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:
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.