Tom Milone and the Scourge of a Weak Four-seamer

While velocity isn’t everything when it comes to being a successful major league starting pitcher, it’s surely a large part of the story. Starting pitchers who have a higher velocity — particularly on their four-seam fastballs — tend to have higher strikeout rates and induce weaker contact from opposing batters. And pitchers who can limit balls in play through strikeouts, tend to have lower earned run averages. Of course, not every major-league starter can sport a blazing fastball. A number of starting pitchers have not only survived, but they’ve thrived during seasons where their velocity was significantly lower than league-average.

Which brings us to the case of Oakland Athletics left-hander, Tom Milone. After starting five games as a 24-year-old for the Nationals last season, Milone was shipped out as part of the deal that sent Oakland’s Gio Gonzalez to Washington. Milone, now 25, has worked his way into the Athletics’ rotation this season — this despite an underwhelming fastball. Generally, Milone’s four-seam fastball (a pitch he throws about 54% of the time) has averaged less than 88 mph. For some perspective: In the past three seasons, major-league starters have averaged 91 mph on the four-seamer.

What are the odds that Milone can perform above league average this season, given the lack of zip on his fastball? To answer this, I looked at some similar pitchers who have played during the Pitch FX era (2007-present). Given that we only have seven starts for Milone this season, delineating his pitch repertoire is a little difficult. With such a small sample, pitch-type percentages can fluctuate quite a bit. As I mentioned earlier, Milone throws his four-seamer almost 54% of the time — and he also appears to throw a cutter 5% to 6% of the time. Last year, Milone seemed to mix in a two-seam fastball — but in two starts this year, the pitch has rarely shown up. Milone, too, has increased his changeup (his best pitch) and curve ball usage at the expense of his slider.

(Note: Our Pitch FX data has Milone throwing a cutter only 5-6% of the time, while Brooks has him throwing the cutter 17% of the time. In both cases, Milone’s use of the four-seam fastball is north of 50%.)

Here are some highlights from Milone’s Athletic’s debut from April 9th:

 

Since 2007, there have been only 20 seasons where a starting pitcher has thrown their average four-seam fastball less than 88 mph and threw the pitch at least 45% of the time:

Season Name Age LOB% FIP GB/FB HR/FB ERA- FIP- K% BB% FF% (pfx) vFF (pfx)
2009 Ted Lilly 33 77.8% 3.65 0.63 8.7% 71 83 21.4% 5.1% 47.0% 87.2
2008 Mark Buehrle 29 71.8% 3.94 1.57 9.9% 84 88 15.3% 5.7% 48.0% 86.6
2008 John Lannan 23 74.0% 4.79 2.03 15.2% 91 112 15.0% 9.2% 62.9% 87.6
2008 Ted Lilly 32 76.0% 4.41 0.75 12.1% 91 97 21.4% 7.4% 46.1% 87.8
2008 Scott Olsen 24 71.6% 5.02 0.88 10.9% 97 115 13.2% 8.1% 65.5% 87.3
2009 Barry Zito 31 75.0% 4.31 0.94 9.5% 98 104 18.8% 9.9% 46.7% 86.5
2008 Greg Smith 24 72.7% 4.82 0.75 7.9% 99 115 13.9% 10.9% 56.4% 87.6
2007 Barry Zito 29 69.7% 4.83 0.96 9.6% 102 107 15.5% 9.8% 55.3% 84.8
2007 Greg Maddux 41 68.9% 3.58 1.78 7.1% 103 87 12.5% 3.0% 63.8% 86.0
2007 Tom Glavine 41 72.6% 4.86 1.13 9.1% 103 111 10.4% 7.5% 48.8% 84.8
2007 Paul Byrd 36 70.6% 4.68 0.94 9.5% 104 107 10.5% 3.4% 47.6% 85.8
2007 Livan Hernandez 32 76.0% 5.77 0.95 11.8% 105 122 9.9% 8.7% 50.1% 84.3
2008 Greg Maddux 42 64.1% 4.09 1.67 10.9% 106 102 12.2% 3.7% 53.2% 84.5
2007 Matt Chico 24 73.6% 5.56 0.72 9.8% 109 129 12.6% 9.9% 53.5% 86.7
2007 Woody Williams 40 73.0% 5.57 0.88 12.0% 116 126 12.3% 6.4% 52.8% 86.8
2008 Jeff Suppan 33 71.2% 5.51 1.38 15.7% 117 129 11.5% 8.6% 47.4% 87.0
2008 Barry Zito 30 65.7% 4.72 0.9 6.8% 120 109 14.7% 12.5% 47.7% 85.1
2011 Chris Capuano 32 71.9% 4.03 1.04 12.0% 122 108 21.1% 6.5% 57.9% 87.6
2009 Livan Hernandez 34 67.3% 4.44 1.1 8.4% 133 108 12.7% 8.3% 54.3% 85.0
2008 Livan Hernandez 33 64.8% 4.94 1.31 10.7% 138 113 8.3% 5.3% 63.4% 84.2

Of those 20 seasons, only seven ended with the pitcher generating an ERA- of less than 100 (where 10o is equal to league average). And of those seven, only three featured pitchers who relied on their below-average four-seamer as much or more than Milone. (Interestingly, in all three, the pitchers were younger than 25 years old.) Those pitchers who posted a better than average ERA also benefited from a higher strand rate (LOB%) — roughly 5% — than their counterparts with worse than average ERAs. They also posted a higher strikeout percentage (K%) — 17% versus 13%. Ted Lilly’s two 20%+ seasons are pushing that up a bit, however the rates are still lower for the 100+ hurlers.

If we expand the list and look at how all pitchers performed who threw a less than 88 mph four-seam fastball we see that pitchers who rely more on their four-seamer have the deck stacked against them:

% of FF % of FF
>45% < =45%
ERA- >=100 13 17
ERA- <100 7 15
Total 20 32

Overall, things don’t look great for Milone. Generally, starters with four-seam velocities greater than 88 mph posted a sub-100 ERA- nearly 70% of the time — compared to only 42% for lower-velocity starters. More specifically, nearly twice as many pitchers who relied on their slower four-seam fastball more than 45% of the time posted ERAs worse than league-average. This shows that lower velocity pitchers tend to survive through locating their fastball and inducing weak contact through pitch movement. Pitchers who relied more heavily on sinkers and cutters had a better chance of outperforming their velocity than their counterparts. Milone is known to have both command and control, but when it comes to his fastball, there isn’t much movement. Given his significant reliance on his four-seamer, Milone appears to be at a disadvantage.

Additionally, while he managed to post solid strikeout rates in the minors (>=17% as a starter), Milone has averaged only 12.5% in his first seven major-league starts. This also is likely due to the reliance on his four-seamer.

All told, the comparatives for Milone don’t look favorable. Given his usage of an underwhelming four-seam fastball, it’s unlikely (but not impossible) he will be able to produce enough strikeouts and weak contact at the major-league level to perform above-average. Pitching in Oakland will certainly help him, as the ample foul ground and outfield dimensions could depress his ERA. However, given that successful comparative pitchers had the luxury of National League lineups to pitch against (Mark Buehrle being the exception), I wouldn’t bet on Milone being a member of the Athletics’ — or any other American League — rotation for the long-term.




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Bill works as a consultant by day. In his free time, he writes for The Hardball Times, speaks about baseball research and analytics, consults for a Major League Baseball team and appears on MLB Network's Clubhouse Confidential. Along with Jeff Zimmerman, he won the 2013 SABR Analytics Research Award for Contemporary Analysis. Follow him on Tumblr or Twitter @BillPetti.


16 Responses to “Tom Milone and the Scourge of a Weak Four-seamer”

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  1. Nathaniel Stoltz says:

    This is pretty well done, and I can understand the logic throughout. However, in Milone’s case, I’m not sure this is the best way to go about analyzing him.

    The debate with Milone is really whether his near-historic K/BB ratio in Triple-A is going to translate to the majors. Many think it won’t, for velocity reasons like those you cite. Others think it will, because it’s just so fantastic that he has plenty of room to fall and still excel. Personally, I could certainly see him being like a lefthanded Doug Fister, or perhaps a Dallas Braden. And Braden hasn’t posted an ERA or FIP above 4.00 since 2008.

    But regardless of one’s stance on the guy, I think to “get to the bottom” of the issue, one needs to dissect what allowed him to be so effective in the peripherals in Triple-A and then see how each of those components has fared/likely will fare in the majors. This doesn’t really do that, because it doesn’t acknowledge the various statistical starting points of each of the <88 mph pitchers. The easy counter to it is "Well, Milone outpitched all those guys in the minors, so he'll probably do so in the majors." (Not that that's necessarily an airtight argument, but it's still worth considering).

    Anyway, those are my thoughts.

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    • Bill Petti says:

      Great point. This is just a starting point to show how much of an outlier he would be, given the low velocity on the four-seamer, how much he relies on it, and his age. The other reason I have pause is that, in the little bit we’ve seen of him, the strike out rate has been on the low end. And that’s what we would expect given the velocity, etc.

      But, yes, a next step analysis would be to get more granular with his approach and see if there is reason to believe it can translate over the long term.

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  2. Bronnt says:

    I couldn’t help but smirk at seeing 41 year old Greg Maddux on this last with a FIP- of 87. Nothing wrong with having him in your list of comparables, even the really old version.

