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Slowing down has sped up Wade Miley’s return to form

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Despite the walks, Wade Miley’s 2017 has been a pleasant revelation thus far. More strikeouts and weaker contact from the southpaw has given the Orioles a much-needed boost in the rotation.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Cincinnati Reds David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Well, after three nights of, let’s say, very cosmopolitan baseball in Boston, the Orioles deserve a bit of good news.

Like Chris Sale, I may be a little outside the zone here, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that this version of Wade Miley isn’t something that can’t be more of a mainstay than the Orioles saw for a little less than half of last season.

Miley, whose current 2.32 ERA (3.75 FIP), 29.7 K% and .254 opponent BABIP have already totaled him at 0.5 WAR, one-third of his entire 2016 total.

The 30-year old lefty has never had explosive stuff, but throwing from the left side with a good running fastball, fading changeup and a pretty tight slider, one would think his career trajectory wouldn’t have valleyed as it has in recent years. Affably called an “unexciting, generic innings-eating sponge” by Fangraphs’ Jeff Sullivan at the time the Orioles acquired him, Miley was, and still is, an imperfect product with an array of imperfections.

With a pace to home plate unmatched by any other in baseball, it turns out all he may have needed was to be reminded that working fast isn’t the same as pitching fast.

As reported by MLB.com, Miley discussed the art of pitching with fellow left-hander and Oriole favorite Scotty McGregor while shagging fly balls in the outfield last September. McGregor noticed that Miley was rushing to home plate, perhaps a byproduct of his desire to get back on the mound and immediately return fire to home plate.

"The talk I had with him in the outfield last year -- I think right in September when [McGregor] got over there, it kind of stuck with me," said Miley. "I was kind of working too hard throughout games and trying to do too much, kind of backed it off and tried to rely more on location.

Miley, though not directly, is a learned pupil in the Ray Miller school of pitching: work fast, change speeds and throw strikes. While Miley may have mastered the former, but the latter two principles have certainly been a work in progress. I wrote earlier this spring that Miley needed to throw his fastball with more frequency in order to create the illusion of varying speeds, and so far in 2017, it’s something he’s tried to do.

Wade Miley Pitch Usage 2016-17

Pitch Usage FA% FT% SL% CU% CH%
Pitch Usage FA% FT% SL% CU% CH%
2016 38.20% 10.90% 20.80% 12.10% 18.10%
2017 23.90% 35.80% 22.80% 9.80% 5.70%

Miley’s reverted back to a more traditional currency with his fastball, specifically a major hike with his two-seamer (though lefties tend to have natural fade anyway). Obviously, Miley has also reintroduced his slider with a bit more aggression, while throttling back from his changeup. Rather than just trying keep guys on their back foot as he did a season ago, he’s forced hitters to respect his fastball, which naturally makes everything else look that much better.

While pitch sequencing is well and good, none of it really matters if you aren’t around the plate. The most notable difference between this season and last has been Miley’s execution of not just throwing strikes, but quality strikes.

One of the issues that comes with trying to rush to the plate is your arm tries to catch up with the rest of your body. Striding to home plate with too much haste, your arm has a tendency to pull over your front side just as quickly. As Miley’s 2016 heat map shows, he was hurling a lot of meatballs into the middle zone. While he was pitching fast, his mechanics broke down as a side-effect.

Quite clearly, the Wade Miley experience has been a little more thrilling than recent memory may suggest.

As he’s slowed down, Miley’s created a proper gathering in his delivery to home plate. Allowing his mechanics to become more repeatable, his command has become more instinctive. Miley’s transition away from the middle of the zone to his glove side of the zone is happenstance of this renewed, toned-down delivery.

Because, you know, he does have a pretty good fastball.

More confident in his ability to place any pitch where deems necessary, Miley has been more aggressive in using his slider against right-handers as well.

The above chart reflects Miley’s two-strike slider usage to right-handers last season, and with hitters on the defensive, it isn’t tough to see he was being abused in put-away scenarios. Miley was on the receiving end of a lot of line-drives in plate appearances that saw him ahead ahead of the count.

Coupling his inability to end at-bats with a tendency to hover over the heart of the plate, a .360 wOBA against right-handers starts to make a bit more sense.

So far, Miley has been able to either jam righties with the slider enough to see foul balls harmlessly pulled to the left side, even creating swings and misses. A slider buried at the feet of righties also opens up the outer-half of the plate, as seen the whiff-rate on his changeup rise from 13 percent to 20 percent this season, while his two-seam swing and miss ratio has also seen a climb.

One of the more interesting points that Miley made in the same interview with MLB.com was his ability to start pitches as strikes that end up as balls, rather than pitches over the plate staying over the plate.

"It sounds kind of crazy, but my misses were killing me last year, I was missing over the plate. Now, my misses are off the plate."

While that of course creates more strikeouts, his current 14.8 BB% has obviously become a source of concern.

Though walks are understandably bad, Miley’s rebranded himself as someone that is going to force hitters to hit his pitch, rather than handing out gifts at his own expense. When you’re a low-90’s guy who is forced to work the borders of the plate, sometimes a walk isn’t the worst thing, especially as he’s retained the ability to force the ball on the ground.

While Miley may not be forcing as many chases compared to season’s past, he’s had enough reason so far to trust his stuff within the strike zone to a point where extra guys on base hasn’t been an issue. Again, not a typical blueprint, but Miley’s always been weird. Sometimes weird works.

Maybe as he journeys deeper into the year, the walks cut down and the strikeouts, though good now, likely begin to even out. For Miley, his execution inside the strike zone will continue to be priority one, but the fearlessness he’s shown to throw all his pitches at anytime and the ability to find the corners of the plate will see him keep finding success, if he can repeat it.

We may be quick to say a subtle fix was all Miley may have needed to reach this level of competence, but if you ask last night’s home plate umpire Sam Holbrook, there’s no such thing as a snap judgement.