Champ or Chump: Jimmy Nelson & Jordan Montgomery

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Regular readers will know that this column makes extensive use of PITCHf/x data to determine the value of a given arm's repertoire. Starting with this edition, Pitch Info will be used instead. We'll have the same information to work with, but Pitch Info is more sensitive. For example, if a pitcher throws both a straight heater and a fastball that sacrifices some velocity for extra movement, Pitch Info will track them separately while PITCHf/x would lump both together. Therefore, pitchers have more pitch types using Pitch Info.

The change allows for more nuanced analysis, but shouldn't affect too much on your end. I need to play with the new toy though, so let's discuss two underappreciated arms: Jimmy Nelson and Jordan Montgomery.

Ownership rates provided are from Yahoo leagues.

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The Fantasy Jury is Out

Jimmy Nelson (SP, MIL) 66% Owned

Nelson has led the surprising Brewers to first place by going 5-4 with a 3.50 ERA and nearly identical 3.49 xFIP. This suggests minimal luck support, which is exactly what Nelson has experienced. His strand rate of 75.8% seems sustainable given his 24.5% K%, while his HR/FB is 11% (12% career). His .341 BABIP has been terrible, so regression there would actually improve his fantasy numbers.

Let's start with his arsenal. Nelson is throwing more four-seam fastballs (24.4% last year to 33.2% this) at the expense of his sinker (46.4% to 33.5%), enabling both pitches to play up. The heater's 12.1% SwStr% is exceptional, especially for a pitch with a Zone% of 56.5%. The sinker's twin purposes are to induce grounders (68.4% GB%, 58.6% last year) and get strikes (59.8% Zone%), both of which it is doing well. The high Zone% numbers have allowed Nelson to dramatically decrease his BB% (10.7% last year, 6.3% this), correcting one of last season's greatest weaknesses.

Nelson's secondary pitches include a curve and a slider. Neither is great by SwStr%, with the curve offering a 13.2% rate while the slider has a 14% figure. However, they are strikes nearly as often as the fastballs (Zone% numbers of 53% and 55.5%). This makes Nelson's approach extremely aggressive, allowing him to end PAs early while still racking up Ks. With both wins and Ks of fantasy interest, his owners should have no qualms with this approach.

The high BABIP might suggest that Nelson is allowing particularly problematic contact, but this is not the case. His LD% is around league average (21%), and he displays the strong ground ball tendency (50% GB%) you should look for in a Miller Park hurler. His Statcast data has also improved relative to last year, with his average airborne exit velocity (91.8 mph to 90.7), ground ball exit velocity (85.3 mph to 81.1), and Brls/BBE (5.7% to 3.9%) all trending in the right direction. He's inducing fewer pop-ups than last year (4.1% IFFB% vs. 12.2%), but the high BABIP isn't Nelson's fault.

Milwaukee's infield defense is comprised of scratch defenders or better at every position. As a result, Nelson's substantial improvement in EV on the ground has produced a lower BABIP (.230 vs. .258 last season). Newcomer Eric Sogard has compiled five DRS in just 247 defensive innings, potentially giving Nelson additional upside if he continues to receive playing time. Nelson's BABIP issue is not on the ground.

Milwaukee's outfield defense leaves a lot more to be desired. Keon Broxton has compiled -7 DRS this year, while Ryan Braun has contributed -6 in just 230 defensive innings. Eric Thames isn't a glove either, compiling -3 DRS as an outfielder in part time duty. Nelson is faring worse on both fly balls (.215 against .095) and line drives (.774 against .686) than last season, suggesting outfield defense as the reason behind his BABIP. Hernan Perez has nine DRS over 299.2 defensive innings split between the corner OF spots, making him the best in-house option to improve the Brew Crew's glovework in the outfield.

The Brewers are not the fluke you may think they are, as their +11 run differential supports the record they have. Nelson compiles strikeouts while offering the potential to pitch deep into games, making him a solid option as a mid-rotation arm in fantasy. There's no way he should be unowned in a third of leagues.

Verdict: Champ

 
Jordan Montgomery (SP, NYY) 51% Owned

This rookie has started his career with a solid 6-4 record and 3.53 ERA, though the underlying 4.27 xFIP isn't as impressive. Montgomery burst onto the scene with a spectacular season on the farm last year, posting a 2.55 ERA in 102 1/3 IP at Double-A before dominating Triple-A (0.97 ERA) in 37 IP. His xFIP was higher at both stops (3.75 and 2.53, respectively), but this looks like a fantasy-relevant arm.

Fantasy owners like strikeouts, and Montgomery gets them with upside for more. His current 23.2% K% is solid, making it easier to trust his slightly elevated strand rate (74.4%). He generates his Ks with three different strikeout weapons: a wipeout slider (23.2% SwStr% and 50.4% chase rate, but low 30.5% Zone%), strong curve (18.5% SwStr% and 45.1% chase, 41.1% Zone%), and solid change (16.2% SwStr%, 42.9% chase, 40.6% Zone%). Montgomery allows a few too many walks with so many low Zone% offerings (7.9% BB%), but he could get a ton of Ks by consistently getting ahead in the count.

Montgomery throws a sinker to accomplish this, but it's terrible. Not only does its 46.1% Zone% do little to set up the rest of his repertoire, batters tee off on it for a .404/.492/.596 line. It doesn't even get the grounders you'd want at Yankee Stadium, sporting a GB% of just 46.8%. His four-seamer doesn't get many whiffs (6.6% SwStr%), but can be thrown for a strike (52.5% Zone%) and seems to be elite at generating pop-ups (54.5% FB%, 26.7% IFFB%). Montgomery consistently ran IFFB% rates in excess of 20% on the farm, suggesting a future as a fly ball guy despite no clear leanings in that direction yet (43% GB%, 40.4% FB%).

Fly ball specialists can generally limit the damage on balls hit into the air, and Montgomery is showing signs of doing so. His HR/FB was just 4.3% at Double-A last year, and he didn't allow a single homer at Triple-A. His current HR/FB of 10.8% is pretty good considering where he pitches, and Statcast suggests he's difficult to barrel up (6.9% Brls/BBE). His average airborne EV is 90.3 mph, roughly middle of the pack.

This could be a dangerous style at Yankee Stadium, but the team has the personnel to make it work. Both Aaron Hicks and Brett Gardner have seven DRS already, while Aaron Judge is no slouch with six. Even Jacoby Ellsbury is above average with two. These gloves have allowed Montgomery to compile a .108 BABIP on fly balls, a number that could sustain his current BABIP of .278 if he focused on the air. That mark is currently rooted in a 16.5% LD%, rendering it unsustainable without some sort of change on Montgomery's part.

Montgomery is already a solid fantasy arm with the upside for more. His stuff is good enough to support a higher K% if he abandons the sinker, a possible first step in becoming a fly ball guy with a low BABIP. Even if he does not make these changes, there is no way he should be available in half of all leagues when so many pitchers are hurt or underperforming.

Verdict: Champ

 

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