Tom Milone and the Whole Velocity Thing

Because you’re the sort of person who would do such a thing, you’ve likely found yourself, at one point or another, having dirty thoughts about the major-league equivalencies (MLEs) for soft-tossing, and recently traded, left-hander Tom Milone.

If, somehow, you’re not that sort of person, perhaps you’ve wandered to this site by accident. In any case, here’s a recap of what you would’ve found there:

In 2010, pitching at Double-A Harrisburg, a 23-year-old Milone posted a zMLE line (that’s ZiPS MLE) of 151.3 IP, 27/27 GS/G, 6.78 K/9, 1.84 BB/9, 1.01 HR/9, ca. 3.92 FIP.

In 2011, pitching at Triple-A Syracuse, a 24-year-old Milone posted a zMLE line of 145.2, 24/24 GS/G, 7.84 K/9, 0.99 BB/9, 0.62 HR/9, ca. 2.72 FIP.

These numbers are, of course, fantastic — in particular, so far as Milone’s strikeout-to-walk ratios are concerned. (His untranslated K/BB over the last two seasons is predictably even better, at about 8:1.) However, talent evaluators like Keith Law, for example — that is, people who know a thing or two about a thing or two — think Milone’s lack of velocity (his four-seam fastball averaged just 87.8 mph, per PITCHf/x, in 2011) constitutes an impediment to his major-league success.

Analyzing the recent trade that sent Milone and others to Oakland, Law wrote the following:

Milone, 24, is a finesse lefty with a below-average fastball and no out pitch; he might survive as an emergency guy in a big ballpark like Oakland’s, but they can and will do better for the back of their rotation.

As the one tasked with writing Milone’s capule for this year’s edition of The Second Opinion (something which you should buy early and often), I decided to take a look at what 2011’s numbers could teach us about the relationship between velocity and strikeout rate. Note, please, that the work here isn’t intended to serve as a definitive statement on Tom Milone’s future as a major-league pitcher, but rather to give readers more information regarding velocity and strikeout rate.

First, let’s look at the relationship between fastball velocity (per PITCHf/x) and strikeout rate. This is similar to work published by Dave Cameron back in 2009, with a few differences. For one, I used strikeout rate (as a percentage of total batters faced) instead of strikeouts per nine innings. Furthermore, I used only starting pitchers (excluding, for obvious reasons, R.A. Dickey and Tim Wakefield). In any case, the results are similar.

To wit:

Fastball velocity explains a little bit more than 40% about 17%* of strikeout rate — which, that’s a considerable amount, and not particularly encouraging for Milone. Using the equation from the above graph, we find that a pitcher with an average fastball velocity of 87.8 mph would be expected to strike out ca. 15% of opposing batters — or, somewhere between 5.5 and 6.0 batters per nine innings.

*Apologies. The author majored in Latin, a course of study to which even the most rudimentary of stats courses is superfluous.

“What about handedness?” is a question you might be asking in your mind. Conveniently, this is a question that I asked in mine, too. The term “soft-tossing lefty,” while not the highest form of praise, exists because left-handed pitchers, for whatever reason, seem able to pitch competently at lower velocities than their right-handed counterparts.

In fact, this was this case among the sample I looked at. The 19 right-handers who recorded an average fastball velocity between 87.0 and 88.9 mph (i.e. about 1 mph on either side of Milone), featured a combined strikeout rate of 12.9% in 2011. The eight left-handers had a combined strikeout rate of 18.0%.

On the high side of that group of are Chris Capuano (87.6 mph, 21.1% K), Ted Lilly (87.3, 19.8%), and Chris Narveson (87.9, 18.0%). On the low end is Scott Diamond (88.5, 10.5%). The rest of the group (Paul Maholm, Randy Wolf) bottoms out at 14.0%.

It’s important to note that the data on Milone’s fastball velocity comes from just five starts and 26.0 innings, so it might not be entirely representative of what we’ll see from him in 2012. Going merely by the data here, however, it appears as though a strikeout rate of 16% — or, say, something like 6.0 K/9 — would constitute a reasonable expectation from Milone.




