What is it that best signifies a bad pitcher? Is it an inability to throw strikes? Is it giving up lots of hits and, in turn, lots of runs? Or is it, instead, an inability to put batters away, leading to lots of early exits from games? In the case of Wade Miley for the Orioles this season, why stop at one of these?
Miley was bad at just about everything you would like to see a starting pitcher be able to do this season. Only the complete dysfunction in the Orioles organization when it comes to attempting to build a starting rotation allowed Miley to stay in the rotation all season. Indeed, only a team whose rotation was in complete disarray would have ever believed last July that Miley might be any kind of improvement.
What I find to be the most remarkable thing about Miley is that, despite starting 32 games, he did not even pitch enough innings to qualify for end-of-season “leaderboards” for pitching. That’s one inning pitched per team game, or just a shred more than five innings pitched per game started over a full season.
Miley did not make the cut: He only pitched 157.1 innings. That’s a hair under five innings pitched per game started. This technically pulls him out of consideration for a crown that was rightly his. In the WHIP category, which is walks plus hits per inning pitched, a measure of how often a pitcher is allowing baserunners, no one active in MLB over the full season was worse than Miley’s 1.729.
Second place belongs to Matt Moore of the Giants, but it wasn’t even close. Moore had a 1.532 WHIP for the season. Miley was so bad that the next guy behind him wasn’t even in view. It was a bit closer for ERA: Miley’s 5.61 was almost bested, or perhaps worsted, by Moore’s 5.59. But again, only Miley was so bad that even with a full season’s worth of games started, he doesn’t even make the leaderboards at all.
How does that happen? A large part can be explained by another stat where Miley topped the leaderboard. There was at least one area where Miley ranked higher than Astros ace Dallas Keuchel, as appeared on one of the graphics for one of this year’s postseason games.
Unfortunately, the category where Keuchel was #2 to Miley’s #1 was “percentage of pitches thrown outside of the strike zone.” The graphic on Fox put Miley as having thrown 60% of his pitches outside of the zone. Fangraphs plate discpline data has Miley even worse than that, with only 35% of his pitches in the zone, meaning 65% were outside of it.
There is no way to be competitive when you’re outside the strike zone like that. No surprise, then, that Miley was not competitive. Going along with that inability to throw pitches in the zone is a league-worst walk rate. Miley walked 12.8% of the batters he faced this season.
Again, that’s leaps and bounds worst than the next-worst pitcher, Arizona’s Robbie Ray, whose walks for 10.7% of batters were mitigated somewhat by the fact that he struck out over 12 batters per nine innings.
Miley was not able to offset his walks with strikeouts, with only about an 8 K/9. Miley also led in raw number of walks despite his low innings count, with 93 walks issued. Second place Gio Gonzalez, who threw over 200 innings, walked 79.
A lot is made of the fact that we are in the information age of baseball. Through Statcast and other advanced tools, teams have reams of data at their disposal, more than even stats-oriented websites like Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus can process and relay to the public.
When you add traditional scouting insights to that, teams are just on a different plane as far as what they know compared to someone like me who writes on a blog. Yet, and I am continually amazed by this, not a single bit of that information led the Orioles to the obvious conclusion last July that maybe they shouldn’t trade for a guy with a 5 ERA in the AL West.
Almost the exact same story played out this July when the Orioles acquired Jeremy Hellickson... but that’s a rant for someone else’s player review.
What the heck happened with Miley this year? No one wanted to see him any less than I did, but even I have to admit that there was some shred of reason to believe that, based on Miley’s competitive (by Orioles rotation standards) 2015 season in the AL East, when he posted a 4.48 ERA for the Red Sox, he might be OK.
In the 2017 season, Miley carried almost exactly the same velocity as he did in 2015, averaging 91mph on his fastball and nearly identical velocities for his offspeed pitches as well. So, velocity decline doesn’t explain what happened to him. And when it comes to ground ball rate, Miley actually had a slightly higher percentage this year, at 50.3%, than he did in his acceptable mediocre 2015 Red Sox season, when he had a 48.8% ground ball rate.
It comes down to the whole business of not throwing strikes, and there was really nothing to suggest that was going to be Miley’s problem based on his track record. That walk rate was nearly double what it was last season - and he was already bad at pitching last season, just in other ways.
Again: What the heck? Did the shellacking he took in his Orioles tenure in 2016 make him shy away from throwing strikes? If so, that was certainly reinforced by what happened when batters made contact against him in 2017. I would not care to throw strikes either if batters were hitting against me like they did to Miley.
Maybe there was something about the new baseball offense environment about 2017 that was uniquely calibrated to effect a pitcher like Miley negatively. If there really was something juiced about the baseballs, perhaps that was something that blunted Miley’s minimal existing strengths as a pitcher.
In a similar vein, it may just be that a generally-accepted trend of batters swinging with more uppercut tendencies is something that hit Miley worse than most. Keeping it low, reflected in his ground ball rate, isn’t worth what it used to be. But most pitchers with ground ball rates above 50% had success in 2017. Spare a moment’s pity for Miley’s agent, who has to come up with a sales pitch based on all of this.
A pitcher has to struggle in a lot of the facets of his job in order to end up at the top of the lists that Miley topped in 2017. In the end, though, he’s merely a symptom of the O’s inability to evaluate starting pitching talent.
The good news is that it’s almost a certainty that we’ve seen the last of Miley in an O’s uniform. Surely not even they could think it’s a good idea to exercise his $12 million option for next season. I might be just a little bit nervous until it’s official they’re not doing it, though.