Kevin Millwood Tips His Cap

When I think of expectations, I think of a line an old college buddy used to say regarding just about any undertaking: “Aim low and miss.” Olympian, he was not.

But that line came back to me when I was thinking about Kevin Millwood, not because Kevin Millwood aimed low, but because I think many observers had unreasonable expectations for his career. Millwood, as you probably are aware, decided to hang it up and do the spend-more-time-with-the-family deal. And from what I’ve read about him across electronic and print pages, he “failed to meet expectations” during his 16 seasons in the majors. I’m not sure that’s entirely fair.

Perhaps the bar was set unrealistically high when Millwood went 17-8 in his first full season as a 23-year-old. He didn’t throw particularly hard — he averaged a tick below 90 mph with his fastball — but he was notoriously difficult for right-handers to hit. He was a control artist with a nasty slider and enough of a repertoire to keep the occasional lefty guessing, too.

The following year, 1999, was arguably his finest as he went 18-7 with a 2.68 ERA and 1.00 WHIP. He posted a 22.6% strikeout rate — a career high — and amassed a 5.7 WAR, which was just a hair behind the 5.8 WAR teammate Greg Maddux earned. Millwood was voted an all-star, the only time he would earn that distinction, and he finished third in the Cy Young voting to Randy Johnson and Mike Hampton.

And that might be all we need to know about why the expectations were what they were. Wins and ERA. And while Millwood did win 18 games again in his career and he managed to post an ERA beneath 3.00 once more, he never really stacked two seasons like ’98 and ’99 together again. Because of that, he failed to live up to his potential. But we know wins and ERA aren’t our best friends when we’re trying to identify anything close to a true talent level, and maybe it was just Millwood’s dumb luck that he started out with the volume on 11 when he was really more of a seven.

To be fair to Millwood, we can look at his career FIP, which finishes at 3.99. Those first two full seasons weren’t a whole heck of a lot better — 3.63 and 3.53 — and he actually finished his career in Seattle with a 3.91 FIP. So if you wanted to get snotty about the argument you could probably say he finished his career defying expectations. Objectively, Millwood hung around that 4.00 FIP mark with a few outliers, which suggests he pretty much met reasonable expectations from year-to-year:

Millwood FIP

I omitted 1997 since he pitched only 51 innings, with some coming in relief, and you have to take 2001 with a grain of salt because he was pretty dinged up that season. But it’s not as if Millwood demonstrated some otherworldly ability that he later squandered. He was a middle-of-the-rotation guy, a classic innings eater, who actually aged pretty well if you put him against Bill Petti’s and Jeff Zimmerman’s pitcher aging curves.

And since I’m talking about aging: Between 1997 and 2012, there are two pitchers who logged more than 2700 innings. One is Millwood and the other is Andy Pettitte. Pettitte has a 3.70 FIP and 6.73 K/9 during that time while Millwood has a 3.99 FIP and a 6.89 K/9. Pettitte is pretty obviously the superior starting pitcher, but you won’t see many narratives about him not meeting expectations.

After his all-star season, Millwood spent three more seasons with the Atlanta Braves and amassed just shy of 10 WAR in 550 innings. After that, he was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies for Johnny Estrada in one of the more head-scratching, lopsided, cost-cutting deals in recent history. It was with Philly that Millwood threw his no-hitter against the San Francisco Giants, facing 29 batters and striking out 10, while walking three.

Millwood later made stops in Cleveland, Texas, Baltimore, Colorado and Seattle, not to mention a couple minor league stints with the Yankees and the Red Sox. He earned 49.4 WAR in his career — a figure that’s not likely to put him in Cooperstown — but Millwood  epitomized the “take-the-ball-every-fifth-day-and-compete” role even if his star seemed considerably brighter when he was younger. He might not have struck much fear into opponents beyond 1998, but Kevin Millwood was a better starting pitcher than most people give him credit for.



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Michael was born in Massachusetts and grew up in the Seattle area but had nothing to do with the Heathcliff Slocumb trade although Boston fans are welcome to thank him. You can find him on twitter at @michaelcbarr.


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CircleChange11
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CircleChange11
3 years 3 months ago

but Millwood epitomized the “take-the-ball-every-fifth-day-and-compete” role

I’m glad that you said this and not just because it was what I was thinking.

Athletes are a very arrogant and prideful bunch. I say that as one. You kind of have to be like that, otherwise the game swallows you up and/or you tend to underachieve.

There are some athletes that after such early success would have been “too good” to just be a “take the ball and compete” type of pitcher.

In terms of stuff, Millwood is more “Jeff Suppan” than “Mike Mussina”.

Christ, he was a MLB starter for 16 years and averaged ~90mph on his fastball. Good on him.

The guy had a 50 WAR career. If he underachieved then that means his likely “expectation” was ‘Hall of Famer’. Not realistic.

His career was very good for an 11th round draft pick. Baseball is literally littered with RHP’s that throw 90-91, most never make it out of the minors. Millwood excelled for 16 years.

shibboleth
Guest
shibboleth
3 years 3 months ago

Maybe I’ve been around Fangraphs too long, but I never really considered him to be an underachiever. His was a consistent and effective game, though never a gaudy one.

I think on the times he had to front a rotation (as he did in Baltimore). He was not an ace even though he was handed the role. Still, he played his game and he kept things steady, never really getting ahead of himself or letting the pressure alter his approach. I say he’s the bread and butter of any good starting rotation.

