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Milwaukee Brewers Free Agent Targets: Wade Miley

Wade Miley was perhaps the most surprising contributor to the Milwaukee Brewers’ highly-successful 2018 season. Miley struggled mightily for a two-year stretch with the Mariners and Orioles, limping to a 5.48 ERA over 62 starts. That forced him to settle for a minor-league deal with the Brewers after Spring Training had begun last February. The veteran lefty found new life in Milwaukee, crafting an excellent 2.57 ERA (159 ERA+) in 16 starts. He continued that success into the postseason, allowing just two runs over 14.2 innings.

Miley is now back on the free agent market, and he’s all but guaranteed to secure a better deal this time around. The Brewers are reportedly keeping tabs on him, and Ken Rosenthal has recently speculated that the team could look to clear payroll to make a reunion possible. The Brewers’ reported interested in Miley is good news, because David Stearns should absolutely be making an effort to get the southpaw back in a blue-and-gold uniform.

The main argument against bringing Miley back is that the Brewers caught lightning in a bottle, and they should be content with that. They should let him walk so that a different team can suffer the results of massive regression.

It is true that Miley isn’t going to be able to repeat his sparkling results from last season. This is mainly due to his unsustainably-low home run rate. Miley finished the season with a minuscule HR/9 of 0.33, which is even lower than Jacob deGrom’s 0.41 mark. That’s guaranteed to increase substantially next season, especially if Miley continues to start his home games at hitter-friendly Miller Park. His HR/9 will likely be closer to his career rate of 0.98. That would still put him comfortably below the league average.

However, there’s reason to believe that Miley won’t experience much more regression than that. His strand rate of 75.9% isn’t much higher than his career mark of 72.2%. There were no underlying signs that heavy regression was coming. Rather, Miley’s peripherals continued to improve as the 2018 campaign progressed.

Miley walked fewer hitters as the year went on, and his FIP- and hard contact rate dropped rather steadily. The Statcast-powered Baseball Savant believes that Miley was among the league’s best when it came to limiting hard contact. He finished the season with an excellent 28.5% hard contact rate. That ranked 16th among qualified pitchers, and Miley’s average exit velocity of 85 miles per hour ranked 15th. He excelled at keeping the ball on the ground, posting a strong 54.3% ground ball rate.

Much of Miley’s newfound success was thanks to his cutter. It was previously an occasional alternative to his fastball, but in 2018 he turned it into his primary offering. Miley threw his cutter a whopping 41% of the time. Opponents failed to do much with it, managing a mere .252 wOBA against the pitch. FanGraphs’ linear pitch weights measured it at 9.6 runs above average. That made it the fifth-most-valuable cutter in baseball.

Perhaps the greatest impact of Miley’s increased cutter usage was that it gave him a weapon to neutralize right-handed hitters. He consistently pounded righties down and in with the cutter.


FanGraphs

The results were quite dramatic.


Baseball Savant

Miley limited righties to a .283 wOBA, which is easily the worst they have ever performed against him. It wasn’t a fluky improvement, either. Miley’s .279 xwOBA (calculated based on quality of contact) against righties lines up nearly perfectly with his results. In particular, his cutter held right-handed batters to a lowly .249 wOBA and .264 xwOBA. It gave Miley the equalizer that he so desperately needed.

The only downside to Miley’s new approach is that it came at the expense of his strikeout rate. He managed a mere 14.8% and 5.58 K/9 last season. He has reinvented himself as someone who can limit hard contact thanks to his cutter, but the results a team will get from Miley will be heavily dependent on the defense behind him.

One reason why Miley was so successful last season is that the Brewers are one of the most effective teams in the game when it comes to shifting. Milwaukee held opponents to a .281 wOBA last season when deploying any kind of shift, which was the sixth-best in baseball and second-best in the National League. They also have a generally strong defensive infield, with Travis Shaw (+9 DRS), Orlando Arcia (+4), and Jesus Aguilar (+6) all grading out well defensively. That, combined with the team’s efficiency at positioning their defenders, helped Milwaukee’s pitching staff as a whole post a .279 BABIP, which was the fourth-lowest in the game.

Miley clearly benefited from the shifting. His BABIP on ground balls was a minuscule .192, which was easily the lowest mark of his career. That’s not a coincidence. Miley was pitching with a shift behind him 19% of the time in 2016 and 15% of the time in 2017. With the Brewers, Miley was pitching with the benefit of a shift about twice as often. The Brewers deployed a shift 36% of the time when he was on the mound, and it helped his results. Miley has always been a ground ball pitcher, and there’s no reason to believe that will change next season. Even if his hard contact rate rises, the Brewers could still minimize the potential damage by positioning their infielders in the right location.

In addition to using shifts to help their pitchers, the Brewers often limit their exposure to keep them effective. Craig Counsell typically has a quick hook with his starters, who usually hit the showers after facing the opposing order a second time. Brewer starters faced just 660 hitters a third time in 2018, which was the third-lowest total in baseball. Miley has a career 3.95 ERA and 3.85 FIP the first two times through the order. He’s been far less successful the third time through, with a career 4.99 ERA and 4.68 FIP.

The new Miley excels at inducing weak contact, and the Brewers excel at having defenders in the right place at the right time. He’s most effective the first two times through the order, and Counsell is known for pulling starters early. If there’s any team that can get the best possible results from Miley moving forward, it’s the Brewers.

The caveat here is that the Brewers would be putting a fair amount of stock into a 16-start sample size, which is roughly half a season’s worth of work. However, the fact that Miley’s peripherals were trending in the right direction is encouraging. Bringing him back would give the Brewers more depth and more flexibility. Brandon Woodruff’s ability to effectively fill any role was huge for the team down the stretch. If the season started today, he would likely be a member of the rotation. Bringing Miley back to round out the starting five would allow Woodruff to move back into a versatile role.

That brings us to another reason for re-upping with Miley: he’s familiar with the organization’s unorthodox pitching strategies. Craig Counsell frequently refers to his pitchers as “out-getters” and is not afraid to use them unconventionally. Miley himself was a central figure of one such instance. He was named the initial out-getter for Game 5 of the NLCS to force the Dodgers to deploy a righty-heavy lineup. However, Counsell pulled Miley after facing just one batter, with Woodruff relieving him and serving as the real “starter” for the game. This forced Dave Roberts to choose between burning his bench in the first inning or playing with the platoon disadvantage.

While some pitchers might not feel comfortable being part of such a strange strategy, Miley said that he’s not opposed to Counsell’s unconventional approach to managing the pitching staff.

The ideal scenario would be Miley accepting a one-year deal to return to Milwaukee. However, he still appears to be holding out for a multi-year contract. MLB Trade Rumors predicts him to return on a two-year, $12 million deal. That would be a riskier move, especially since Miley was recently one of the worst starters in baseball.

Judging him based on his previous work may not be fair, though. Miley’s improvements appear to be largely legitimate, and Milwaukee is the perfect fit for his style of pitching. He has never dealt with a major arm injury, and he has made 29 or more starts in six of his eight big-league seasons. Durability should not be a concern. David Stearns shouldn’t hesitate to offer Miley a two-year deal worth $12 million.

The old adage is that you can never have too much pitching. This is especially true for an organization that values depth as highly as the Brewers do. He may not replicate his surprising “ace” production from last season, but there’s plenty of evidence that Wade Miley can continue to be a valuable out-getter next year and beyond.

Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Savant



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