2020 Reds,  by Steve Mancuso

A closer look at Wade Miley and what the Reds and their fans can expect

Based on reporting from several national baseball writers, the Reds signed left-handed starting pitcher Wade Miley to a 2-year, $15 million contract. Per Mark Sheldon at MLB.com, the announcement is pending a physical that Miley will undergo on Wednesday. The news hit Twitter last night around 9:30 p.m. and we posted a few quick thoughts. What follows is an in-depth analysis of what Miley offers the Reds.

Basic Bio, Injury Record and Career Arc

The Arizona Diamondback chose Wade Miley with the 43rd overall pick in the  first round of the 2008 draft. Miley hails from Louisiana and had pitched through his junior season at Southeastern Louisiana University. He worked through the Diamondbacks system and debuted in August 2011. Miley made 106 starts for Arizona over the next 3+ seasons. The Diamondbacks traded him to Boston in December 2014. A year later the Red Sox traded Miley to Seattle. A few months later, the Mariners traded Miley to Baltimore where he pitched for a year and a half before entering free agency.

The Milwaukee Brewers signed Wade Miley to a minor league contract for the 2018 season. Miley didn’t make the Brewers’ big league club and began the season in AAA-Biloxi. Milwaukee called up Miley in early May, but after one start, the lefty suffered a strained oblique muscle and missed two months of the 2018 season. After July 12, Miley made 14 more starts for Milwaukee, pitching a total of 80 innings. The Brewers didn’t resign Miley so he entered free agency again. He was signed by the Houston Astros for the 2019 season. He made 33 regular season starts for Houston. Miley then entered free agency again until the apparent deal with the Reds last night.

Wade Miley has remained remarkably healthy for a pitcher through most of his career. Prior to the 2018 oblique injury, he had just two minimum-stay trips to the DL (shoulder impingement, respiratory infection). From 2012-2015 he pitched at least 190 innings each season. In 2016, 2017 and 2019 he made at least 30 starts.

During Miley’s time with the Diamondbacks, Red Sox and first year with Baltimore, he was a league-average pitcher. Miley was chosen as the Diamondbacks’ sole All-Star representative in 2012. In 2017 with the Orioles, at age 30, Miley had his worst season, posting 5.61 ERA/5.27 FIP/4.66 xFIP when league averages were around 4.40.

The 2018 season in Milwaukee, when he worked with current Reds pitching coach Derek Johnson, is often cited as a bounce-back season for Miley. That was certainly true in the sense of recovering from a horrible 2017. Indeed, Miley produced a 2.57 ERA over his 16 starts and 80 innings for the Brewers. But Miley’s ERA was aided by an extremely lucky BABIP and HR/FB rate — two numbers he’s never matched, either before or after 2018. That season, Miley had just a 14.8% strikeout rate, which ranked #165 out of 173 major league pitchers with 80 IP. His xFIP in 2018 was 4.30, compared to the league average of 4.15.

Wade Miley in 2019

That brings us to last year. Miley made 33 starts over 167.1 innings for the Houston Astros in 2019, so there’s plenty of recent data to analyze. Let’s start with the basic building blocks:

Pitch Portfolio: Cutter (47%), Changeup (21%), Four-seam Fastball (16%), Curve (9%), Sinker (6%). That’s a similar mix as 2018 with continued movement toward his Cutter and away from his Sinker. Miley has changed his portfolio radically from earlier in his career.

Strikeouts Miley has always had a low strikeout rate. After dropping to below 15% during his year in Milwaukee, Miley’s K% jumped back to 19.4% last year with the Astros pitching staff. That 2019 number was roughly consistent with Miley’s career. His swinging-strike rate was 9.3% (11.2% league average). Here’s how Miley stacked up against Reds starters and MLB average for starting pitchers in 2019:

Walks Through his career, Miley has been decent at avoiding walks. In 2019, he was not quite at league average. Here’s how Miley compared to Reds starters and MLB average for starting pitchers in 2019:

  • Tyler Mahle (6.1%)
  • Anthony DeSclafani (7.0%)
  • Trevor Bauer (7.7%)
  • MLB Average (7.7%)
  • Wade Miley (8.5%)
  • Sonny Gray (9.6%)
  • Luis Castillo (10.1%)

Ground Ball Rate Miley has been a good ground ball pitcher, in the neighborhood of 49-50%. Inducing ground balls is an even more important skill in a world of defensive shifts that turn more GB into outs.

