24 April 2017

Wade Miley's Winning Combo: Great Command And Great Framing

Russell Martin is many things — a Canadian, a three-true-outcomes hitter, a strong defender — but above all else, he's an excellent judge of pitch location. Since 2007, the first year of PITCHf/x data, Martin has swung at 20.3 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, ranking 27th among 567 qualified hitters. (For what it's worth, he's also swung at 59.2 percent of pitches inside the strike zone, which is 124th in that sample.) Maybe it's because he plays behind the plate, or maybe it's just an innate talent; whatever the reason, he can usually tell the difference between balls and strikes.

We can understand, then, why he got a little miffed here:

With the Jays trailing the O's 5-3 in the sixth inning, Martin worked the count to 2-2 against Wade Miley. The left-hander uncorked a sinker that fell right on the edge of the PITCHf/x-defined strike zone, and though Martin checked his swing, Brian Knight rung him up. It was the eighth strikeout of the night for Miley, continuing an unforeseen run of dominance from the Orioles starter.

Heading into the year, most of us didn't expect much from Miley. FanGraphs' Depth Charts projected the southpaw to put up a 4.48 ERA and 4.34 FIP over 169.0 innings — the marks of a wholly uninspiring, mid- to back-of-the-rotation arm. Yet over his first three starts, Miley has earned a sterling 1.89 ERA and 3.15 FIP. While his walk rate (11.1) is elevated and his ground ball rate (48.7 percent) is in line with his career average, he's struck out 33.3 percent of opposing hitters. Even in this young season, that ranks fourth in the majors.

But wait. Looking at his PITCHf/x plate discipline metrics, we don't see much improvement from past years. If anything, Miley has performed worse in 2017:

  Year(s)    O-Swing%    Z-Swing%    Swing%    Contact%    SwStr%    Zone% 
  2011-16  30.7% 63.5% 45.4% 81.0% 8.6% 44.8%
2017 31.3% 66.7% 45.7% 81.2% 8.6% 40.7 %

Miley's whiff rate hasn't budged from past years, and he has the unsavory combination of fewer pitches in the zone and more swings in the zone. How, then, has he fanned a third of the batters he's faced?

Well, aside from fortuitous sequencing — which is to say, luck — Miley's accumulated a lot more strikes than you'd expect, based on his zone and O-Swing rates. The trend has affected each of his starts:

  Start    Pitches    Strikes    xStrikes 
  4/9    100    56    51 
  4/14    101    66    61 
  4/20    101    70    67 
  Total    302    192    179 
xStrikes = Pitches * (1 - (1 - O-Swing%) * (1 - Zone%))

Getting those extra calls has given Miley an above-average strike rate (63.6 percent) and looking-strike rate (28.1 percent). That's made him a power pitcher, of sorts, and resulted in a lot of weird looks like the one Martin showed above.

So does Miley stand any chance any chance of keeping this up? Or will his greatness fade away, like so many other early-season success stories? (Remember April 2016 MVP Joey Rickard?) He probably won't have a higher strikeout rate than Max Scherzer by the end of the year, but Miley has a couple of factors working in his favor.

Baseball Prospectus debuted a metric called CSAA in February, which isolates a pitcher's ability to get called strikes as a proxy for his command. I'll let BP explain the details:

A pitcher with good command should be more predictable for the catcher—their pitches often end up in the locations, and with the movement that the catcher expects. This skill results in easier receiving for catchers, and additional called strikes for the pitcher. Once we aggregate the data cross thousands of pitches, CSAA is able to tell us whether a pitcher is reliably hitting his spots.

By this metric, Miley's always excelled. This year, though, he's taken things to another level:

As of this writing, Miley's 4.59 percent CSAA ranks third in the majors, trailing fellow left-handers (and past Cy Young winners) Dallas Keuchel and Clayton Kershaw. For whatever reason — maybe he's better with his sinker, which he's used more often this year — Miley's command has taken a huge leap forward in 2017, and his strikeout rate has spiked in turn.

But command, I'd argue, is not the most significant variable at play. As noted, Miley's command is nothing new (albeit not to this extent), yet he's never overperformed his expected strike rate like this. The bigger factor in his 2017 success seems to be the second half of the called-strike tandem — the man behind the plate.

While the Orioles brought in Welington Castillo and his lead glove to start at catcher, he hasn't manned the position every day. Caleb Joseph has gotten the nod four times this season — on April 9, 14, 20, and 22. If you've been checking the dates in that table above, you'll notice something: Joseph has caught all 19.0 innings Miley has thrown in 2017. Needless to say, it's shown.

