07 June 2017

Wade Miley's Weird Year

Wade Miley, pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles, has been simultaneously the best and worst version of Wade Miley, pitcher in the Major Leagues. In 2016 for Baltimore, Miley put up an ERA over 6, had the worst HR/FB ratio of his career, ran a .389 BABIP against, and stranded just 64% of baserunners. He also had a career best K/9, an above average walk rate, and the best GB/FB rate of his career. These are weird numbers. Even weirder, however, is Miley's 2017, which has seen the best ERA, highest ground ball rate, lowest BABIP, worst walk rate, best strand rate, and the most soft contact he's ever given up. These things don't really go together, and they also don't really line up with what Miley had done in previous stops in his Major League career.

So, while it's obvious that Miley's 2017 has been a bit of a mirage so far, it's not necessarily obvious why. Though his LOB% is (stop me if you've heard this one before) unsustainable, his insane walk rate is so far above his career norm that a positive regression there seems quite likely. He's not giving up a lot of homers, he's pitching deep into games, and he's striking out a decent number of batters. Still, his FIP and xFIP are at least a run and a half higher than his ERA, and his projections for the rest of the season regress him back to his career norms or worse.

What accounts for his career best start, then? For one thing, he's generating a lot of soft contact and infield fly balls. For another, he's getting a huge number of grounders. Miley is 8th in all of baseball in generating grounders and has utilized his slider more effectively than most seasons in his career. These clearly go hand-in-hand, and while we can't assume that this success will continue it is certainly conceivable that Miley has simply improved his slider. He's throwing it a bit more than he has in his career, but it's not as though he's changed his repertoire considerably. Indeed, if you look at pretty much any of his pitch and swing rate stats, you won't see a huge difference from his career norms.

So, yeah, he's been weird. It doesn't seem as though there is any one explanation, and it's very counter-intuitive to think that a guy who is walking nearly 5 batters per 9 has somehow improved as a pitcher. That said, it is possible that Miley has simply changed his approach. Below we can see his pitch location frequency for his career and for 2017, and it is immediately clear that he is living down in the zone far more this season than he has in the past.

Since he is throwing the ball down and out of the strike zone much more often this year, that will necessarily lead to more called balls and more walks. But it may also explain his big uptick in ground balls and could indicate that regression is not necessarily inevitable. If Miley has really changed the way he is pitching, as opposed to changing his pitch selection, then perhaps this year isn't so weird.

Well, no, it's still weird, but weird in a potentially explainable way. Certainly, we can expect that his ERA will tick up as he fails to strand runners at this crazy rate, but I'm somewhat skeptical that he will just suddenly collapse. His ability to keep the ball down in the zone and maximize grounders and soft contact this season may be a legitimate shift for him. If so, maybe this is the new, best version of Wade Miley.


Anonymous said...

He's become an "Oriole's" pitcher. The O's intentionally look for GB pitchers to counteract the OPACY effect. That career pitch freq chart? Any time I see a red spot right is the geographic middle of the strike zone, I'd think that was a pretty bad pitcher. The new chart is much better. I used to watch Tom Glavine a lot and he'd throw a pitch on low outside quadrant of the strike zone. If the batter swung and fouled it, he'd throw it about an inch farther outside and repeat that until either the batter whiffed or walked. Some years he was unbelievable - Cy Young good - and some years his ERA would trend to 4 and he'd be average. This is what Miley needs to become to succeed like he has. I also think the strike zone has shrunk in the last few years and it's harder to pitch like this because pitchers don't get as many low outside strikes as they used to. If Miley can get a little better control and get one of those red spots to move into the other lower third spot in the strike zone and not outside the strike zone then he could be untouchable like he's been for one or two starts this year.

robotworks said...

Watching from the west coast these days, I can tell you watching Miley is relaxing. Bundy is reassuring, and the other three shreds the nerves. With the gas station attendants out in the bllpen this year, it was a frustrating May after a rather surprising April. Gonna be a Rollaids year I suspect.
tim in san jose

Anonymous said...

Well, so much for my above comment. His performance last night is certainly going in the wrong direction

Unknown said...

Roger, I think your "Orioles pitcher" bit is totally wishful thinking. During the current run of success (2012 to present), 13 pitchers have made at least 20 starts for the Orioles. Of those 13, Miley, Hammel, and Ubaldo are the only 3 to have ground ball rates above the Major League average, and Hammel is just barely above the average. Tillman is close to what you would call an extreme flyball pitcher. Bundy is an extreme flyball pitcher. Gonzalez and Chen were extreme flyball pitchers. All of those guys are in the bottom 25% of the league in terms of generating ground balls. In the same time frame the Orioles are 20th in baseball in GB rate. Orioles starters are 27th. So if you're only talking about the bullpen, then yeah, the Orioles are great at getting groundballs. But if you're talking about Miley, a starter, he's a clear outlier, not part of an organizational trend.

Regarding the original argument, I'm not sure I'm convinced that much of the responsibility for the elevated walk rate can be attributed to pitching below the zone. I don't have the pitch-by-pitch data, but my impression has been that a significant proportion of his walks have come when he's just lost command for an inning or part of an inning. When he's commanding the ball at the bottom of the strike zone he tends to get more balls in play. I'm not saying he never walks anybody when he's pitching well, that would obviously be absurd. But my impression is that his elevated walk rate this year is largely a result of bouts of total wildness rather than a result of approach. Your own pitch charts show a larger percentage of balls off the plate to both sides and balls up in 2017 as compared to previous years as well. His strikes are much more down, but he's throwing more balls everywhere. It's possible that this is a result of trying to change approach. Maybe he's just not as comfortable with what he's doing. If that's the case we can hope that as he gets comfortable the walk rate will trend back towards his career norms. If he's just struggling with his mechanics at times, that could be a bigger concern going forward.

Unknown said...

That should have read original article at the beginning of the 2nd paragraph, not original argument.