Everyone knew heading into the offseason that the Red Sox starting rotation was going to need some help, and so the first thing they went and did was sign Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval. Those guys are not pitchers, so while it gave the Red Sox perhaps the best lineup in the MLB, they still needed pitching.
The Red Sox rotation essentially consisted of a bunch of question marks — plus Clay Buchholz and Joe Kelly, who are question marks themselves. Buchholz is 30 years old, has never thrown 110 innings in consecutive seasons and had a 5.34 ERA last year. Kelly’s numbers as a starter aren’t particularly impressive. Some clubs entered the offseason looking for a frontline starter. Some clubs needed depth to fill out their rotation. The Red Sox needed both.
A Cole Hamels trade or James Shields signing are still possibilities for the Red Sox, as they’re still in the market for that frontline starter after whiffing on Jon Lester, who was the crowd favorite to return to Boston and fill the void at the top of their rotation.
The depth, on the other hand, appears to be shored up. As I was writing this post, the Sox dealt Yoenis Cespedes to the Tigers in exchange for Rick Porcello. (By the time I was done, they’d inked Justin Masterson). A full analysis of the Porcello deal will come in a different post, but for now we’re going to focus on Wade Miley, who the Sox are expected to acquire in the very near future for starting pitchers Rubby de la Rosa and Allen Webster. de la Rosa and Webster are both guys who had higher stock a couple years ago. Both have electric stuff, both have serious command issues, and both may be destined for the bullpen. Dave Cameron wrote up a quick InstaGraphs post on the deal last night, which you can read here.
In short, Dave liked the deal, calling it a “pretty nifty upgrade” for the Red Sox. He also said that he “probably like(s) pitchers in the mold of Wade Miley more than most.” I tend to agree with him on both fronts. Judging from the comment section of that post and from the general reaction on Twitter, the public perception of Miley surprised me. Then again, Miley’s a guy who I’ve thought has been underrated for a little while, so this isn’t too surprising.
I’d like to make a comparison. Let’s take a pitcher who’s already generated a lot of buzz this offseason — and deservedly so — a pitcher who generated a lot of buzz last offseason — deservedly so — and Miley, who’s generated very little buzz.
We know better than to attempt to measure a player’s value by single season numbers, and three years is a nice sample from which to draw a conclusion. Miley got a taste of the bigs in 2011, but didn’t really settle into a full-time role until 2012, so it works out nicely to go from there. The WAR figure I’m using here is a 50/50 split of FIP-WAR and RA9-WAR.
Over the last three seasons, there’s really been no discernible difference between Wade Miley, Jeff Samardzija and Homer Bailey. They’ve all pitched (mostly) in the National League, they’ve all been good for between 190-200 innings per year, and they’ve all been above average — but not great — by both ERA and FIP. Samardzija is viewed as a frontline starter, and the White Sox gave up a good, major league ready prospect to get him. Bailey signed a contract for $105 million dollars last year. Miley seems to be viewed more as fourth or fifth option on a contending team.
Of course, moving forward, Wade Miley isn’t Jeff Samardzija. I would never attempt to argue that he is (even if their Steamer projections are nearly identical). All three of the aforementioned starters have their numbers propped up by one excellent season. Samardzija’s is the most recent and Miley’s is the most distant, so of course we put more weight in Samardzija moving forward.
Despite Miley’s 4.24 ERA from last year, there are positives we can take from his 2014 season. He posted the best xFIP of his career. His strikeout percentage spiked by four percent. He kept getting ground balls as well as about anyone — a good thing for someone about to call Fenway Park his home — and started missing more bats.
When we see a change in results, we look for a change in approach. With Miley, a couple stick out. He doesn’t have electric stuff — his fastball sits at about 91 — and he doesn’t have any truly plus-plus secondary pitches. Despite that, he posted a swinging strike rate that was above league average for the first time this year, and he did it by working more around and outside the zone. His stuff isn’t good enough to live within the zone, so he needs to get hitters to chase. His O-Swing% has remained consistent throughout his career, but look at how he’s changed the way he attack hitters and how it’s changed his results:
- 2011: 48.5 Zone%, 71.3 O-Contact%
- 2012: 48.3 Zone%, 69.1 O-Contact%
- 2013: 46.4 Zone%, 65.9 O-Contact%
- 2014: 43.3 Zone%, 62.9 O-Contact%
Each year, more pitches outside the zone. Each year, more swings and misses on those pitches outside the zone.
If you’re more of a visual learner:
As the years have gone on, Miley has pitched more and more like it feels a pitcher with his stuff should. He’s done a better job of pounding lefties low-and-away and righties low-and-inside. Gone are the elevated pitches and those left out over the plate. There’s also a change in Miley’s pitch mix that coincides with his shift in approach, and it’s one that makes sense, given the image above.
- 2012: 72.2% fastballs, 14.2% sliders
- 2013: 68.8% fastballs, 16.5% sliders
- 2014: 61.2% fastballs, 25.8% sliders
Miley has thrown less and less of his mediocre fastball and more and more of his slider that he can bury down in the zone. Hitters are chasing, and it’s resulting in more whiffs. The whiffs, of course, lead to strikeouts, and we like strikeouts.
Miley’s xFIP was a career-best 3.50 last year, better than the mark of James Shields (3.64), who the Red Sox are pursuing to be their ace. So where did that 4.24 ERA come from? Well, after two seasons of allowing a .295 BABIP, it spiked to .317, despite his league-average line drive rate remaining unchanged. After two seasons of a league-average 9.4% HR/FB rate, it spiked to 14%. Perhaps he simply started allowing harder contract, but that seems unlikely given his shift towards working out of the zone. Perhaps there was some bad luck involved.
The move from Chase Field to Fenway Park, if anything, should help his home run rate, as Boston plays to 9% fewer homers than Arizona. At the same time, Fenway Park turns fly balls into singles and singles into doubles, giving it and Chase Field the same overall park factor, and the switch from the NL West to the AL East can only be viewed as a negative.
But the point here isn’t that Wade Miley is a great pitcher, or that the Red Sox would be comfortable with him as their ace — they wouldn’t. The point is that he’s very solid, and he fills a major Red Sox need. He’s about as close to a lock for 200 innings as a team can ask for, and his body of work over the last three years compares favorably to guys like Jeff Samardzija and Homer Bailey. He already got grounders, and recent changes in his pitch mix and approach led to a strikeout boost that could bode well for his future in the American League. The Red Sox desperately needed innings, and the 200 they’ll get from Wade Miley might be better than people would think.
August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.