With just two weeks until pitchers and catchers report and so damn many free agents remaining unsigned, it's looking like last year is the new normal rather than an aberration. In addition to players like Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Dallas Keuchel, Craig Kimbrel and Marwin Gonzalez remaining unsigned, there are many, many other players (over 100) of varying degrees of quality who are looking like they’re going to miss out on part or all of Spring Training. That might make it harder for them to get into the swing of the regular season, further compounding the issues between the union and owners that we discussed recently and that we will almost certainly be coming back to in the future.
But we're here today to talk about a player who did find a home this week, even if he isn't the most immediately exciting free agent on the market. Otherwise, I guess we just talk about how the Padres had a date with Harper, but they’re really more into Machado, and, before you realize it, you’re being redirecting to TMZ. So, no, we will talk about Wade Miley signing in Houston, because, even if it might be the kind of deal you skim over and move on from, it’s actually a more interesting than you might think.
The Astros signed Miley to a one-year, $4.5 million deal yesterday, after the 32-year old lefty put up a 2.57 ERA last year in Milwaukee, the best of his seven-plus year career. Then, he did even better for the Brewers in the postseason, providing 14.2 innings of 1.80 ERA ball before they fell to the Dodgers. But, while both those numbers look pretty great, Miley’s performance comes with some serious caveats.
The first of those is that Miley only pitched 80 innings during the regular season. Thanks to a truly abysmal 2017 (5.61 ERA, 5.27 FIP, -0.2 bWAR, 0.8 fWAR), Miley had to settle for a minor league deal with the Brewers just as last year’s Spring Training was getting going. Then, he suffered a groin injury and missed the first half of the season. Even if Miley had a successful season on the surface, it reeks of small sample size and, well, he’s a 32-year old pitcher, which means that the injury risk isn’t going anywhere.
There’s also the fact that Miley's 3.59 FIP was more than a whole digit higher than his ERA, and then there's a peripheral stat that is positively jaw-dropping, when you consider how successful his season was, despite its limited length. Miley only struck out 5.6 hitters per nine innings, which is the sixth worst mark for pitchers who logged as many innings and would have earned him the ignominious distinction of the worst mark in the majors if he had only pitched enough to qualify.
But there was good news in the counting stats, too. While Miley may have struck out only 50 batters over his 80 IP, he also only allowed three home runs, giving him a 0.33 HR/9. The only pitcher that doled out fewer dingers over 80-plus innings last season was Blake Treinen, who came in sixth in Cy Young voting as a reliever. There were certainly some changes when it came to the kind of contact that Miley allowed, and that’s borne out when you look at the number of ground balls he was able to generate as well.
His 2.24 ground ball-fly ball ratio was tied for the fourth best in MLB (minimum 80 IP) and his Brewer teammates positively ate up those grounders, which also explains most of his ERA outperforming his FIP. Per Statcast, Miley's 28.5% hard hit rate was in the top 6% of the league. Miley succeeded over half a season despite so rarely striking anyone out, and he did it because he changed up his repertoire.
Despite being in the majors since 2011, Miley didn't even throw a cutter until 2015, but the Brewers got him to throw it a whole bunch more last year, 41.9% of the time. And his curveball usage jumped as well, to 16.7%. How did opposing hitters fare against those pitches? They hit .197 against the curve and .187 against the cutter. Hitters had been seeing his fastball and slider, and yet he kept throwing them both, far too often.
So, Miley made some changes last year at the prompting of the Brewers' pitching staff and he was able to thoroughly change the type of contact that hitters were making with his pitches. Now we need to account for the fact that he's moving to a team that’s had even more success with "damaged" pitchers than the Brewers.
While Charlie Morton and Brad Peacock might be the biggest success stories, Gerrit Cole and Verlander have also outperformed what was expected of them since moving to Texas. If Houston can get Miley to completely get rid of his fastball and slider, something that’s not unreasonable considering how they've coached Lance McCullers to depend so heavily on his curve, then it's not unreasonable to expect at least some of the gains Miley made last season to carry over.
It's also worth noting that the Astros shift more than any team in baseball. While the advanced defensive statistics weren't particularly high on Houston's defense as a whole, they were still tied for the highest fielding percentage in MLB (.989). Their ability to get to Miley's ground balls could go along way to determining whether or not Miley continues to find success for a second-straight season, as his career-low .269 BABIP needs to continue to be low if he's going to find success in his new home.
Of course, the best part about this from the Astros' perspective is the cost. Even if Miley isn't able to convert last season's success into a huge stride forward as a starter, the Astros can simply move him to the bullpen or even use him as a LOOGY, where it certainly won't be a problem to rely on only one or two pitches. Hell, given Houston's payroll, they can even just cut ties and figure something else out, and that's assuming that they fail to re-sign Keuchel or make any other moves.
Miley might build on what he did last year, and he might not. These sorts of analyses are fraught with peril. But one thing's clear, and that's that there's plenty of upside to signing Miley at the cost, especially given the rejuvenating nature of the Astros’ pitching staff and the fact that Miley’s 2018 ERA+ (159) was exactly the same as his new teammate, Justin Verlander.
Even if he doesn't live up to the expectations he set for himself in a half-season last year, it’s hard to argue with the Astros’ decision to give Miley a shot. It might not be the most exciting move of the offseason, but it’s an intriguing one nonetheless.