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  3. Detroit Michael says:

    Does the narrative change if we consider only left-handed starters? Given that on average LHP throw with less velocity than RHP do, it seems like looking at just LHP with similar velocity and reliance on 4-seam fastbalss might increase the similarity of the comparables more than the harm of shrinking our sample size further.

    At a glance, it looks to me like we’re already honed on nearly all lefties anyway.

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  4. Joe says:

    Two typos I noticed:

    - “where 10[o] is average”
    - “w[h]ere 25 years old or younger

    Otherwise, great article!

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  5. Feeding the Abscess says:

    Dan Haren’s cutter is only 85 MPH, and he throws it 50% of the time. If Milone scrapped his four seam for a cutter/two-seam combo, there’s a chance he’d be better off.

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  6. Matt says:

    R.I.P. Brett Cecil

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  7. Kurt Suzuki says:

    It’s worth pointing out that Lilly, Buehrle, Zito, Maddux, etc had a plus secondary pitch to let their fastball play up. According to scouts, Milone doesn’t have a plus pitch and thus, won’t get the great strikeout numbers in the bigs.

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  8. Mike says:

    thanks for the writeup…interesting numbers…i just disagree with the prediction on ToM Milone…This kid is the real deal and has a very long major league career ahead of him barring injury…though small sample sizes, he was dominant in his first start ever going 8 strong allowing only 3 hits but also striking out 0….

    His most recent outing vs. seattle looks MUCH worst in the boxscore than how it went down in real life…he had a 1 hit shutout going into the 6th inning…he worked into a jam and was getting squeezed by the homeplate umpire all night….Justin Smoak was up with a 3-2 count, 2 outs, and bases loaded jam…Milone painted the outside corner with a perfect pitch that froze smoak and was called a ball….a run walked home…

    Montero would end up hitting an opposite feel squibber that stayed fair by maybe an inch…Milone ended the night allowing 4 ER through 6 but it really did not tell the story.

    I believe in him despite the lack of velocity and history you have so eloquently presented…I think he is a guy that you have to watch to understand why so many like me love the kid…he has moxy, a veterans’ demeanor, and is a craft lefty that doesn’t get rattled on the mound. I feel much better with the Gio return because of this guy…he will be a key cog for any mlb starting rotation for years to come.

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  9. kick me in the GO NATS says:

    Milone is an exception to the rule and will keep his ERA below 4 this season, and for several seasons going forward. He is crafty, very deceptive, and throws many more types of pitches than most other pitchers. Remember Greg Maddux rarely hit 90 miles an hour on his fastball during his career, but he was exceptional anyway. I remember a pitcher of the past known as Bob Knepper who I think is similar to Milone. Knepper’s pitches got slower and slower during an at bat and it seemed like he got many more hitters to hit a pop up in the infield or to hit a flyball than anyone I recall. By the way, Knepper retired in 1990 after 14 seasons with a career fip of 3.74 and a career Era of 3.68 nearly entirely as a starting pitcher. After following his minor league success, I expect the same from Milone.

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  10. Jon says:

    Once again, for the billionth time:

    In Oakland it is yes, the foul ground that helps pitchers, but it is not the outfield dimensions. They are fairly normal.

    What makes it great for pitchers in Oakland (and SF, and to lesser degrees in LA, SD and Ana) is the Pacific Ocean’s affect on how baseballs travel, particularly at night when the MARINE LAYER comes in.

    People need to re-think how they think of California weather wise. It’s not warm in the way most of the country is warm (when it is warm in those places. It’s rarely hot and humid, rarely THAT hot.)

    Particularly in N Cal days are warm, not hot, not humid, and nights are anywhere from cool to cold, it only getting really humid, or kinda humid at night, when it’s cold. No, not east coast winter cold, but a to your bones cold that almost feels like it when you’re out there nine innings at night, especially in April and May, but really almost all season (with late season providing some exceptions, particularly years making the ‘offs, which funny enough, then gives fans from other parts of the country, watching those teams for the only time really, the misperception the weather is usually like that. West coast playoff weather is often weather the team hasn’t seen all year, at least, again, in N Cal.)

    Thank you, drive through.

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    • Feeding the Abscess says:

      Tangentially related, I will never understand why Dusty Baker played Bonds in the night game and sat him in the day games following. Should have been the other way around.

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      • Jon says:

        Good point.

        Could be that Baker felt, rightfully so, that Bonds hit them so far it didn’t matter, and the guy who replaced him needed the daytime help.

        I doubt Baker thought about it that much, more the usual manager move of giving the mainstay the quick turnaround day game off. In most cases i believe your point should be looked at more by managers.

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  11. Dino says:

    I’ve seen Milone pitch twice this year, and I think he needs a better breaking ball to succeed in the ML.

    I wish him the best; he does have a lot of positives which were all mentioned.

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