« Competition | Main | Weekend Photo »

November 26, 2009

On Millwood

On July 2nd, just before the season’s midpoint, Kevin Millwood owned a sparkling 2.80 ERA and had already thrown 119 innings. This performance, after an aggregate 4.89 ERA and about 93 innings per half-season in Texas, was cause for celebration and a primary factor in Texas’s early-season division lead. In previous years Millwood had been dogged by minor injuries as well as questions regarding his conditioning. Last winter, Millwood reportedly worked himself into premium shape. (Roughly half of MLB’s employees get puff pieces about their strength and stamina during the news-starved winter, but in this case it appeared to be true.) Might Millwood make the All-Star team? Might he earn some down-ballot Cy Young votes?

And then, the backlash: How much of Millwood’s success was external, the product of a suddenly superior defense and the pejorative “luck?”

  • R.J. Anderson of Fangraphs: “The Pleasures Of Strand Rate,” documenting Millwood’s sudden and seemingly dubious knack for leaving runners on base. Followed by…

  • Rob Neyer of ESPN: “Don’t Be Fooled By Millwood’s ERA,” giving Anderson’s story a bigger stage and noting that Millwood’s .261 BABIP was the lowest of his career. Followed by…

  • Evan Grant of D Magazine’s now-defunct and sorely missed Inside Corner: “ESPN’s Rob Neyer Says Kevin Millwood Has Been More Lucky Than Good; I Say ‘Wake Up, Rob Neyer’,” a pointed refutation of Neyer and Anderson. Well, sort of. Grant actually concurs with much of what Neyer and Anderson wrote; mostly, he takes umbrage at the derisive term “luck.” (I’m a big fan of Grant’s work, his whole-hearted embrace of “new media,” and his willingness to engage with his audience, but this article isn’t his high point.) Supported by…

  • Richard Durrett, then at the Dallas Morning News: “I second Evan Grant’s Defense of Kevin Millwood,” wherein Durrett states that Millwood “is in better shape, he has a better defense, but he's also making the crucial [pitches at] the critical times. Just watch the games and you'll see that.” (Okay. “[I] watch the games” is fine for justifying why some youngster with a poor track record might still be an excellent prospect, but not so much for justifying the stratospheric strand rate of a 34-year-old with over 2,000 MLB innings. This argument is of a bygone era and reeks of smugness [if unintentionally]. In 2009, there's someone out there who's watched more of the player in question than you [yes, you, and me, too], who will capably dispute your position, and who can do so on the Interwebs with at least a modest and discerning audience. Today, "watch the games," which really means "you don't watch as many games as me," works at best one-on-one, never against the broad readership. It's a dismissal, not an argument.) Followed by…

  • Adam Morris of Lone Star Ball: “Kevin Millwood, Rob Neyer, Evan Grant, luck, pitching, and defense,” a lengthy rebuttal of Grant and the best thing anyone’s written about the subject (so go read it). And on the same day…

  • Yours truly , “Who You Callin’ Lucky?” Like Adam, I waxed meta, arguing “luck” shouldn't have a negative connotation, although, in the context of Millwood, I described luck as “a series of atypical occurrences; for example, stranding 87% of opposing runners for nearly half a season.”

    (Luck, after all, works both ways. In an old fantasy column for ESPN, I argued that Brad Fullmer’s poor start in Texas was largely luck-driven and that he’d show improvement soon. Boy, did that not work out. Also, even Millwood’s detractors gave him credit: I wrote that he’d “been a revelation, a pleasure to watch, and arguably the team MVP.” Adam Morris stated that the “point of [his article] isn't to condemn Millwood. He's been a workhorse this year.” It's more fun to watch the players you care about do well, lucky or not.)

As if on cue, Millwood’s health, stamina, and ERA began to decay. A scant two months after the All-Star and Cy Young talk, the discussion devolved to whether Texas should bench Millwood so that his $12 million option in 2010 wouldn’t vest. The Rangers didn’t bench him, and in fact Millwood pitched quite well in his final three starts. That said, his second half resulted in a 5.02 ERA and fewer than six innings per start, depressingly similar to his lackluster 2007-2008.

