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Wade Miley throws a cutter now

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While the Orioles have been desperate to find any competent starting pitching, none other than Wade Miley has been a steady compass through the storm. The needle pointing the way? A cut-fastball.

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

First, a confession.

After the bottom of the 8th inning Tuesday night, I made the angry-fan choice to turn the game off, despite the Orioles offense valiantly doing its best to recalibrate the momentum.

I figured super-scary Dellin Betances would buff out the dent the Orioles put into an early lead built on the foundation of walks and an unusual Adam Jones error. I let the cynical side of my fandom get the better of me. Like I usually do when the Orioles create the kind of frustration that only they can, I cruised over to see which episode of Last Man Standing I stopped at and attempt to mend the pain that only a cancelled show could. Man, I gave up.

Luckily, my abandonment only lasted about a half an inning.

I had to turn the ballgame back on because the Orioles, unlike their early season gusto, have actually been capable of clawing their way back to the ledge. And again on Tuesday, they pulled themselves up and over.

While some may still be lost in the dream of Gary Thorne’s weird but glorious call of Manny Machado’s heart-stopping walk-off bomb, the reason the Orioles were unable to win sooner was because of yet another, let’s say, subpar Jeremy Hellickson start.

The Orioles own baseball’s best collective second-half wRC+ of 119, compared to their 92 wRC+ in the first half, baseball’s 10th-worst tally. It’s safe to say the Orioles are once again a scary lineup to face, but the starting pitching has continued to be the primary cause for their demise.

Aside from Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy, the Orioles aren’t getting consistently effective outings. Measuring in Baseball Prospectus’ starter’s deserved run average stat, a number that can best be described as a more modern fielding independent pitching, the Orioles hold the fourth-worst mark at 5.69. In terms of WARP, BP’s WAR-like number, Chris Tillman’s -2.44 and Ubaldo Jimenez’s -2.30 are respectively the third and fifth worst totals out of every pitcher in the league. Jeremy Hellickson’s 0.37? Ungood.

Fighting for a contentious playoff spot with a starting staff pitching only better than the Reds and the White Sox, the Orioles are simply hoping for their guys to pitch well enough to keep the offense within striking distance. Though the Orioles went on a home run barrage Tuesday night, a 6-1 lead after two-plus innings is going to be too much to overcome more often than not.

All of this makes whatever Wade Miley is doing all the more important.

As it is with most jobs, you’re probably doing something right if no one is talking about you, and for most of this second half of the calendar, we haven’t had to talk about Miley because he’s been as good as can be expected.

Wade Miley 2017

### ERA FIP O-Swing% Z-Swing% Contact% SwStr%
### ERA FIP O-Swing% Z-Swing% Contact% SwStr%
First Half 4.97 5.03 27.1 % 64.3 % 81.8 % 7.4 %
Second Half 4.80 4.81 31.3 % 63.1 % 78.2 % 9.1 %

While Miley has pretty much flatlined as a “meh” pitcher all season, he’s been a little bit better at the little things of late, such as inducing more whiffs, more bad swings and shortening the rate of contact. In July, four of his six starts were outings he surrendered at least five runs, where he averaged 4.1 innings per start. In contrast, August, and now September, have been surprisingly good to Miley.

In his last six starts, Miley has pitched to a 2.78 ERA, a .685 opponent OPS with a .282 BABIP more than 40 percentage points lower than his season total. This stretch of games has seen Miley pitch more of the same, but a little differently too.

As the season has gone on, Miley has added the cutter to his repertoire, all while maintaining a strategy of trying to jam righties and work away to lefties. In what seems to be a rather strange turn of events, not only has the cutter been added, but it’s become his go-to pitch.

Miley has pretty much scrapped his slider and changeup and become primarily a cutter-curveball pitcher. This change does shed some light on things. It’s likely that his cutter has added more movement to inner-half against righties, forcing weaker contact as we’ve seen, while his curveball becoming more of a threat likely hasn’t become enough of a trend yet for hitters to pick up on it.

As suggested by decreasing hard-hit rates and a softened BABIP, he’s probably doing more to miss barrels by just enough. For a pitcher like Miley, whose success is predicated on reducing soft contact because of his inability to generate strikeouts, this is a nice sign.

Even though Miley’s walk rate has continued to be abysmally high, the weirdness of this change has proven to be fruitful one, especially as he’s added another direction of movement to his fastball. You get a guy that can run, cut and throw a true a fastball from the left-hand side, it makes his work within and away from the strike zone that much tougher.

It’s also a positive trend to see Miley still prevent runs even when he’s generally not throwing a ton of strikes. While a small part of the plan, the cutter has likely contributed to the cause.

The Orioles don’t need Miley to be anything more than he currently is. Simply a floor of five inning starts with this same kind of run prevention is perfectly OK for the stretch run. We wouldn’t be greedy to ask for more, but when the less exciting majority of your rotation includes Hellickson, Tillman, and Miley, all you can ask for is OK.

If the featuring of a cutter means one fewer headache every five starts, count me in.