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Carson Cistulli occasionally publishes spirited ejaculations at The New Enthusiast.


31 Responses to “Tom Milone and the Whole Velocity Thing”

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  1. Mike Newman says:

    You are scaring me Cistulli! I just had this conversation with a fantasy league mate this morning and comped Milone based on FB velocities of LHP.

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    • MC says:

      Yes I would do that regression but only for LHP’s, not all pitchers. It seems for whatever reason that soft-tossing lefties are far more common than soft-tossing righties.

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  2. Yirmiyahu says:

    However, talent evaluators like Keith Law … think Milone’s lack of velocity.

    What do they think!? Dear god, I must know what they think.

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  3. bender says:

    The R^2 explains % of variation, not R, so it’s more like 17% than 40

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  4. Resolution says:

    Since DIPS theory (and specifically the FIP formula) weights BBs by pitchers as more harmful than a strikeout is beneficial (and correct me if I’m interpreting this incorrectly), is this notion that ‘soft-tossing control artists are less likely to succeed against higher levels of competition’ incorrect, or maybe just not as true as it appears?

    Depending on how one views this, it totally changes perspective on that Sergio Santos/Nestor Molina trade.

    Also, given how Milone isn’t necessarily held in high regard, I got a kick out of switching his first name from Tom to Tim later in the article.

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  5. JCA says:

    Milone prefers “Tommy,” not “Tom,” “Tim,” or “Tim-MEH!”

    From Ben Goessling’s 9/10/11 post on his blog for the Nat’s broadcaster, MASN:
    http://www.masnsports.com/1masnsports/mt/mt-search.cgi?blog_id=4&tag=tommy%20milone&limit=20

    “First things first: Tom Milone would prefer that you call him Tommy. He’s been Tommy since a young age – probably because it’s a better fit with his father, Tony – and he’s always stuck with it. So we’ll refer to him here as Tommy Milone.”

    Link was not accessible today.

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  6. TexPantego says:

    How wide the gap is between the CU and the FB has to be a major factor in Ks.

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  7. MikeS says:

    So if the conclusion is that soft tossing lefties can be successful at the major league level then Mark Buehrle and Jaime Moyer would like to say “been there, done that.”

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    • Paul Thomas says:

      The best “reasonable positive outcome” for him is already on his own team: Dallas Braden. Granted, he’ll never win a Cy Young, but he’s clearly a valuable asset.

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  8. mattsd says:

    I think the more interesting area for exploration is does velocity predict whether or not a pitcher will over or under perform his MLEs and projections when he breaks into the majors.

    To some extent, Milone’s lack of velocity is already priced in when we look at his minor league numbers. It might be true that major league hitters will hit soft tossers better than minor league hitters to an extent far greater than guys with more velocity, but that isn’t really indicated here.

    Good work, in any case.

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  9. alexp says:

    Interesting stuff but there are issues with the stats
    1. as another comment mentioned R-square is the fraction of variance explained by the linear relation, not R. Basically the “linear” relationship between velocity and strike out ration only explains 17.37% of the variance in the sample. that means that 82+ % is NOT explained by velocity.
    Visually that is highlighted by the dispersion of the dots above and below the regression line – a stronger correlation would have a much narrower distribution.
    When it comes down to it, it takes a 6 mph increase in velocity to raise the strikeout from rate 15% to 20% – and that is among all pitchers (excluding the knuckelballers ..), which again is interesting – a 33% increase in strikeout rate – but does that yield a lower ERA – (after controlling for the player’s team)? or does the higher velocity also … propel more home runs?
    And then again that brings up control – how many men on base … etc etc
    Not so simple. Cluster or discriminant analysis may help differentiate the statistics of ‘finesse’ pitchers vs. power pitchers and journeymen.
    Just food for thought.

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    • AngMohClay says:

      Interesting thoughts.