  • Luis Castillo (55.2%)
  • Sonny Gray (50.8%)
  • Wade Miley (49.7%)
  • Tyler Mahle (47.0%)
  • Anthony DeSclafani (42.9%)
  • MLB Average (42.7%)
  • Trevor Bauer (34.0%)

xFIP Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP) is a stat that takes strikeouts, walks and fly ball percentage into account and scales it to ERA for familiarity purposes. Its reliability as a measure of pitcher effectiveness is based on the idea that those are the variables the pitcher has most control over. It eliminates many of the substantial weaknesses of ERA in that regard. (You can read more about it in our site’s handy Stat Glossary.) xFIP has been proven to be a much better predictor for future performance based on how a pitcher actually pitched.

  • Luis Castillo (3.48)
  • Sonny Gray (3.65)
  • Tyler Mahle (3.99)
  • Anthony DeSclafani (4.30)
  • Trevor Bauer (4.44)
  • MLB Average (4.48)
  • Wade Miley (4.52)

Hard Hit% This stat measures the balls hit into play off a pitcher above 95 mph exit velocity. Miley was outstanding last year in minimizing the number of hard hit balls. That’s clearly his #1 attribute.

  • Wade Miley (32.3%)
  • Sonny Gray (33.3%)
  • Luis Castillo (33.6%)
  • MLB Average (34.5%)
  • Trevor Bauer (37.3%)
  • Tyler Mahle (37.6%)
  • Anthony DeSclafani (38.7%)

xwOBA This measure of pitcher effectiveness adds the expected outcome for balls put in play (quality of contact) with the balls not put in play (K, BB). Reds pitchers were all better than league average by this important metric. So was Wade Miley.

  • Luis Castillo (.277)
  • Sonny Gray (.284)
  • Anthony DeSclafani (.301)
  • Wade Miley (.304)
  • Trevor Bauer (.311)
  • Tyler Mahle (.318)
  • MLB Average (.319)

Miley’s September Swoon

September was Miley’s worst month in 2019 by far. He walked more batters than he struck out. In three of Miley’s last five games, he didn’t get beyond an inning. In one start, he didn’t record an out. Before his abysmal month, he’d been having a nice season.

In looking ahead and projecting Miley’s 2020 season, is it reasonable to just write off September? Not really. Not unless there’s a known, one-off reason to explain it. But there were no reported injuries, just speculation that American League hitters had finally caught on to his cutter.

From an evaluation standpoint, it’s no more logical to exclude Miley’s worst month than it would be to exclude his best month. Whatever affected Miley’s September, he didn’t figure it out or resolve it. The Astros took him out of their starting rotation for the postseason and left him off the ALCS and World Series roster. Maybe the Reds know something about Miley’s September that isn’t public that gives them encouragement about it.

The Money and What It Means

Based on what has been reported, Wade Miley will make $6 million in 2020, $8 million in 2021 and the Reds have a $10 million option in 2022 with a $1 million buyout.

If the report is accurate, Miley’s contract with the Reds says a few things. He signed for $15 million, not the $324 million his Astros teammate earned from the Yankees. And you can compare Miley’s deal with the $118 million/5-year contract signed by Zack Wheeler (a market in which the Reds were heavily rumored to be involved) or the $85 million/5-year deal for Madison Bumgarner. Miley is nowhere in that league.

On the other hand, the contract is far better than the deals he had in 2018 with Milwaukee and 2019 with Houston. Miley signed for $4.5 million and 1 year with the Astros. The Reds may have targeted Miley in the low-to-mid-range category because of his previous work with Johnson. There had been rumors last season that the Reds were interested in Miley.

In terms of their overall payroll situation, the Reds should still have $18-23 million left to spend on new acquisitions. That figure assumes a range of $135-140 million budget, which is conservative.

Four Scenarios for How Miley Fits In 

With several months of offseason left to go, plus the vagaries of injuries, there are countless ways the Miley signing can play out for the Reds, including the 33-year-old Miley himself getting hurt. Let’s look at four middle-of-the-road scenarios.

Scenario One: Miley Is Installed in the Starting Rotation The Reds assign Tyler Mahle to the minor leagues or bullpen and Wade Miley becomes the Reds fifth starter after Sonny Gray, Luis Castillo, Trevor Bauer and Anthony DeSclafani. Mahle offers excellent depth in case of injury.

Analysis: This seems to be the prevailing wisdom of the moment. Without Miley throwing a single spring training pitch, Reds beat writers rushed out last night to announce Miley is in the rotation [the rotation now stands (Rosecrans), now solid starting five (Sheldon), add another pitcher to the rotation (Nightengale)]. Tyler Mahle does have an option left, so he can be sent to the minors. But anointing Miley the fifth starter seems odd considering a case can be made that Tyler Mahle pitched better than Miley last season. Miley as the #5 starter could easily weaken the Reds rotation instead of improving it.

