Oakland Athletics: Frankie Montas returns from 80-game PED suspension

ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 04: Frankie Montas #47 of the Oakland Athletics at the end of the fifth inning against the Los Angeles Angels at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on June 04, 2019 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 04: Frankie Montas #47 of the Oakland Athletics at the end of the fifth inning against the Los Angeles Angels at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on June 04, 2019 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images) /

Oakland Athletics starter Frankie Montas returns from an 80-game PED suspension tonight. Can he still contribute to the team’s playoff hopes or was Montas just an early-season mirage?

On June 21, 2019, Oakland Athletics starter Frankie Montas walked off the mound after eight innings of one-run baseball against the playoff-contending Tampa Bay Rays. He struck out nine in one of his best performances of what was quickly becoming an All-Star caliber season.

The next day, Frankie Montas was hit with an 80-game suspension for PED usage.

Montas had finally figured it out at the big-league level after trips back and forth between the minors and majors since he was shipped over in the Rich Hill and Josh Reddick trade of 2016.

In prior years, Montas displayed an overpowering fastball — but it was admittedly flat. While it blew batters away at the minor league level, major league batters had no issue teeing off on him.

Also typical of your flame-throwing prospect, Montas had a hard time limiting his walk rate — a key aspect of surviving in a big-league rotation.

But something clicked in his 2019 campaign. At 26-years-old, Montas cruised to a 9-2 record with a 2.70 ERA in his first fifteen starts. He had 97 strikeouts in 90 innings with only 21 walks.

At a time where there were all kinds of questions about the A’s starting rotation — remember, Aaron Brooks and Marco Estrada were getting turns in the rotation — Frankie Montas was emerging as the unsuspecting ace.

It was beginning to feel as though every fifth day was a win so long as Frankie was on the mound.

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But when the news of Montas’ suspension hit the internet, there was an uncomfortable feeling in the air. Was Montas as good as his numbers indicated? Had he truly harnessed his ability? Or was it yet another case of a breakout year with a looming asterisk waiting to be painted over it?

Tonight, Montas is slated to get his first start since June 20th. He’ll be up against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim as the Oakland Athletics attempt to fend off both the Cleveland Indians and Tampa Bay Rays for the top Wild Card spot.

He’s served his time. He’s accepted that the suspension means he is ineligible for the postseason.

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But he can still contribute to this team in a big way.

The Oakland Athletics have their magic number down to five. Every single win over the course of the next five days will inch the A’s closer and closer to securing their spot in the postseason.

Montas knows that this is his only opportunity to help contribute to the team in a meaningful way this season. He’s stayed sharp in simulated games over the course of his suspension.

But all eyes will be on him when he juggles both the pressure of giving his team a chance to win and the pressure of silencing any doubts that came from his suspension’s tarnishing of a breakout season.

Which Frankie Montas will we see tonight? We’ll have to wait and see.

But there’s a common misunderstanding of how some of these performance-enhancing substances benefit players.

The common thinking is that players try to beat the system so they can throw their fastball a little harder. But the reality is that Frankie Montas was already a flamethrower. No substance was going to help him in that department.

These supplements are used for recovery. The reality is that throwing so hard has to put a strain on the body. Montas had only been able to throw more than 135 innings in a season once in his young career.

This doesn’t justify his violation of the MLB’s performance-enhancing drug policy. But it does beg the question of how Montas’ effectiveness has changed from one year to the next.

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What’s changed with Frankie Montas from last year to this year is a key change in his pitching arsenal — abandoning his ineffective changeup to replace it with a debilitating splitter.

Montas has constantly been trying to rearrange his arsenal from one season to the next in order to best support his upper-90’s heater. He’s utilized an effective slider and tried to work in a sinker. He’s toyed with his changeup.

But the splitter has added another dimension to his game that has revolutionized his role as a starting pitcher.

Now, with a healthy mix of four pitches all being thrown above 17% of the time, Montas can keep hitters off-balance — unsure if he’s going to check them with a heater or lean on one of his secondary pitches.

It’s that confidence that’s changed the game for him. And rightfully so — Montas’ splitter has been used as a put-away pitch nearly 30% of the time, with batters swinging and missing 42% of the time. It’s by far his most effective pitch.

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Did Montas’ use of Ostarine, reportedly contained in a contaminated over-the-counter supplement, grace Montas with a devastating split-finger fastball? Probably not.

The biggest thing that Montas will be working against in his next start will be the fact that he hasn’t been up against in-game competition in about three months. He’s pitched every five days and he’s surely been gearing up for this assignment, but it’s a whole different game compared to simulations.

But the drug suspension shouldn’t be seen as a Scarlet Letter worn over a season that saw undeniable success.

The A’s and Bob Melvin could have used Frankie Montas in the past few months. They’ve been punished in that regard.

And Montas has been punished too. He forfeited a year of his prime to a suspension. He forfeited his chance at pitching in the postseason. He forfeited an opportunity to be an All-Star this season.

But the time for reflection is over with. Now, Montas will have to worry about the only thing he has control of until he looks to pick up where he left off as part of next year’s imposing rotation.

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His destiny will be up to him. And in the meantime, the A’s postseason fate could be too.