So, barring a trade, Millwood will pitch 2010 with a "T" on his cap. What to expect? Unfortunately, for predictive purposes, I think we can pretend his best half-season in Texas never existed. I don’t doubt that Millwood’s improved conditioning, determination, etc., played some role in 2009’s first half, at least in terms of working deeper into games. But in truth, he really didn’t pitch much differently than before. In many respects, he pitched worse. He was, dare I say it, very, very lucky.

How lucky? During 2006-2008 and the second half of 2009, Millwood’s hit rate on balls in play has averaged .329 and was never lower than .306. Somehow, during the first half of 2009, it was .254, a whopping 75 points lower than his average:


While Texas’s defense did improve markedly in 2009, the only time Millwood’s BABIP has been lower than the team’s was during the first half of 2009. Millwood’s strand rate during this period is an even more of an outlier:


Displaying Millwood’s strand rate relative to his ERA better indicates how unusual his first half of 2009 was:


Concomitant to Millwood's lofty strand rate was his performance with runners in scoring position and two out. Since hits with runners on second and/or third almost always result in at least one run across the plate, short-term trends in this situation greatly influence ERA. In the previous three years, his rates in that situation were .256, .337, and .255, but during the first half of 2009, Millwood’s opponents batted 5-for-52 in two-out RISPs, a miniscule .096 average. If he’d found some ability to bear down in those situations, he lost it during the second half, as opponents went 12-for-41 (.293), approximately equal to the average of 2006-2008:


Not coincidentally, Millwood's newfound ability to work deeper into games disappeared in 2009's second half:


It’s established that a pitcher’s performance is best evidenced in strikeouts, walks, and homers. Frankly, even in light of the luck and defense requisite to Millwood’s amazing first half of 2009, from visual observation I would have expected improvement in the statistics most under his control. I saw him often and have no interest in retracting my statement that he was a pleasure to watch.

Instead, what’s remarkable about Millwood’s first half of ’09 is that his peripheral stats improved not a bit from his previous and subsequent efforts:


Actually, Millwood’s rates of homers, walks and strikeouts for all of 2009 were the worst among his four years in Arlington. In fact, aside from his 51-inning rookie season, his BB and SO rates were the worst of his 13-year career, and his 3.1% HR rate was exceeded only during his injury-plagued 2001. Astonishingly, Millwood posted his best ERA as a Ranger during what might be his worst season in the Majors. And he turns 35 next month.

Thus, Texas erred in letting his option vest, correct? Not necessarily. As noted by Fangraphs, wins (above replacement, not pitcher wins) come very dearly on the free-agent market, about $4 million per, and Millwood has averaged 2.8 wins per season during the last three years. He stands almost no chance of being a bargain but will more-or-less earn his full salary if he can duplicate the average of his 2007-2009 seasons. On the other hand, if the decline in his peripherals is irreversible, he’s an expensive, barely-above-replacement-level “ace.”

Texas, strangely enough, has some pitching depth and has countenanced trading Millwood. Though I liked the Volquez-for-Hamilton trade, it was problematic in that Volquez’s putative innings for 2008 were replaced by a not-ready-for-prime-time cast that couldn’t even offer replacement-level performance. This time, I don’t think that would happen; Neftali Feliz is ready for his close-up, Matt Harrison is healthy and throwing hard, and perhaps Guillermo Moscoso and even Eric Hurley will have a positive contribution. Still, I suppose one argument against a trade, assuming no pitching comes back, is who remains – is Texas willing to enter 2010 with Scott Feldman as its nominal ace?

Millwood is a known entity, and there’s value in a pitcher who can reach 190-200 innings with a 4.75 ERA. I’m not averse to Millwood pitching for Texas in 2010, even for $12 million, but expecting another sub-4.00 ERA, or even sub-4.50, is foolhardy.

Posted by Lucas at November 26, 2009 02:45 AM