A New Beginning?
If you’re like most Astros fans when the team announced the signing of Wade Miley last off-season, you were like, “Is this it? After letting Charlie Freakin Morton, and Dallas Keuchel walk, that’s all they got back?”
Sure, he was pretty good last year. At age 31, Wade Miley made a remarkable transformation. After a career in which he posted a 4.20 ERA, last season with the Brewers Miley improved to a career best 2.57 ERA in 80.2 innings. A new pitch, the cutter, was widely credited for Miley’s unexpected progress, and yet few people in baseball seemed to believe this new level of performance was sustainable. Not his own team, who only trusted Miley in the playoffs as an opener. And after the season, despite earning 1.4 fWAR, no one else either, for apparently the Astros were the high bidders for his services on the free agent market, and they bought him for a song, $4.5 million.
Projection services anticipated regression this year, predicting Miley would revert to something like a 4.60 ERA, with about 0.7 fWAR. This would be more in line with what the Astros actually paid for his services.
Still Exceeding Expectations
At about the one third mark of the season, Miley has started 12 games, having pitched just 11 innings fewer than he did all last year. He has a 3.25 ERA pitching in the AL, and has already beaten forecasts with 0.8 fWAR. In 150 innings pitched since last May, Miley’s ERA is 2.88.
OK, I know I am writing for the Crawfish Boxes, and you don’t care about ERA. There’s a reason why so many people don’t trust in the new, improved Miley. Advanced stats don’t support his long term success. Miley’s xFIP and SIERA for example, (measures that attempt to evaluate a pitcher’s performance subtracting luck and defense from the equation) are about a run higher this year than his ERA, at 4.24 and 4.37 respectively. These numbers are actually lower than they were last year, so if you think he is pitching into some good luck with a 3.25 ERA, it was even more so last year. Last year his HR/9 was a ridiculous 0.33, allowing only four homers in 80 innings. No wonder people thought he was a fluke. This year it is a career high 1.43 HR/9, ten home runs in 69 innings, with a 15.7% HR/FB rate.
So one could say that Miley’s success last year was due to some good home run luck. This year that luck has turned and yet he is still producing good results, though some further regression is still indicated. But even if Miley regressed to the level of his xFIP and SIERA, he would still be pretty good, especially with the Astros’ offense. Let’s take a deeper look.
Piling Higher and Deeper
I have broken down Miley’s season into thirds, each third consisting of four games. In key areas he has shown continuous improvement. In each of these trimesters his ERA has remained steadily in the low 3’s, but xFIP has dropped from 5.00, to 4.01 to 3.75 in the last four games. Likewise SIERA has dropped from 5.07, to 4.37, to 3.74 in the last four games. His K rate has steadily climbed as well, from 12.1 %, to 20.2%, to 24,7 %. In his last game he got nine strikeouts in seven innings, his longest stretch of the season against a potent Cubs offense. Prior to that he struck out eight Red Sox in six innings. Last year Miley’s K rate was only 14.8%, and for his career it is 18.4%.
Here’s what Statcast says about Miley. Last year Miley’s wOBA (weighted on base average) was .283, but his xWOBA (expected weighted on base average) was .307. Which confirms that he was a bit lucky. This year his wOBA is an even .300, but his xWOBA is .286. The league average is .318. He is ranked 28th in the MLB in xWOBA, ahead of the likes of Chris Sale, David Price, Patrick Corbin and Clayton Kershaw.
So while Fangraphs numbers like xFIP and SIERA say Miley is out-performing peripherals, Statcast says he is actually under-performing them.
What’s up with Miley, whose fastball averages about 91, suddenly becoming a strikeout pitcher?
One New Wrinkle
When I started this article I was going to title it “Mr Hyde to Dr. Jekyl: How the Nerd Cave transformed Wade Miley.” Clever, so I thought. Trouble is, after extensive research in my favorite information sources, Fangraphs, Brooks Baseball (Pitch f/x) and Baseball Savant (Statcast) all I found was that Miley is still pretty much doing what he did last year. I did find one small difference, and I will save that for last.
These were all the parameters I checked: velocity of his pitches, location of each, movement, release point, batted ball data, spin rate (supposedly the Astros Nerd Cave can work miracles with a pitcher’s spin rate, but Miley has slightly less spin in May 2019 than he did last year)
Pitch selection is not radically different either. He did open the year throwing even more cutters than last year and fewer sinkers, but that has reverted lately.
This is the one major difference I could find between Miley 2019 and Miley 2018. And it is a familiar Astros story. He has begun throwing his four-seam fastball high in the zone. This is the four-seam distribution for 2019.
This is the distribution of the four seam in 2018.
Looking at the four-seamer in isolation, it seems this approach has mixed results for Miley. He is actually getting slightly more whiffs on the 2019 four-seamer, 13.7%, than with the 2018 variety, 11.73%. But batters are slugging it better than last year, .390 compared to .306. Two of the ten home runs surrendered have been to the four-seam, none last year.
But herein lies the transformation of Miley into more of a strikeout pitcher. According to Brooks Baseball, Miley has thrown 138 four-seamers in 2019, and these have accounted for seventeen strikeouts, only four less than the cutter. In 2018, having thrown 179 four-seamers, Miley only got 14 k’s, eight less than he got with the cutter.
So apparently the Nerd Cave has convinced Miley to take a chance and put that 91 mile per hour pitch up in the zone, tempting the batter to hit it out. Twice this year they have, but more often they have struck out. And having that high heater in the arsenal probably makes the other pitches more effective.
He’s a Keeper
So even with this new wrinkle, the point is that since he found the cutter in 2018, Miley has been a remarkably consistent pitcher whose ERA has averaged in the low threes, and even by the more pessimistic peripheral statistics, shouldn’t regress much past four runs a game. If current trends hold, he should get about 2.4 fWAR by season’s end. By today’s standards, not bad for $4.5 million. In fact, a bargain for sure.
And maybe just good enough to be the starter in a Game 4 ALCS.