      I would also be interested to see the K% vs. FBv plotted for both RHP and LHP (2 separate plots), and see the models for both. It seems like the author is making the argument that FBv is less important as a predictor of K% for LHP than it is for RHP, so why not show the two plots, fit simple linear models and compare the R% (and dispersion).

      I agree however, that discussion of K% in a vacuum is a bit odd. It’s not the only thing that matters (suppressing HR is also important, as is not walking dudes or allowing consistent good contact, i.e. LD%).

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  10. Paul Thomas says:

    I’m confused by the assertion that Keith Law knows anything about anything.

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  11. wobatus says:

    He may struggle at first but I expect he’ll be a 2-3 war guy for years, topping higher. Lilly-esque, Buehrle-esque. There may be many soft-tossers who don’t make it, but a sub 1 bb/9 in AAA is quite rare, let alone mixed with a 9.4 k/9. If he ks 6+/9 and keeps the BBs sub 2, he’ll make it. OK, maybe a lefty Kevin Slowey. Still serviceable rotation member. Who does Law think will be the better choice as 5th starter in Oakland?

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    • wobatus says:

      Actually, closest comp I found for him is Matt Maloney, lefty soft-tosser with decent AAA k rates and very good walk rates, although Milone threw a tick harder in his cup of coffee. Ugh. Although Maloney’s xfip in 80 major league innings is 4.57.

      But even though Maloney had good k rates and great walk rates in AAA international, Milone easily ranks first over the last 6 years (just using fangraphs international league leaders back to 2006) in lowest walk rate (at .97 to next lowest, Slowey having a season of 1.21) and in k/bb (9.69 to again, Slowey, next best at 5.94, so milone far and away the best k/bb in International league last 6 years).

      Milone is 6th last 6 years in best k/9 in an international league season as a starter, at 9.4, behind Happ at 10.07, Alex Torres at 9.59, and Hellickson at 9.41, as well as back of JP Howell and Bill Murphy.

      OK, not a muderers’ row, but Milone is far and away the best overall there.

      Thin margin for error, but I think he has a shot. I know there’s only 1 Mark Buehrle.

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  12. A'sFanDFW says:

    Assuming Milone can get to the 6.0 k/9 mark, that would mean that he has the possiblity to be a very good ML starter – certainly no “fifth starter” or “spot starter” like I’ve seen in some evaluation. There were 5 pitchers last year that put up over 4.0 WAR while having less than 7 k/9 – Doug Fister, Justin Masterson, DAniel Hudson, Brandon McCarthey, and Matt Harrison.

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  13. A comp might be Eric Surkamp, with the Giants.

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  14. Jimmy Wahl says:

    I’ve got Surkamp and Milone stashed on my 14×30 Dynasty Team. If either pans out then I’ll be thrilled. We use K/9 and QS as well as the standard 5 categories (holds too) and their low walk rates and big ballparks should generate a lot of quality starts.

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  15. Feeding the Abscess says:

    Dan Haren throws an 85 MPH cutter nearly 50% of the time; Milone’s cutter is thrown at about the same speed. Why wouldn’t he be able to succeed if he throws his cutter frequently?

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  16. Dixie Wells says:

    All this is very interesting. But not necessarily prophetic re: Milone’s future in the Bigs. Can he get Big Leaguers out consistently, if his fastball averages only 87.8 mph? Is that what you want to know? Because Milone is a pitcher and not a thrower, he should do very well.

    Wonder how fast southpaws like Carl Hubbel, Whitey Ford, Mike Cuellar and Tommy John threw. Or how hard does Jamie Moyer throw? These guys, like Milone, are/were true pitchers. Had the Nats kept him, Milone would have been a great change of pace in the middle of their hard-throwing rotation. Milone’s the kind of pitcher, on-deck hitters salivate over, then come back to the dugout shaking their heads. Cuz he has command of all his pitches. He’s got Satchel Paige’s B-pitch. “It be where he need it to be.”

    If he stays healthy, Milone should have a long, healthy Big League career. Not a sermon, just a thought.

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