When the ball dropped at midnight and 2022 turned into 2023, 29 of the 30 major league teams had signed at least one free agent, from the Mariners spending $1.2 million on Trevor Gott to the Mets agreeing to terms with seemingly every star player on the market. Even the penny-pinching Marlins brought in Jean Segura, and the A’s committed a respectable $34 million to four solid role players. Now, a few days into the new year, team no. 30 has joined the fray: the Brewers are bringing back a left-handed pitcher Wade Miley on a one-year contract that will pay him $3.5 million with a $10 million mutual option for ’24 (with a $1 million buyout) and another $1.5 million in playing time incentives. In total, that guarantees him $4.5 million this season.
Formerly an innings eater who completed at least 190 frames every year from 2012 to ’15 with a 98 ERA-, Miley has battled injuries in each of 2018, ’20, and ’22. Last season, he was limited to just nine appearances with the Cubs as he dealt with elbow and shoulder issues. With that in mind, I’ll be looking at his performance in a limited 2022 campaign in conjunction with his full ’21 season, where he barely qualified for the leaderboards with 163 innings pitched. His stats were very similar in those two samples; he ran an ERA in the low-threes with far less inspiring peripherals and nearly equal numbers in the walk and strikeout departments.
Miley’s stuff has always been below average by major league standards, and his strikeout rate has been above average just once in his career, when he fanned 21.1% of batters in 2014. But as velocity has trended up over the past decade league-wide, his arm has gone in the opposite direction. In 2014, his four-seamer averaged 92.2 mph when the league sat around 93, but now the average pitcher is pushing 94, and injuries have relegated his blazing heater to the 80s. Over the past two seasons, his strikeout rate ranked in just the 15th percentile of pitchers, forcing him to rely on his defense converting balls in play into outs.
This isn’t Miley’s first rodeo with the Brew Crew; he started 16 games for them in 2018 with an excellent 2.57 ERA (despite a 4.66 SIERA). While his previous stint in Milwaukee was probably best known for his five-pitch appearance as a surprise opener for the right-handed Brandon Woodruff in the NLCS, he made a significant change to his repertoire that season — one that he’s stuck with to this day. The previous season in Baltimore, he began to experiment with a new pitch: a cutter that he threw 12% of the time. The Brewers encouraged him not only to utilize it more, but also to make it his primary pitch. While he had been primarily a four-seamer guy (up to 70% of the time in some seasons), Miley quickly shelved most of his fastballs in favor of cutters, and it’s largely been a successful move. Since he scaled up his cutter usage, the pitch has registered a +7.2 value; his four-seamers have fallen behind at -3.7.
Like many pitchers with subpar stuff, Miley’s biggest strength on the mound is his ability to locate well and manage the quality of contact against him. While he’s had at times debilitating issues with control (his 93 free passes issued in 2017 led the league), he’s refined his command, and his 7.5% walk rate over the past two seasons has been better than the league average. The cutter ended up being part of the solution to that problem, as Jake Mailhot pointed out; Miley was consistently landing it down and in to opposite-handed batters. His ability to locate on the edges of the strike zone isn’t just limited to his cutter, though; he can do it with all of his pitches. Since the start of 2021, he ranks among the league’s best at placing pitches in the shadow of the strike zone, a region defined by Statcast as within a few inches of the boundaries of the zone.
2021-22 Shadow Zone Leaders
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
While Miley hits his spots well and doesn’t allow many walks, he actually doesn’t throw all that many strikes. His 35.6% zone rate over the past two seasons puts him in just the second percentile among starting pitchers. Instead, he prefers to let batters do the work for him and swing at pitches off the plate. His chase rate ranks in the 70th percentile, which makes a lot of sense; hitters usually have a tough time distinguishing between a cutter that dots the inside corner and another that misses by just an inch.
Miley’s ability to get chases doesn’t just keep free runners off the basepaths; it also limits what hitters can do when they put their pitches into play. In 2021, he ranked in the 76th percentile in avoiding barrels, the 95th percentile in average exit velocity, and the 87th percentile in inducing ground balls. As I’ve investigated before, hitters crush pitches over the plate but comparatively flounder against out-of-zone pitches that are harder to put the barrel on. Consequently, Miley’s solid chase rates, especially on his secondary pitches, have been a big reason why he’s produced great results on contact.
Wade Miley Chase Rate and wOBA by Pitch Type
|Pitch Type||Usage||Chase Rate||lgAVG Chase Rate||wOBA|
Since 2018, the year he made the cutter his main pitch, Miley has pitched 462 innings with a 3.50 ERA (78 ERA-) but a significantly higher 4.12 FIP. But with a clear track record of contact suppression, it’s quite possible that his true talent lies closer to that ERA figure. Before pivoting to the cutter, batters had no trouble squaring up his four-seamer, collectively posting a wRC+ of 125 or better against that pitch in six of seven seasons. Since then, the cutter has created slightly better outcomes for him, and his changeup has been scaled up in both usage rate and effectiveness, as he’s been able to add two more inches of drop to it over the past three seasons. Miley’s new teammates will also help him manage balls in play, especially as a groundball pitcher. The Brewers’ infield features slick fielding Willy Adameswho finished with +10 OAA last year, at shortstop, and RosterResource projects rookie Brice Turangwhom we consider to be a plus up-the-middle defender, to get the lion’s share of playing time at second base.
Miley’s signing provides additional depth to a rotation that has had many faces rotate in and out of the last two slots. Despite the excellence of Corbin Burns and Woodruff, the Brewers ranked 12th in starter ERA last season. Freddy Peralta missed half the season with injury, Adrian Houser struck out far too few batters, and youngster Aaron Ashby ran into control issues as he got deeper into games. Ashby, however, thrived in long relief appearances where he didn’t have to face the order multiple times: In eight appearances where he averaged 2.4 innings per game, he lowered his ERA by two runs and cut his walk rate by a third compared to his starts. If Miley stays healthy, he should provide solid production for a backend starter, help an inexperienced teammate find big league success, and stabilize a rotation looking for consistency beyond its star power at the top.