In case you went into a coma during the mid-aughts to avoid another miserable year of Orioles baseball and just woke up, I'll fill you in on the secret around Baltimore: That Caleb Joseph fella? He's pretty good at framing. This year, he's posted a .029 CSAA, the highest in the majors. Since his 2014 debut, he's saved the Orioles 27.1 runs in less than 2,000 innings.

Miley certainly appreciates what Joseph has done for him, as he explained to PressBoxOnline's Rich Dubroff:
"Not to knock at Welington. I've thrown to him. He's outstanding as well," Miley said. "Something about Caleb from spring training. I don't know what it was. I know he works hard back there for me. We've got a good thing going right now. 
"As a pitcher, you've got a catcher back there working really hard for you, and you see that. You kind of build off of that, build off the energy you see him giving, and you go from there."
Whether "works hard" is just boilerplate athlete talk or a subtle nod to Joseph's framing prowess/dig at Castillo's framing ineptitude, we'll never know for sure.

Earlier in that piece, Buck Showalter swears there's nothing to the Miley/Joseph pairing, and that he doesn't believe in the idea of personal catchers. If Castillo catches Miley more often, it'll certainly put a dent in his numbers; still, it shouldn't sink him entirely. Joseph has worked with some pitchers more than others — last year, he caught a large chunk of Ubaldo Jimenez's innings, more so than any other Orioles regular:

  Pitcher    Joseph Innings    Innings    Joseph% 
Kevin Gausman 27.0 179.2 15.0%
Chris Tillman 23.2 172.0 13.8%
Ubaldo Jimenez 57.2 142.1 40.5%
  Yovani Gallardo  25.0 117.1 21.2%
Dylan Bundy 32.0 109.2 29.2%

Some catchers seem to have a rapport with a given pitcher (or are just better at catching), and while Showalter understandably doesn't want to disrupt his schedule to accommodate that, he'll tweak things so guys like Jimenez and Miley can throw a few more innings to their backstop of choice. That helped Jimenez a couple of years ago, and it could work in Miley's favor this season.

As Martin and the Blue Jays have spiraled out of contention, the Orioles are, once again, flying high in April. No team in the American League has a better record than the Birds, and Miley has been the team's second-best starter to this point (can't knock Bundy, I'm afraid). His ERA won't remain below two for the entire season, or below three, but it's clear that he's not the 6.17-ERA starter we saw in the second half of 2016. Someone with command like this, who pitches to a catcher like Joseph, is bound to rack up strikeouts and keep runs off the board.


Matt P said...

I've never seen the formula xStrikes = Pitches * (1-(1-OSwing%)*(1-Zone%)) before.

I'm familiar with the equivalent formula of xStrikes = Pitches * (Zone%+(1-Zone%)*O-Swing%). The idea being that strikes should be all pitches thrown in the strike-zone plus pitches out of the zone that batters swing at.

Do other people use the formulation that you used, is there some logical reason to use the first formula, or did you do the algebra to just simplify terms?

Unknown said...

Matt, those are the same formula, but for some reason this article is calculating the number of balls instead of the number of strikes. It does seem like a roundabout way of handling it, but equivalent.

I've been saying since before the season started that I would ideally make Joseph the starting catcher and Castillo the backup. Hard to do that if Joseph doesn't hit because it doesn't fit the traditional mentality, but it actually makes sense. Advanced defensive metrics for catchers are still a little sketchy, especially with Joseph's sample size. But with that being said, a simple non-sabermetric number that speaks volumes is that over the past 3 seasons Orioles pitching put up ERAs over half a run better with Joseph catching than Wieters. There's an argument that Joseph should have been starting the whole time - it is not clear that Wieters was half a run better per game with the bat than Joseph.

With that being said, Castillo has had a hard hit rate over 38% each of the past 2 seasons and thus far does again. He experienced a big jump in LD% in 2016 and thus far has seen another big jump in 2017. If he could maintain those numbers and drift back towards his career walk rate he could be very hard to keep out of the lineup. Wieters never maintained a hard-hit rate above 33% over a significant sample size. Castillo could emerge as a more valuable bat than many anticipated.

Matt P said...

Thanks Jacob. I saw that the formulas were equivalent (I did the algebra), I just didn't realize he was measuring the number of balls. Now it makes more sense.

I wonder whether you could use Joseph as a defensive replacement late in games. How often could you put him into the game starting in the eighth while keeping him fresh enough to take a full game every once in awhile?

Unknown said...

Catcher fatigue tends to impact the bat more than the glove. Given that Caleb hasn't been contributing a lot with the bat anyway, I don't think they'd be that worried about it. I could be wrong. There may still be some people in the organization who would like to see him build confidence as a hitter. It's pretty easy to forget at this point that the knock on Joseph as a prospect was that he might not be a good enough receiver to cut it at the Major League level, but his bat was supposed to play. At his age, though, I would think they'd just like to extract what value he's providing at this point.