When the Orioles traded for Wade Miley at the end of July, they expected to get a mediocre innings-eater to slot into the back of the rotation. While nobody was under the impression that Miley is a star, it was reasonable to think he’d improve the team by filling that spot with an ERA that started with a four or a five instead of a six or a seven.
Instead, his performance since joining the Orioles has been a nightmare. Through eight starts since the trade, Miley is 1-5 with a 8.41 ERA. His magnum opus was a four-out, eight-hit, six-run train wreck of a start that practically ended Monday’s game in the second inning.
So, the results have been bad. No argument there. Our own Tyler Young wrote on Tuesday that he should be removed from the rotation, and that may very well happen. Even if Miley improves, giving up Ariel Miranda may turn out to be a mistake. It’s not like we haven’t seen that before.
When it comes to Miley’s status in the rotation, though, I personally think he should stay where he is. Yes, he’s been bad, but he’s been incredibly unlucky, and he’s a better bet to pitch capably over the next few starts than Yovani Gallardo.
Let’s start with his peripherals. In his eight starts with the Orioles, Miley has a K/9 of 8.15 and a BB/9 of 3.31. That’s actually not terrible, and significantly better than Gallardo’s numbers over either the full season (6.14 and 4.65) or the period since Miley was acquired (5.45 and 3.72).
Those peripherals, combined with his mediocre 47.9% ground ball rate, give Miley a surprisingly decent xFIP of 3.98. Essentially, xFIP is a measure of what a pitcher’s ERA “should” be with an average defense, factoring in how often hitters strike out, walk, and put the ball in the air.
Nobody claims xFIP is a perfect stat, and some pitchers consistently under-perform or out-perform their peripherals. However, it’s safe to say that there’s some luck involved when a pitcher’s ERA is more than double their xFIP.
Moving on to FIP, that number jumps by nearly a full run to 4.81. Why? Because FIP uses HR/9 instead of fly ball percentage. While xFIP assumes that a pitcher’s HR/FB is random (which it mostly is), FIP doesn’t.
Miley has a 20.7% HR/FB rate with the Orioles, meaning more than 1 in 5 fly balls against him have left the yard. That’s incredibly high. League average is about 10%, and there are zero qualified starters with a HR/FB over 20% this year.
Out of the 125 pitchers with 100+ innings, and there’s just one: Jon Niese. Even if we expand that sample to pitchers with 30+ innings (Miley has thrown 35 innings for the O’s), only eight out of 205 have a HR/FB higher than Miley.
That’s one indicator of bad luck, but we can do better. Let’s move on to the next of the classic “luck” stats when it comes to pitching: batting average on balls in play (BABIP). Miley has allowed a .409 BABIP with the Orioles.
That is...insane. League average is around .300. The highest BABIP for a qualified starter is .358. Of the 205 pitchers with at least 30 innings pitched this season, only Tim Lincecum has allowed a BABIP over .400, an even-more-insane .432. The next-highest isn’t even close - it’s Cody Anderson of the Indians at .386.
In fact, if you look at the past ten years, there are 2106 pitcher-seasons of at least 30 innings pitched. How many have had a BABIP higher than .409? One. Lincecum, this year. That’s it.
Whether it’s from defensive miscues (such as Steve Pearce’s pair of misplays on Monday), or just plain hitting ‘em where they ain’t, basically everything is falling in against Miley right now.
Let’s move on to one final statistic: LOB%. This is another one that’s primarily influenced by luck. Pitchers tend to strand around 70% of runners on average, and deviations from that are mostly related to sequencing.
A pitcher can give up seven hits in a game and pitch a shutout if he allowed them all in different innings. If all those hits are concentrated over a few innings, though, that same seven-hit performance could result in five or six runs, even if the pitcher didn’t really pitch any worse overall.
To see how big of an effect this can have, look at Miguel Gonzalez. Gonzalez had a 4.46 xFIP in 2014 and a 4.48 xFIP in 2015. By that metric, he was the exact same pitcher both years. But he had a 3.23 ERA in 2014 and a 4.91 ERA in 2015. Why? He stranded 85.5% of runners in 2014, the highest percentage in all of baseball by almost 3%.
Everybody knew that LOB% was unsustainable, and Gonzo predictably regressed the next year. So, how about Miley? You guessed it - his LOB% with the Orioles is ridiculously low at 57.1%.
There is no qualified starter with a LOB% below 65. There is one pitcher with at least 30+ innings with a LOB% lower than Miley’s, and it’s Jose Berrios of the Twins at 54.4%. Just like Miley, Berrios has a sky-high ERA that’s nearly double his xFIP.
You get the picture. The three classic stats that we use to evaluate the effect of “luck” on pitching are HR/FB, LOB% and BABIP. Not only has Miley been terrible in all three categories, he’s been historically terrible in all three.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. These stats aren’t all luck. Some pitchers can sustain above- or below- average numbers in these categories, you say. Some pitchers are able to consistently induce harder or softer contact. That’s true, but not nearly to this degree.
Miley does appear to be one of those guys. His career BABIP is a tad high at .309, and his career HR/FB is 11.6%, also a little higher than average. So, yes, it does seem like batters do square him up a little more than other pitchers when they make contact.
That’s why Miley has underperformed his peripherals throughout his career. Generally, his ERA has tended to be about a half-run higher than his xFIP (4.23 vs. 3.87 overall). Based on that, given his xFIP of 3.98 since joining the Orioles, we’d expect Miley’s ERA to be about 4.50.
Instead, he’s had what could legitimately be one of the unluckiest 35-inning stretches of the past decade. Fly balls are leaving the yard instead of going to the warning track. Balls are finding gaps all over the place, when they aren’t being misplayed by outfielders. The hits he’s allowed have been strung together in big innings where they can do the most damage. Everything that could go wrong, has gone wrong.
The results might say otherwise, but Miley has pitched exactly like the guy the Orioles thought they were getting. He hasn’t been great, but he hasn’t nearly been this bad. He’s not a star, but he’s - as Dan Duquette would say - a capable major league starter. He deserves a chance to remain in the rotation and prove it.