Frankie Montas’ splitter started out as an experiment.
For kicks once spring training started this year, Montas tossed it a couple times — he “played with it” — but noticed soon enough that the fun started to translate into big swings and misses.
The more he threw it, the more he was getting hitters off the fastball. A conversation with A’s pitching coach Scott Matthew Emerson turned Montas’ moments of exploratory chucking into a reality: Montas’ splitter would become a part of his repertoire in 2019.
Even without Emerson’s approval, Montas had a gut feeling by his second start in spring training that the splitter would stick.
“I had that thought in spring training, like OK, this is something I can throw so I’m gonna go for it. Add it to my pitches,” Montas said Wednesday before the A’s series finale against the Texas Rangers.
Montas was so amped on his splitter once the regular season began that he hurled more of them in his first few starts than he had all spring. It bore a confidence only attainable through the sheer whimsy of discovering success through spontaneous experimentation.
“I’ve been throwing more strikes, attacking hitters more, trying to go strike one and hit my spots a little more.” Montas said. “I’m a little more confident this year, and that’s helping me a lot.”
A confident Montas shouldn’t go unnoticed in this fluid, oft-broken and relatively undefined A’s rotation.
It’s a rotation that feels patchwork now: Mike Fiers, Brett Anderson, Chris Bassitt, Aaron Brooks and Montas.
Those five pins were left standing when, one-by-one and with varying severity, those around them fell to the injury bug. Sean Manaea underwent shoulder surgery back in September and is still throwing from flat ground. Jharel Cotton and Daniel Gossett went under the Tommy John knife in March and August 2018, respectively. Cotton is still throwing bullpen sessions.
Injuries to those proven can, in some cases, allow those shining brightest in the minors to to come out from behind the curtain. But Oakland’s electric pitching prospect Jesus Luzardo — who wowed the A’s organization with a 0.93 ERA and 15 strikeouts in 9 ⅔ spring training innings this year — was shut down back in March for 4-6 weeks with a left shoulder strain. The A’s other top pitching prospect A.J. Puk underwent Tommy John surgery last April.
The rash of injuries may have fans crosseyed; the staff from both sides of promise and consistency a mess of un-tapped pieces. But don’t let crossed eyes blur the pieces executing in plain sight.
Montas is quietly putting together impressive starts — not just via his 95-plus fastball that can max out at 99 easy and readily, a wipe-away slider and that mind-bending splitter. At his very best, Montas has chucked it all at his opposition with ease. He had it all working last week against the Houston Astros, stifling the powerful lineup to one earned run with six strikeouts over 6 ⅓ innings.
At times he’s thrived off an ability to improvise — who Montas is at his very best, he’ll say.
Perhaps equally notable is the 26-year-old’s resolve when his command is lacking, like in his last start against the Rangers. Texas hit him around for three earned runs, but Montas gutted through 5 ⅔ innings.
“That was a big game for him yesterday, for him to be able to get through that. His stuff was good but his command wasn’t good,” manager Bob Melvin said before Wednesday’s series finale against the Rangers. “End of the day, not his best stuff or his best outing when you come out of the game. He gave up three runs but got another win. We’re seeing a guy coming along at a quick pace there.”
Montas has only been an Athletic since 2017. He hopped around as a teenager from both Sox squads, Red and White, before making is debut in 2015 and moving on to the Dodgers. He came to Oakland from Los Angeles along with Cotton and pitching prospect Grant Holmes for Rich Hill and Josh Reddick.
When he arrived, he jumped between roles and levels of promise. In 2017, he made 23 appearances out of the bullpen and struggled, accumulating a 7.13 FIP (Or, in case you’re not into that measurement, a 7.03 ERA in 32 innings).
In 2018, Montas inched closer as a starter, but hung around the public’s indifferent purgatory.
Lack of an effective third pitch held him shy of a breakout. He threw a changeup, but it never sustained any value as an out pitch and Montas didn’t feel comfortable throwing it. So he abandoned it completely this year.
“My changeup was not even that good,” Montas laughed. “I have it. I used to not throw it a ton, but I feel way more comfortable with my splitter. Throwing it behind the count, no matter what the count is. Throwing splitter makes me a better pitcher.”
Sure, Montas has only made five starts in 2019, but don’t look away from evolution amid the mud. Opposing hitters are swinging through stuff out of the zone 34 percent of the time, a career high by five percentage points — a stat easily shown in real life once you watch his consistently sweeping slider and dropping splitter at work, befuddling.
The best thing about his 3.10 ERA, his 8.07 strikeout rate, remarkably low-key filthy stuff: It was inspired by one whimsical self-discovery concocted in the high of spring training’s back-to-baseball allure.
Of course, Montas isn’t thinking about establishing himself as a rotational mainstay. Perhaps, with the A’s, that’s not a conversation worth having, anyway. Like the team itself, Montas is just growing into the potential.
“Right now, I’m not trying to put too much pressure on myself,” Montas said. “Just trying to compete.”