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The Orioles need Wade Miley to unleash his fastball

How can Wade Miley rebound in his first full season with the O’s? His success hinges on the fastball, and in 2017, Miley may want to throw more of it.

MLB: Spring Training-Toronto Blue Jays at Baltimore Orioles Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Watching Wade Miley on Wednesday afternoon, and given the quality of his arsenal and the trajectory of his career arc, yesterday’s start was probably the best of what you hope to see from Miley.

In three scoreless innings, Miley managed to work both corners with his fastball, use his secondary stuff to get ahead early in the count, while primarily deafening the Jays’ contact at the plate. In a perfect world, Miley would stumble onto the mound for 30+ starts and trust that such a formula would work more often than not.

And as his three innings unfolded, there seemed to be a fondness for the fastball that Orioles fans haven’t seen, because a season ago, Miley used his fastball at unprecedented lows.

Wade Miley Career Pitch Usage (PITCHf/x)

2011 52.0 % 23.6 % 1.8 % 10.7 % 11.6 %
2012 31.3 % 41.8 % 15.3 % 11.7 %
2013 21.9 % 47.3 % 15.1 % 3.1 % 12.6 %
2014 31.5 % 32.2 % 22.9 % 1.8 % 11.5 %
2015 32.2 % 24.7 % 14.8 % 9.1 % 19.2 %
2016 38.2 % 10.9 % 20.8 % 12.1 % 18.1 %
Credit: Fangraphs

Amazingly enough, when Miley was acquired by the Orioles after spending close to four months with the Mariners, his fastball numbers precipitously dropped after coming to Baltimore. As a philosophy, Orioles starters had averaged the third-highest frequency of fastballs (61.5%) since 2012, with 2016 (59.7%) adding more spin to the growing narrative.

The issue of throwing too MANY fastballs has certainly been discussed in this forum when talking about the likes of Kevin Gausman, but in the case of Miley, the Orioles utilized him in a drastically different fashion and asked the lefty to attack hitters in ways he’d never had.

Granted, there are probably reasons O’s catchers were so willing to flash Miley multiple fingers behind the plate. Mixing in additional sliders, curveballs and changeups saw Miley naturally induce more chases than he’d ever had, and for someone with a fastball average barely touching 90 MPH, swings and misses mean a little more. The forceful change of speeds also didn’t really change the ratio in which Miley was being contacted.

As clever as the Orioles may have tried to be with Miley, the side effects of throwing more slow stuff can lower the margin of error over the plate. Last season, Miley was already having a tough time with home runs before he became an Oriole, and after being traded, Miley’s 17.9% HR/FB rate over the second-half ended up being the highest frequency of dingers he’d ever surrendered in any half of baseball in his career.

Admirable in its premise, the Orioles desires to have Miley finesse his way through a lineup created the unintended consequence of him becoming predictably unpredictable. Again looking at Baseball Prospectus’s new pitch tunnel measurements, Miley’s issues become a little easier to understand.

BP’s explanation of pitch tunneling can be found here, but for the uninitiated, these revolutionary metrics help to gauge a pitcher’s natural tendencies at the tunnel point, marked at 23.8 feet away from home plate. The idea is to measure various outcomes that initiate at the tunnel point, and among those is tunnel differential.

Miley’s tunnel differential in 2016, which measures the separation of back-to-back pitches at the tunnel point, ended as the 11th-lowest mark among starters with at least 2000 pitch pairs. In other scenarios, Miley’s name being listed in the same data set with pitchers such as Kevin Gausman, Noah Syndergaard and the late Jose Fernandez would be cool.

However, Gausman, Syndergaard and even Jake Odorizzi who also finds himself in the same company as Miley, all have either big fastballs, late-breaking secondary offerings, or both.

While Miley have a respectable bit of late-break on his lefty fastball, slider and curveball, the effects of clumping together a number of sequences without the threat of a looming fastball to effectively change speeds simply narrowed the scope for the guys at the plate. By not doing enough to incept the idea of a fastball into the minds of hitters, it became that much easier to narrow down what was coming, and based off of his tunnel differential, where most of his pitches were coming as well.

Most guys that fit Miley’s release and repertoire profile, such as fellow mild hurlers Ricky Nolasco and Mike Fiers, also had a large separation in their tunnel differentials. As they scattered their stuff across every plane of the strike zone—up, down, in and out—Miley failed to successfully change eye levels.

And wouldn’t you know it, the easiest way to initiate the process of becoming unpredictable is the presence of a commanded fastball.

Further cementing the need for the heater is the newly available release point differential numbers which measure the separation of a pitcher’s arm slot on consecutive pitches. Miley, who had the fourth-highest release differential among guys with 2000 pitch pairs, saw such a high mark because each pitch needs a differing manner of release. The large gap in his varying arm slots does show that Miley made an effort to mix up his stuff.

Expecting someone like Miley, who consciously threw so many sliders and curveballs to be atop the flight differential leaderboard, would seem to make sense. As flight differential quantifies the contrasting flight time of consecutive offerings, Miley was right around the middle among a set of pitchers with similar pitch pairs. His nestling in this area of BP’s data shows throwing too few fastballs didn’t create the effect of changing speeds he certainly intended to, or needed to.

The purpose of a slider, curveball and a changeup is to play off the flight path and velocity of a fastball. A pitcher like Miley, forced to drain every bit of craft he has in order to get outs, can’t knock down the domino line if he hasn’t put the pieces in order.

Granted, we aren’t dissecting Clayton Kershaw, but Miley doesn’t have to eclipse walk records or post a sub-2.00 ERA for his value to be reflected back into respectability. There is no doubt the Orioles are going to hit and likely be better at the plate than they were a season ago. If Miley can manage to simply be above-average more often than he’s below it, the difference will be heavily noticed.

Projection models Steamer and ZIPS both have Miley pegged to be worth 2.0 WAR in 2017, with an ERA landing somewhere in the mid-4.00 range. After half a season of early exits and every-fifth-day groans, that universe doesn’t so bad.

Though if the O’s truly do want to go where no Orioles team has gone before, or at least since 1983, Miley reworking the fastball into his repertoire could erase one less stop on the journey to the final frontier.