Wade Miley on August 4, 2016

When I started writing this post, I was pondering Wade Miley’s fantasy value. Now I just hope he is okay after getting hit by comebackers in consecutive plate appearances in Friday night’s start against the White Sox.

My growing interest in Miley’s peculiar season had its beginnings in a piece I wrote nearly two weeks ago for FanRag Sports about how Chase Anderson is the real deal, as compared to some early-season flukes, among whom I included Miley. I knew that Miley had achieved a big uptick in strikeouts that was almost entirely fueled by an enormous increase in foul balls? Who on earth gets strikeouts through a high foul rate? And who can sustain that formula?

It turns out there is an answer to that question: Drew Pomeranz. It’s been his whiff and called strike rates that have bounced around, and but he has been consistently well above-average in getting fouls. That has allowed Pomeranz to be a useful strikeout pitcher in fantasy.

But Pomeranz leans more towards being a flyball pitcher than Miley, and it’s generally flyball pitchers who are the best at getting batters to foul the ball off at a high rate. So I remained skeptical about Miley’s foul rate and K-rate, which sat at 19.7 and 29.7 percent, respectively, heading into  Friday night’s game.

Then I saw this.

The heatmap on the left is for Miley against right-handed batters in 2016. The one on the right is for this year. It sure looks like Miley is trying to paint the outside portion of the plate, which is exactly what you would think he would do if he were trying to create more foul balls.

Wonder if he’s doing that against lefties, too? Wonder no more.






The transformation is not quite as exteme with this set of heatmaps, but you can see that Miley has moved away from the center. Since more than four-fifths of the batters Miley faces are righties, it makes sense that the extreme movement toward pitching on the outer edge of the strike zone versus right-handed batters is having a positive effect on his foul rate, and in turn, on his strikeout rate. It also provides an explanation for why his walk rate has skyrocketed from last season’s 6.9 percent to his current 14.8 percent.

Nick Cicere over at SB Nation’s Camden Chat was actually all over this before I stumbled upon these heatmaps. In his excellent analysis, Cicere also points out that Miley is locating his slider “at the feet of righties.” See the darker red in the lower-right corner of the 2017 RHB heatmap? That’s it! And here’s what the heatmap looks like when you only look at sliders versus righties. 

I discovered all of this because I was trying to see if there was any possible way it made sense to recommend Miley next week against the Nationals for my weekly Matchup Report. Yes, the Nationals who destroy all pitching, but especially lefties. I was prepared to dismiss the possibility out of hand, but after looking at how Miley is achieving his success, the start/sit conundrum was tougher than I expected it to be.

Ultimately, I decided against recommending him, but now that he has left his latest start injured, there is a concern that supercedes Miley’s matchup against the Nationals.

Whenever Miley returns to the mound, I will certainly be watching more closely and won’t be so quick to dismiss whatever success he has.

Statistical credits: FanGraphs, Baseball-Reference.

Photo credit: By Keith Allison on Flickr (Original version) UCinternational (Crop) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons