Have Cutter, Won’t Travel: Wade Miley Stays Put in Milwaukee

Wade Miley
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Come on, you knew Wade Miley was going to sign with the Brewers, right? He’s not exactly a lifer there. In fact, he’s spent most of his major league career elsewhere — Arizona, Boston, Seattle, Baltimore, Houston, Cincinnati, and Chicago, to be exact. He’s not from Milwaukee. But he just makes sense as a Brewer, and he knows it. He reportedly let his son make the final decision on whether he’d come back this year, and the verdict is in: one year and $8.5 million, with a mutual option for the 2025 season.

That’s not the only move Milwaukee made on Monday; the headline-grabber was making Jackson Chourio’s record-setting contract official. But even that wasn’t all. They also signed Joe Ross to a major league deal, as Robert Murray reported. Ross hasn’t pitched in the major leagues since 2021, but after missing most of 2022 rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, he averaged 96 mph on his fastball in 14 innings across three minor league levels for the Giants in 2023. Now, he’s back in the majors, though it’s unclear whether he’ll end up in the rotation or the bullpen.

Deals like these — moderately priced contracts for solid veterans with upside — have long been a Brewers specialty. They’ve benefited from a cornucopia of top pitching talent for the past half-decade, but they’ve supplemented it wisely as well. Miley’s 2023 season was a great example of that. He signed for $4.5 million last winter and threw 120 league-average innings, give or take some anomalous batted ball luck (his .234 BABIP was the lowest he’s allowed in his career). That was a huge coup for Milwaukee, which dealt with its fair share of pitcher injuries. Even on a tight budget, he was brought back for more of the same at roughly double the rate.

There’s a lot to like about Miley’s game, particularly in the middle of your rotation rather than at the top. He’s not going to win a Cy Young award, but that’s not what he’s there for. He’s not going to strike out the entire opposing lineup, nor will he walk them. Mostly, he throws his cutter and changeup in the zone and lives with the results when the opposition swings. It’s so hard to fill 1,458 innings (plus extras!) in the modern era, when pitcher workloads have plummeted and bullpens have become increasingly specialized. You can’t fill all of those innings with high-octane arms, at least not effective high-octane arms. Pitchers like Miley are the solution to this problem: they soak up bulk innings and keep their teams in the game.

It might sound like I’m damning him with faint praise, but I’m emphatically not. Regular-season baseball is more of an endurance contest than a race. You won’t always run your best nine hitters out there or have your ace on the mound with the “A” bullpen arms behind him. Guys like Miley are key parts of good teams. He ranked 39th on my top 50 free agent list, and it sounds like he only had eyes for Milwaukee this year, which let the Brewers retain his services at a bargain rate. You couldn’t make the whole team out of Mileys and expect to prosper, but on the other hand, pretty much every team in baseball could use someone like him somewhere in their rotation.

If there’s one pressing question around Miley’s effectiveness, it’s whether he’ll be able to suppress hard contact as well as he has in recent seasons. His stats don’t sound even a little bit imposing; he’s striking out only 18% of opposing batters in his last six seasons of work and walking 8%. He doesn’t get an extreme rate of grounders or popups, but hitters have consistently struggled to square up his cutter; in his last four full seasons of work, he’s placed in the 95th, 81st, 83rd, and 93rd percentiles for hard-hit rate allowed.

Maybe he won’t duplicate that .234 BABIP allowed this year, but he appears to have a real skill for suppressing contact. That’s the whole point of throwing cutters as often as he does. It showed in his approach; when he fell behind in the count, he threw his cutter more than half the time, compared to only a third of the time when he got ahead. He filled in that gap with changeups and sliders, plus the occasional fastball that he tried (and mostly failed) to sneak by unwary opponents.

He wasn’t particularly successful when ahead in the count, because he doesn’t really have an out pitch, but that’s a lot more acceptable if you have a “Get Out of Jail Free” card for when you fall behind. Think of it this way; the average pitcher allowed a .360 wOBA after falling behind 1–0 in the count but a .271 mark after getting ahead 0–1. That’s the difference between 2023 Ketel Marte, an All-Star-caliber hitter, and 2023 Myles Straw, one of the worst hitters on a lackluster Cleveland team. Miley, on the other hand, gave up a .312 wOBA after falling behind 1–0 and .270 after getting ahead. I don’t expect him to continue to record such strong results, but I do find the gap instructive. When your whole game is built around allowing hitters to make contact, going down in the count just hurts less.

