Sometimes it's just time for a change.
Lefthander Mike Montgomery had begun his pro career as one of the best lefty pitching prospects in the game. He had a plus fastball and changeup, and just needed to refine his breaking ball and command to make the final couple of steps from Double-A to the big leagues.
Like many pitchers before him, it proved to be a lot tougher than it initially appeared. Montgomery's 92-95 mph fastball lost a tick. The breaking ball didn't take the step forward, and control troubles meant that Montgomery was too often effectively using only half the plate, simplifying the hitter's job. His ERAs stopped starting with 2s and starting beginning with 5s.
So in 2011, Montgomery slid over from the arm-side of the rubber to the glove-side, as many pitchers have in recent years. He stuck with the glove-side of the rubber after being traded to the Rays in the James Shields/Wil Myers trade before the 2013 season with the exception of a brief foray back to the arm side in the Arizona Fall League last year, which only confirmed to him that he is a glove-side guy now.
This isn't a Disney movie. Montgomery didn't slide over to the other side of the rubber and suddenly regain the velocity he'd lost and turn back into a future ace.
But Montgomery does believe the move has helped him put together the best stretch of pitching he's had in nearly four years. He is 3-0, 3.19 in six starts with Triple-A Durham this year, including throwing 8⅓ innings of a combined no-hitter.
With a lot of work, Montgomery has found that he can get inside consistently to righthanders with his fastball for strikes. From the first-base (arm side) of the rubber, too often inside fastballs would end up missing far inside.
“Really it came down to I felt more comfortable there," Montgomery said. ” I've had better results and I throw my strikes … Being able to get that fastball inside without cutting it. (From the arm side) when I would try to go in, I'd get around the ball more. Now it's straighter and truer. And when I go away, I get enough run. Before it would be a ball (when Montgomery threw inside to righthanders).
“The biggest thing is trying to execute that fastball inside to a righty. I just feel like I'm executing that pitch better from where I am now."
Montgomery still has work to do with his breaking ball—it's better, but still not where it needs to be. But by getting inside for strikes, Montgomery has checked off one part of his to-do list.
“If you can't pitch inside, you can't pitch in the big leagues," Durham Bulls pitching coach Neil Allen said.
The other aspect of Montgomery's maturation Allen has noticed is his acceptance of who he is. Pitchers who used to have plus fastballs don't always accept that they are now working with average velocity.
“He knows who he is. He understands he's not that 95 mph guy. Will it come back? We don't know," Allen said. “But in the process, the good thing that has happened to him is you can learn how to pitch without your best stuff. If that 95 comes back, God bless him, but he can learn how to pitch.
“He's come to the realization that it is what is right now and I'm going to pitch. Last year, he kept reaching back trying to find 95. He was cranking because he was trying to hit 95 and it's not in there right now. It's been a blessing that he's learned to use his stuff."
The expectations for Montgomery have diminished with his velocity, but early this season, he's showing signs that a big league career is still a possibility. It may not be a Disney movie ending, but for a pitcher who has seem the depths of struggles in recent years, it’s quite an improvement.