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Wade Miley fits the Houston Astros, and could be a bargain gem

The Astros’ signing of Wade Miley could go down as this year’s smart move that didn’t look exciting when it was first made.

MLB: NLCS-Los Angeles Dodgers at Milwaukee Brewers Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Thursday evening, Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic reported that the Astros reached a free agent deal with left-handed starting pitcher Wade Miley. The deal value, reported by Bob Nightingale, is a one-year contract for the grand sum of $4.5 million. Also per Nightingale, the Astros are reported to still be pursuing a reunion with Dallas Keuchel.

Miley, 32, pitched last season for the Astros North Milwaukee Brewers after coming back from an oblique injury. He threw 81 innings in sixteen starts, allowing a career-best 2.57 ERA. Notably, his strikeout rate dropped about 5% from his career rate.

The deal makes a lot of sense for Miley as he attempts to establish value for next year’s free agent market by pitching a whole healthy year and proving that his 2018 ERA was no fluke (his career ERA stands at 4.26). If he is able to do that as a left-handed starter, he should have plenty of value , as proved by fellow lefty Patrick Corbin who has a career ERA of 3.91 but was able to capitalize on a great 2018 and sign a $140 million contract.

Miley and his agent are no doubt also aware of the magic tricks that the Astros have done with starting pitchers recentlyBrad Peacock went from a busted Top 100 prospect to an elite strikeout reliever by adding a pitch. Collin McHugh went from crappy Quad-A pitcher to above-average major league starter to lights-out strikeout pitcher over the course of four seasons. Josh James developed from a soft-tossing non-prospect into an incarnation of batters’ worst nightmares. Charlie Morton not only revived his career, but became one of the better pitchers in the majors. Gerrit Cole added hefty strikeout totals and pitched better than he ever had before. Heck, the Astros even made future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander a better pitcher at age 34.

“If them, why not me?” Miley must be asking. One can’t blame him.

For the Astros, the deal is smart for several reasons. First, it is only $4.5 million. The Astros have gobs of cash to spend, but may still have designs on landing a whale in free agency. At $4.5 million, Miley has to have a tepid showing on the mound to make that a sunk cost.

Also, the Astros could stand to have another lefty. At present, Wiley seems like the fifth starter in the rotation, moving Peacock to the bullpen and Framber Valdez to Triple A, where he has only pitched two games in the past. A lefty starter does break up the “look” given to batters on subsequent days, although the value is limited if the starter is significantly worse than the others.

That won’t necessarily be the case, at least not meaningfully. But if Miley does revert back to the 4.50 to 5.60 ERA pitcher that he was from 2014 through 2017, the Astros have the option to convert Wiley into a bullpen LOOGY (if you aren’t familiar with the term yet, shame on you). For his career he has pitched noticeably better against left-handed batters.

If they decide that’s not the best option because other pitchers are tearing it up, the cost of Miley’s contract is low enough to cut bait on. But even if he doesn’t work out, if he is a healthy lefty pitcher, there is always some value on the trade market, even if it’s a PTBNL or some cash.

So it’s a no-risk bargain for the Astros that strengthens their pen by ensuring Peacock will remain in it, and it’s a deal they can easily toss aside if it doesn’t work out.

But there is still the possibility that Miley remains a good pitcher, re: that Astros magic referenced above.

His excellent performance last year wasn’t a complete fluke, although it was aided by an unsustainably-low home run rate.

Per Baseball Savant, Miley was in the league’s top 6% in preventing hard-hit balls. He was in the top 5% of preventing barreled balls (hard hit balls with an ideal launch angle for creating extra base hits). His average batted ball exit velocity of 85 mph was top 6% in the league.

All of those rates were career bests for Miley, and they occurred for a reason. Statcast shows that Miley added a cut fastball to his repertoire sometime before 2017, but he didn’t use it very often until reaching Milwaukee.

MLB: NLCS-Los Angeles Dodgers at Milwaukee Brewers Jon Durr-USA TODAY Sports

The Brewers, run by a GM who apprenticed in the Astros’ front office, cajoled Miley into throwing his cutter a whopping 42% of the time, the rate at which Miley used to throw his four-seam fastball.

And the Brewers knew their stuff. Miley’s four-seamer is terrible, as is the Sinker that the threw nearly as often as his fastball. During 2017, batters hammered Miley’s fastball to the tune of a .296 batting average and .527 slugging percentage. His sinker was nearly as bad, allowing a batting average of .314 and slugging percentage of .459.

He still threw both pitches in 2018, for a total of 20%, and they both still stunk.

If we know anything about the Astros, they aren’t afraid of extreme pitch selection. Evidence Lance McCullers who throws his curveball more than any other pitch, something that is virtually unheard of in modern baseball until recently.

Anyway, Miley’s cutter is downright good. Last season, batters hit .194 off of it with a slugging percentage of only .309. Batters didn’t whiff on it often, but they only managed wimpy contact.

It stands to reason that the Astros could keep Miley effective by telling him to completely abandon his four- and two-seam fastballs (something they are not afraid to do, seeing as they eliminated sinkers from the diets of Morton, McHugh, and Cole).

If Miley played off of his cutter, he could combine it with his curve ball, a very good pitch that generates whiffs nearly 25% of the time. Eliminating the straight four-seam fastball could also make his change-up more effective too, his pitch that he generates the most whiffs on (but to date, also hard contact).

From the video below, the pitches in sequence are 1) cutter 2) cutter (?) 3) cutter 4) curveball 5) curveball 6) change up 7) change up

The cutter/curveball combination could be particularly devastating at times because even though his cutter comes in between 87 to 91, his curveball starts out with a similar break, but is an easy 15 mph slower. The video also shows a nice fade on the changeup, which could to play well against right-handed batters in pitcher’s counts.

Last but not least, the Astros could resuscitate his slider, which was actually a decent pitch before he quit throwing it in 2018, and maybe have McHugh and Peacock teach him that nasty slider they learned from Luke Gregerson that transformed their careers so completely.

So that’s that. The Astros signed a cheap lefty pitcher who can start or pitch out of the pen, can be walked away from with little financial pain, and who showed improvements in 2018 due to tangible pitch selection reasons, and who can possibly be tweaked further to make that improvement permanent.

Not a bad day’s work for Houston’s front office.