Once upon a time, you could say the same thing about Ross. Rather than Miley’s cutter/changeup mix, he’s more of a classic sinker/slider type, but he pitched to contact and relied on grounders to generate mid-rotation value for the Nationals. He sports a career 100 ERA- and 99 FIP-; it’s hard to find a much more average pitcher on a rate basis. But injuries have always held him back; he’s only topped 100 big league innings twice in his career, and his career high in starts is 19 (twice). When he tore his UCL for a second time in early 2022, it looked like the end was nigh.

Instead, he’s back and throwing harder, though he was only going for two- and three-inning stints, so it’s unclear whether he’ll end up as a starter or a reliever. His fastball had excellent sinking action, and his gyro slider gave hitters fits, but we’re talking about a tiny sample here; he only pitched 14 innings, and he walked eight batters and struck out only 10. There were encouraging signs, but he’s still a mystery box; I wouldn’t be shocked if he ended up as a mid-rotation starter or good setup arm, and I also wouldn’t be shocked if he doesn’t survive the year on Milwaukee’s big league roster.

Those are smart bets to make, particularly for a team that’s badly in need of pitching. The Brewers have survived for years by giving the ball to excellent starters three out of five days and then turning things over to a lockdown bullpen for the late innings. The bullpen still appears to be in good order, but those top-flight starters are increasingly a problem. Brandon Woodruff is gone; the Brewers non-tendered him because he’ll miss all of 2024 with injury, and he was due to hit free agency after the season anyway. Corbin Burnes is also due to hit free agency after 2024, and that brings me to the potentially worrisome part of this signing. The Brewers have a patchwork rotation as is; we’re currently penciling in Miley as their third starter, with Adrian Houser and Colin Rea following (number two starter Freddy Peralta remains awesome). That’s a meaningful downgrade from recent years, and with no extension on the horizon, the Brewers are talking about trading Burnes.

The Chourio contract changes the calculus in Milwaukee. With a long-term extension for the player they hope is the future of the team on the books, playing for tomorrow is increasingly attractive. Chourio probably won’t tear up the major leagues in 2024, but he might be a mainstay for the latter half of this decade. Peralta is under contract through 2026, and Christian Yelich through 2028, but the rest of the old core of players are headed for free agency sooner rather than later, headlined by Burnes and Willy Adames. In their place, the team is coalescing around young hitters, led by William Contreras (team control through 2027), Garrett Mitchell (2028), Joey Wiemer (2028), Brice Turang (2029), and Sal Frelick (2029).

Without Chourio, the Brewers might have been tempted to go for it this year and then rebuild afterwards. But as they continue to build a roster of young hitters and do so under payroll constraint, trading Burnes to restock the farm system gets increasingly attractive. Chourio is their only prospect among the top 200 names on The Board; topping up on pitching prospects who fit on his timeline is right in line with the way Milwaukee generally conducts business.

That doesn’t mean they can just throw the 2024 season away, though. If long-term team-building is one of the Brewers’ hallmarks in their recent run, another is always finding a way to compete. They never went into a full rebuild, even as they traded old core players like Jonathan Lucroy. There’s no reason to expect they will this time, either, even if Burnes ends up in Los Angeles this winter.

That brings us back to Miley and Ross. If you’re going to move on from two franchise cornerstone pitchers and still try to win your division, bulk innings are a must. If you know you’re going to weaken the top of your rotation, you should shore up the middle before doing so. I don’t think signing Miley means they have to move Burnes, but I do think it points in that direction. The Brewers built for the far future with Chourio, and now they’re addressing the present (in a typically cost-effective manner) with Miley and Ross. The question, then, is what that means for the rest of the team.





Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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tdouglas
2 months ago

Solid signing. Milwaukee is the king of signing solid veterans to fill holes. Miley is way more likely to outperform Lynn in ’24, and Miley costs less.

Last edited 2 months ago by tdouglas