Scenario Two: Miley and Mahle Compete for the Fifth Rotation Slot The Reds hold on to all six of their starting pitchers and wait to decide who the fifth starter will be based on spring training. Miley is used as competition for Mahle with the Reds taking a neutral stance.

Analysis: If the Reds don’t trade a SP, this is what they should do. Tyler Mahle made huge progress in 2019. He had a better strikeout and walk rate than Miley. Mahle could easily be a better pitcher than Miley, in which case he ought to be in the rotation. Miley could pitch out of the bullpen, which had been a mentioned possibility with Tanner Roark last season. On the other hand, if Miley looks sharp in spring training, he could earn the starting role.

Scenario Three: Someone Gets Hurt One of the Reds six pitchers gets hurt and there’s no controversy about who should be in the rotation.

Analysis: This is certainly possible, although the pitcher most likely to be hurt is the oldest one, Wade Miley. This is also the place to repeat that Miley’s best season was only 80 innings long and he faded down the stretch badly last year. So having six pitchers, one way or another, is important.

Scenario Four: Reds Trade a Starting Pitcher for Hitting The Reds deal one of their starters from last season for a run scoring upgrade and Miley completes the rotation.

Analysis: When rumors broke a few weeks ago that the Reds were in the Zack Wheeler market, I speculated the club might be lining up to trade one of their current starters. The front office might have concluded it would be easier to trade for an impact bat they wanted than sign one in free agency. That’s still a possible course of action with the Miley signing. But Wade Miley is no Zack Wheeler. Wheeler could have replaced one of the Reds top-end starters. Wade Miley can’t.

What are the trade options? The Reds could move Anthony DeSclafani, who has just one year of team control left. DeSclafani put together a nice, healthy 2019 season and could be part of a package. Or the front office could aim higher and trade Trevor Bauer, who also is eligible to become a free agent in 2021. An even loftier goal would be trading Luis Castillo or Sonny Gray to reel in a big, big time bat and more.

Conclusion

Wade Miley is not as good as the rush to anoint him one of the Reds starters implies. Mark Sheldon even wrote this morning that with Miley the Reds “filled their rotation vacancy,” which must have been disturbing news to Tyler Mahle, his family, friends and fans. It’s one thing to prefer Miley over Mahle. There’s a debate to be had on that. But it’s quite a mistake to assert that Tyler Mahle’s slot was anything approximating a vacancy. It would be disappointing if the Reds front office pushes that line.

The size and length of Miley’s contract is also a bit surprising, especially given the way Miley’s 2019 ended. While $15 million is not a huge amount of money in this context, Miley’s record the past few years doesn’t warrant a multi-year contract. Did the Reds get into a mini-bidding war or press too far because of Johnson’s past ties to Miley? The mid-range starting pitching free agency market has been weak the past two years. If the Reds had waited, there’s a good chance they’d have found a suitable pitcher (maybe even Miley himself) at a lower cost and a 1-year contract.

Will Wade Miley’s reunion with pitching coach Derek Johnson mean he’ll return to his 2018 success? There are reasons to be skeptical of that, as we’ll explain in a post later this afternoon. At a minimum, Johnson has as good a chance as anyone to keep the pitcher on track.

Bottom line: Set your expectations no higher than league average and there’s a decent chance you won’t be disappointed. Signing Wade Miley adds valuable, if a little pricy, depth to the Reds organization. If a significant injury befalls one of the Reds top starters, the Miley/Mahle combo will be helpful. But otherwise, don’t expect Wade Miley to improve the Reds rotation.

[Featured image: Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle]


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Steve Mancuso is a lifelong Reds fan who grew up during the Big Red Machine era. He’s been writing about the Reds for more than ten years. Steve’s fondest memories about the Reds include attending a couple 1975 World Series games, being at Homer Bailey’s second no-hitter and going nuts for Jay Bruce at Clinchmas. Steve was also at all three games of the 2012 NLDS, but it’s too soon to talk about that.

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Phil
Phil
10 months ago

A trade of DeSclafani + Robert Stephenson in exchange for Seager + Pollock is accepted on Baseball Trade Values trade simulator. Reds get their starting SS (Galvis now fits well as backup 2B/SS) and OF depth that can play some CF (letting Senzel fill in at 2B or 3B as needed and Moustakas see some time at 3B and 1B along with starting at 2B). Dodgers obtain rotation and bullpen depth, get out of Pollock’s contract and have top-prospect Gavin Lux ready to step in for Seager at SS.