While velocity isn’t everything when it comes to being a successful major league starting pitcher, it’s surely a large part of the story. Starting pitchers who have a higher velocity — particularly on their four-seam fastballs — tend to have higher strikeout rates and induce weaker contact from opposing batters. And pitchers who can limit balls in play through strikeouts, tend to have lower earned run averages. Of course, not every major-league starter can sport a blazing fastball. A number of starting pitchers have not only survived, but they’ve thrived during seasons where their velocity was significantly lower than league-average.
Which brings us to the case of Oakland Athletics left-hander, Tom Milone. After starting five games as a 24-year-old for the Nationals last season, Milone was shipped out as part of the deal that sent Oakland’s Gio Gonzalez to Washington. Milone, now 25, has worked his way into the Athletics’ rotation this season — this despite an underwhelming fastball. Generally, Milone’s four-seam fastball (a pitch he throws about 54% of the time) has averaged less than 88 mph. For some perspective: In the past three seasons, major-league starters have averaged 91 mph on the four-seamer.
What are the odds that Milone can perform above league average this season, given the lack of zip on his fastball? To answer this, I looked at some similar pitchers who have played during the Pitch FX era (2007-present). Given that we only have seven starts for Milone this season, delineating his pitch repertoire is a little difficult. With such a small sample, pitch-type percentages can fluctuate quite a bit. As I mentioned earlier, Milone throws his four-seamer almost 54% of the time — and he also appears to throw a cutter 5% to 6% of the time. Last year, Milone seemed to mix in a two-seam fastball — but in two starts this year, the pitch has rarely shown up. Milone, too, has increased his changeup (his best pitch) and curve ball usage at the expense of his slider.
(Note: Our Pitch FX data has Milone throwing a cutter only 5-6% of the time, while Brooks has him throwing the cutter 17% of the time. In both cases, Milone’s use of the four-seam fastball is north of 50%.)
Here are some highlights from Milone’s Athletic’s debut from April 9th:
Since 2007, there have been only 20 seasons where a starting pitcher has thrown their average four-seam fastball less than 88 mph and threw the pitch at least 45% of the time:
|Season||Name||Age||LOB%||FIP||GB/FB||HR/FB||ERA-||FIP-||K%||BB%||FF% (pfx)||vFF (pfx)|
Of those 20 seasons, only seven ended with the pitcher generating an ERA- of less than 100 (where 10o is equal to league average). And of those seven, only three featured pitchers who relied on their below-average four-seamer as much or more than Milone. (Interestingly, in all three, the pitchers were younger than 25 years old.) Those pitchers who posted a better than average ERA also benefited from a higher strand rate (LOB%) — roughly 5% — than their counterparts with worse than average ERAs. They also posted a higher strikeout percentage (K%) — 17% versus 13%. Ted Lilly’s two 20%+ seasons are pushing that up a bit, however the rates are still lower for the 100+ hurlers.
If we expand the list and look at how all pitchers performed who threw a less than 88 mph four-seam fastball we see that pitchers who rely more on their four-seamer have the deck stacked against them:
|% of FF||% of FF|
Overall, things don’t look great for Milone. Generally, starters with four-seam velocities greater than 88 mph posted a sub-100 ERA- nearly 70% of the time — compared to only 42% for lower-velocity starters. More specifically, nearly twice as many pitchers who relied on their slower four-seam fastball more than 45% of the time posted ERAs worse than league-average. This shows that lower velocity pitchers tend to survive through locating their fastball and inducing weak contact through pitch movement. Pitchers who relied more heavily on sinkers and cutters had a better chance of outperforming their velocity than their counterparts. Milone is known to have both command and control, but when it comes to his fastball, there isn’t much movement. Given his significant reliance on his four-seamer, Milone appears to be at a disadvantage.
Additionally, while he managed to post solid strikeout rates in the minors (>=17% as a starter), Milone has averaged only 12.5% in his first seven major-league starts. This also is likely due to the reliance on his four-seamer.
All told, the comparatives for Milone don’t look favorable. Given his usage of an underwhelming four-seam fastball, it’s unlikely (but not impossible) he will be able to produce enough strikeouts and weak contact at the major-league level to perform above-average. Pitching in Oakland will certainly help him, as the ample foul ground and outfield dimensions could depress his ERA. However, given that successful comparative pitchers had the luxury of National League lineups to pitch against (Mark Buehrle being the exception), I wouldn’t bet on Milone being a member of the Athletics’ — or any other American League — rotation for the long-term.
Bill leads Predictive Modeling and Data Science consulting at Gallup. In his free time, he writes for The Hardball Times, speaks about baseball research and analytics, has consulted for a Major League Baseball team, and has appeared on MLB Network's Clubhouse Confidential as well as several MLB-produced documentaries. He is also the creator of the baseballr package for the R programming language. Along with Jeff Zimmerman, he won the 2013 SABR Analytics Research Award for Contemporary Analysis. Follow him on Twitter @BillPetti.