Cidron
Member
Cidron
3 years 3 months ago

He was hamburger.. Not flashy, but its pretty good on a regular basis.. He wasn’t flashy and fancy like steak. Not that high end. (nor was he week old meatloaf leftovers either)

Mel
Guest
Mel
3 years 3 months ago

Baseball Reference has him at 25.9 WAR (26.8 if you exclude hitting), Fangraphs at 49.4. That’s a hell of a difference.

Huisj
Guest
Huisj
3 years 3 months ago

Just a guess in super simplified terms…

Is Fangraph’s WAR based on what should have happened (FIP, xFIP, etc) and B-R’s WAR based on what did happened (ERA)? It seems like B-R’s numbers trend much closer with ERA and are taking away a significant amount of value in seasons where his ERA was a lot worse than his FIP.

Joseph
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Joseph
3 years 3 months ago

I’m not very familiar with the b-ref pitcher WAR calculation, but I thought it was similar to fangraphs RA9 WAR. Does anyone know what is causing the huge discrepancy between the rWAR and RA9 fWAR?

Oh, Beepy
Guest
Oh, Beepy
3 years 3 months ago

As I understand it BBREF places very little value on innings pitched, where fWAR places quite a large amount of value on it.

Krog
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Krog
3 years 3 months ago

I think Millwood’s 2003 is illustrative of the difference between Fangraphs and BRs stats. In 2003 Millwood pitched 222 innings with a roughly league average ERA. His FIP however, was 16% better than league average. BR says this workhouse with a league average ERA is a 2 WAR player, while Fangraphs says this above average workhorse is worth 4.5 WAR.

David G
Guest
David G
3 years 3 months ago

Little known fact: Appelman and Cameron use a modified ouija board to determine WAR values.

CircleChange11
Guest
CircleChange11
3 years 3 months ago

Average them and call him a ~40 WAR pitcher. Still pretty darn good for an 11th round draft pick.

If anything, he over-achieved some (or a lot).

Seriously, anybody ever wowed by Millwood’s stuff?

jim
Guest
jim
3 years 3 months ago

i would say that RA9-wins are the best way to evaluate the balance of his career, and he comes in with 46

TKDC
Guest
TKDC
3 years 3 months ago

Millwood came up when everyone was still thinking the Braves would produce another pitcher like Glavine, Smoltz, or even Maddux which was crazy because they didn’t produce him. Once he had a little success, it seemed destined that he would be at least an perennial all star. As a young Braves fan, I was shocked and pissed that they traded him. While it is still a head scratcher, it is not nearly as awful if you assume the Braves knew that he was really a mid to back end of the rotation guy by that point.

TKDC
Guest
TKDC
3 years 3 months ago

Though now that I look at his stats, it appears he had a few more seasons as a 2-3 type pitcher. At the end of the day, at least we weren’t trading the next John Smoltz for Johnny Estrada.

Hurtlockertwo
Guest
Hurtlockertwo
3 years 3 months ago

A nice career that paid him almost $100 million bucks. Undervalued??

Nickname Damur
Guest
Nickname Damur
3 years 3 months ago

Since no one mentioned salaries in this discussion, I think it likely that in this case “undervalued” is a synonym for “underappreciated”.

Jim
Guest
Jim
3 years 3 months ago

If you honestly think “Pettitte is pretty obviously the superior starting pitcher, but you won’t see many narratives about him not meeting expectations” is an accurate statement, you obviously haven’t paid much attention to the coverage of Andy Pettitte.

Pettitte is — at least to people of my generation, who grew up as Yankee fans in the late ’80’s and early ’90’s — definitely known as a “what might have been” pitcher who utterly failed to live up to expectations. In 1996, he finished second in the Cy Young voting, and most Yankee fans thought (wrongly, in retrospect) he was robbed by Pat Hentgen. In the 1997 offseason, when the Mariners were shopping Randy Johnson, the Yankees could have had him if they’d been willing to give up Andy Pettitte — but Bob Watson refused, believing that even though Randy Johnson was a no-questions-asked number 1, all time great ace starter, Andy Pettitte had a brighter future.

As a Yankee fan who first seriously started following the team in the late ’80’s, I can tell you that for the first few years of his career, Andy Pettitte was completely expected to become greater than Whitey Ford as the best Yankee starting pitcher of all time — a guy who was perennially in the Cy Young hunt, and always one of the two or three best starting pitchers in baseball. Basically, we expected Andy Pettitte to be every bit as great a starting pitcher as Derek Jeter was a shortstop.

Basically, the expectation was that Pettitte would turn into the next Warren Spahn or Eddie Plank. Instead, he turned into the next Herb Pennock. Plenty of Yankee fans of my generation are bitterly disappointed in where Pettitte’s career took him.

ssj316
Guest
ssj316
3 years 3 months ago

There’s a difference between “not meeting expectations” set by fans who overhype their own prospects, and “not meeting expectations” based on what the baseball world considers your potential to be. Every team has players who “don’t meet expectations,” but this article is based on the idea of players who have a more widely known reputation for “what could have been.” The fact that Yankeee fans consider Pettitte a failure while the rest of the baseball world considers him pretty darn successful just means that Yankee fans have unrealistic expectations of their own players.

jim
Guest
jim
3 years 3 months ago

i’m all for using FIP to evaluate pitchers, but when a guy has closer to 3000 than 2000 innings, it’s pretty safe to just use ERA

ramsey
Guest
ramsey
3 years 3 months ago

Kevin Millwood’s no-hitter was the only one I’ve seen in person, so he will always have a special place in this fan’s heart (as will Ricky Ledee).

So long Kevin, and thanks for the memories!

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