Valuing Wade Miley’s upside

 It was just a few weeks ago that the Seattle Mariners had Wade Miley penciled in as the club’s No. 2 starter, largely in rotation place given the uncertainty beyond Felix Hernandez. Fast-forward those few weeks and a Hisashi Iwakuma re-signing, and that situation isn’t all that different. The club still doesn’t have a true No. 2 starter, but that shouldn’t take away from the value that Miley does provide going forward.

First, the order in which the rotation falls is largely irrelevant. Back in 2014, James Paxton was the club’s No. 2 starter. Teams order their rotation based on skill — you want your best starters to have the most opportunities — but handedness, match-ups, and other factors are taken into consideration. Miley and Iwakuma are the second and third starters on the depth chart right and depending

Secondly, unless he replicates his 2012 season with Arizona, Miley isn’t going to fill the role of a No. 2 starter. With very good command of a balanced repertoire instead of an out-pitch or two, he better resembles a mid-rotation arm. In a deep rotation he profiles as a No. 4, but he could easily be a solid No. 3. I think that’s realistically what the club expects out of him; they aren’t going to ask him to be something he’s not.

Still, Miley has several things working in his favor heading into 2016.

The first one that gets brought up is his move to Safeco Field. Though the fences were moved in four years ago, according to ESPN’s park factors for 2015 Safeco was the fourth friendliest park for pitchers. Fenway Park on the other hand, was the fourth friendliest park for hitters. Determining the exact impact of how park factors affect pitchers is tough, but it’s safe to say that starting half his games at Safeco instead of Fenway will benefit Miley.

Miley hasn’t really had a problem with surrendering home runs in his career — his control and ground ball tendencies help — so Safeco’s ability to suppress home runs may not be a considerable benefit.

The second point relates to Miley having a stronger defence behind him in 2016 compared to 2015. Although single-season defensive metrics aren’t the most reliable statistics, the Red Sox were actually an average team defensively last year according to DRS and UZR. The Mariners on the other hand, were the second-worst team in the majors based on DRS — only the Philadelphia Phillies were worse.

However, that should be in the past as new general manager Jerry Dipoto has significantly revamped his club’s overall defence. Offseason acquisitions Nori Aoki, Leonys Martin, Chris Iannetta, and a full season of Ketel Marte all offer defensive upgrades, both small and large, over what we saw in the field last year. We also shouldn’t expect to see Nelson Cruz deployed in right field as frequently going forward which helps.

Back to Miley. The left-hander hasn’t been much of a strikeout pitcher in his career averaging about seven per nine innings. At 29-years-old he’s unlikely to develop further velocity either. What allows Miley to excel is when he limits the free passes. In his career 2012 season, he posted a 1.71 walks per nine rate. He’s coming off a 2.97 mark in 2015 and a 3.35 mark in 2014. Getting that rate closer to 2.50 should yield some more positive results.

Throughout his career, Miley has outperformed his earned run average. His career FIP of 3.80 is 15 points better than his career 3.95 ERA. This was especially apparent last season when he posted a 3.81 FIP compared to a 4.46 ERA. FIP tends to be a better predictive stat than ERA, which means we should expect Miley to perform closer to that 3.80 FIP mark going forward. As mentioned, pitching in a friendlier environment with an improved defence should improve both metrics.

We have Miley, an average to above-average pitcher, with room to grow. There’s value there, but we need to talk about the other value he brought to Seattle: his contract.

The following table shows the performance of other starting pitchers who changed addresses over the offseason. For example’s sake and the rotation conversation, I included Iwakuma in the table.

 Comparable Starters’ Performance in fWAR
Name 2015 2014 2013
2012 2011 Average
Wade Miley 2.6 1.5 1.8 4.1 -0.1 2.0
Ian Kennedy 0.8 3.5 0.6 2.5 4.8 2.4
Shelby Miller 3.4 0.5 2.4 0.5 MNR 1.7
Mike Leake 1.7 2.3 2.0 1.4 1.5 1.8
Hisashi Iwakuma 1.8 3.0 3.8 0.7 JPL 2.3

Ian Kennedy holds the highest average fWAR of the group for the sample. At a closer glance, though, he’s been an up-and-down pitcher. Shelby Miller’s track record has some similarity, but with a different story and a higher ceiling — the 2012 sample included only a cup of big league coffee. Mike Leake is perhaps the best comparable for Miley given his consistency. When healthy, and he hasn’t been entirely the past two seasons, Iwakuma has been solidly above average during his short span in North America.

Now let’s look at what the salary numbers will look like for these pitchers going forward.

 Comparable Starters’ Salaries
Name 2016 2017 2018
2019 2020
Wade Miley $6.0M $8.8M $12.0M* FA FA
Ian Kennedy $7.5M $13.5M $16.0M $16.5M $16.5M
Shelby Miller $4.4M ARB ARB FA FA
Mike Leake $12.0M $15.0M $17.0M $16.0M $15.0M
Hisashi Iwakuma $10.0M $10.0M* $10.0M* FA FA

*Denotes a team option.

Miley stands to be the least expensive of the bunch with his salaries locked in through 2018 for a total of $26.8 million if his team option is exercised.. The hit-and-miss Kennedy signed a five-year, $70 million contract with the Kansas City Royals and required a first-round pick. Miller will be cost-controlled through his arbitration years, but cost the Arizona Diamondbacks an unprecedented haul. Leake, a reasonable comparable to Miley, was signed to a five-year, $80 million contract by the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Mariners had to give up a cost-controlled lefty in Roenis Elias who still has upside as a starter and a dynamic young reliever in Carson Smith and that needs to be considered in the cost. If we were to say that Miley and Leake are similar pitchers — young, low-strikeout, low-walk, innings eaters — we could say that the M’s elected to give up some talent instead of paying premium free agent prices.

Also worth factoring in is that Leake or a comparable starter may not have wanted to sign in Seattle. In the case of Kennedy, for example, the club’s unprotected first-round pick would need to have been relinquished. Miley’s contract, though offering team control for three years opposed to five in the cases of Kennedy or Leake, doesn’t affect long or short-term payroll flexibility the way those deals would.

Seattle paid a steep price to acquire Miley but it includes the potential upside and payroll flexibility that is offers value beyond what we know of the left-hander’s past performance. Durable mid-rotation arms aren’t cheap and while he’s no Mark Buehrle, Miley does have four straight years of 190-plus innings to his credit.

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Tyler Carmont

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