now, more of a starter. I feel comfortable.”

OPENER PLANS: Melvin said the team hasn’t yet discussed using an opener at some point when the season begins, but it may be on the table considering the A’s start with 18 straight games.

“Eighteen in a row is not the way to start a season,” Melvin said. “Especially when you’ve been cut short, basically a week, to go to Japan and your starters aren’t stretched out. We’re going to have to get something out of our starters during that stretch. You can’t just rely on your bullpen.”

PROTECTION FOR DAVIS: There’s no doubt losing first baseman Matt Olson to a hand injury for at least the first few weeks of the regular season was a huge blow to the A’s lineup, particularly as it relates to protection for designated hitter Khris Davis.

Melvin said the original plan was to have Olson hit third ahead of Davis against right-handers and Stephen Piscotty would do the same against lefties. Most times, though, it appears switch hitter Jurickson Profar will act as that protection. Davis, of course, has hit 133 home runs in 454 games over three seasons with the A’s.

BARRETO’S ROLE: Franklin Barreto was slated to play at some point Monday, and will start at second base Tuesday. How much playing time he gets beyond that is uncertain.

Barreto chance to make the A’s 25-man roster Thursday opened up after Olson’s injury. But with Profar expected to be a fixture at second base whenever he’s not asked to play first, and a handful of options for Melvin in the outfield, Barreto could be waiting a while if he wants to see regular at-bats.

“Taken to the outfield like he has gives him some more chances to get in there,” Melvin said. “He’s a guy that we want to get in there.”

Barreto struck out 10 times, but was hitting .364 with a 1.023 OPS in 33 at-bats before Monday.

“He’s had a fantastic spring. His issue has been he’s blocked here,” Melvin said. “It’s tough for a younger guy not to play every day, but when given the opportunity at some point in time, I feel like he has a chance to be a star. He just has not had that opportunity.”

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