Earlier today I spoke with Mark Montgomery, the Yankees 11th-round choice from last year and one of the system's fastest risers. He fanned an incredible 51 hitters in 28 1/3 innings, including five in his first inning as a Charleston RiverDog. You can read all about that outing here
The Yankees plucked him from Longwood University, where pitching came as sort of a happy accident. Here's what Montgomery, @SnapDragonMonty on Twitter, who could wind up in Trenton by midseason, had to say to me.
Josh Norris: For those of us who haven't seen you, self included, tell me a little bit about what you throw and what kind of pitcher you are.
Mark Montgomery: I got drafted as a closer. I was a reliever this season in Staten Island then got called up and wound up relieving for Charleston. Right now I just throw a fastball and a slider. My change-up right now is a work in progress, I guess we'll see when that develops and (gets) put into the repertoire, but right now and this past season it's been fastball-slider.
JN: How often did you get to throw the change-up, if at all, this season?
MM: When I first got down there, they immediately thought I was going to have to add it in, but as the season went along and I did pretty well, I pretty much just played catch with it a lot, just getting a feel for it. I actually threw it in bullpens and bullpens before games, but never threw it in an actual game.
JN: Had you thrown it before you converted to the bullpen, because I know you were a starter early on in college before moving to the bullpen and eventually the closer's role?
MM: I had a change-up when I was a starter my freshman year at school (Longwood University). Once I was pushed to the back of the bullpen becoming a closer I did away with that, but when I first started I had a change-up.
JN: Are they teaching you a different change-up, or are you just re-learning the same one from college?
MM: The one I had. They had me show them the one I threw (a circle change-up) and I got a hang of it really quickly, so we're going to stick with that one.
JN: Who taught you how to throw the slider, because it's gotten pretty rave reviews both inside and out of the system?
MM: I can't really think of anyone who taught me. Up until probably my senior year I'd thrown a 12-to-6 (curveball) and went to a showcase and I was sitting down talking to some people. They pretty much just told me 'You need to tighten up that breaking ball,' and the harder it is, obviously, the more effective it's going to be. I just switched up the grip a little bit and found the grip I'm comfortable with, and it's been effective.
JN: What did you do when trying to refine it and how to control its break and depth?
MM: I played catch with it and just kind of toyed around until I found a grip that felt was the most effective to throw it and just stuck with it.
JN: What's the difference in learning how to control the break on the slider and learning to control the break on the 12-to-6 curve?
MM: I think it's just two different types of pitches. The slider's pretty much become my out pitch, so I want to make it as sharp and as hard as I can. Obviously earlier in the count I want to throw it for strikes, so I'll take a little bit off it.
JN: So, when you were in college, you said they pushed you to the back of the bullpen. Why was that decision made?
MM: When I originally went to school, it was to be an infielder. My first couple of games I actually played infield, and then I just had a random spot start against Richmond and did pretty well. I think I ended up starting three or four more games and started getting into relief so I could throw more often.
My freshman and sophomore years was when my arm strength picked up and I started to gain some velocity and the strikeouts started coming more and more. That's when they decided that being in the back of the bullpen and being the closer was probably the best option.
JN: So when you got to college, then, you didn't expect to be a pitcher? That was just something that happened?
MM: I threw a good amount my junior and senior year in high school, but most schools -- I guess it was half and half -- some schools wanted me to pitch and some schools wanted me to play in the field. Longwood actually wanted me to play infield -- I played a little bit of outfield my freshman year -- so I really throw much in the fall of my freshman year.
(My debut) was a spot, needed-a-start kind of thing and I threw well that day, and then after that it was pretty much just pitching from there on.
JN: At what point during that process did you think, hey, this could be a permanent thing?
MM: I swung the bat a couple of more times after that first start and then I started seeing some success (on the mound) and I played in the summer league, I pretty much knew I wasn't going to hit anymore.
JN: Now you've completed that transition and moved to the back of the pen and become a closer, can you remember the first time you blew a save?
MM: The first time I blew a save was probably my freshman summer, I think. I think it was a doubleheader actually, and I think were up by one. Most times when you're going to blow a save you walk a guy, and I walked a guy. They pushed him over, so they had one out and had gotten him over (into scoring position). The next guy fisted a ground ball to the right side and they scored to tie it. I think we might have ended up winning the game, but that was probably the first blown save I had.
JN: How did you deal with that mentally? Closers are supposed to have that special mentality, but I'd imagine it takes time for that to develop.
MM: It was tough, because it was my job to secure the win, obviously, for the team. All in all, you've got to learn from your mistakes. Probably the biggest thing I took away from that was you've got to get ahead of guys, and especially throwing that ninth inning you can't walk people, because you're essentially giving them free bases. Most of the time you walk a guy in the ninth -- or the first time -- he's probably going to get around to score. It's all about learning from your failures, I guess.
JN: Was there someone on the staff, maybe, who helped you deal with that first failure?
MM: Everywhere I've played I've learned to be kind of a sponge and take in information from everyone I'm around, so it's been a mixture of everyone, I guess.
JN: So this year, obviously, you had a lot of success, probably more success than anyone -- Yankees included -- could have imagined so soon. What did you take from this year?
MM: The biggest to me in playing pro ball was that it's a grind, which is expected with so many games and all. The biggest to me, learning, was consistency and learning to find a routine that works for you. You can't really get too high or too low in between all these games, so I had to do something. I found a routine that I stuck to and I did day in and day out that really kept me even keel, I guess.
JN: In the midst of all that success, have you found something that you can get away with in college that you can't get away with in pro ball?
MM: My first outing (in Staten Island), I didn't do too well. That's just from being in college and trying to throw it by guys, not spotting up. Location's big at the next level, and just being able to throw to both sides of the plate consistently, I think. In college, I could kind of just set the catcher up outside and just keep pounding the plate, but you really have to be able to throw inside effectively at this level as well.
JN: You were one of the very few members of this year's draft class not to be part of the Yankees instructional league. Why was that?
MM: I think the (reason) I heard was from the amount of innings. I threw close to 30 innings, and I think they were just trying to let my arm rest and not really wear it out early.
JN: So with you're first pro spring training a few months away, what are your goals for the season?
MM: Just improve in everything. You can get better every day. I just want to get around some of the older guys and pick their brains and hear what they have to say. All in all I feel I can improve in every aspect of my game, whether it's mentally, physically, spotting up, arm strength, just preparing for the game all in all.