Save for San Diego, it’s hard to envision a more heavenly landing spot for a pitcher like Brad Mills than the Angels. An extreme fly ball lefty prone to whiplash, Mills bombed in three brief big league trials with Toronto, could be out of minor league options if he doesn’t qualify for a fourth option year and only stood a chance of making the Jays’ roster as the human equivalent of a white flag, a long reliever. But, after being swapped to L.A. for out-maker extraordinaire Jeff Mathis, Mills has the perfect blend of pitcher’s park, weak competition, strong outfield D and opportunity to succeed in the majors.
Let’s be honest: you probably played high school ball with someone possessing better stuff than Mills. He has R.A. Dickey/Livan Hernandez-type velocity on his fastball, sitting in the mid-80s. His best pitch is a mid-70s changeup, and he also tosses in some low-70s curveballs and low-80s cutters. Despite that slop, Mills has used his deceptive, cross-body delivery to strike out 7.8 batters per nine innings and walk three per nine in 354 frames at the Triple-A level.
The 6-foot, 185 pound Mills likes to pitch up in the zone, however, and he has posted ground ball rates ranging from 39 to 43 percent in the Pacific Coast League. Fly ball pitchers get battered at Las Vegas, and Mills has served up a homer per nine innings with the 51s, pushing his FIP up to 4.04. That fly ball-happy approach (as well as uncharacteristically crappy control) has doomed Mills in the majors so far. Getting grounders just under 33 percent of the time, he has coughed up 10 homers in only 48.1 innings, or 1.86 HR/9. That’s how you post an 8.57 ERA, a 6.00 FIP and acquire a Quad-A label before you can say, “VanBenSchoten.”
But before you sentence him to ten years’ hard time at locales like Albuquerque and Tucson, consider the advantages he now has with the Angels.
For one, he’s going to a park that doesn’t punish fly ball pitchers near as much. The Rogers Centre pumps up homer production by 14 percent for left-handed hitters and 16 percent for right-handers, according to StatCorner. Angels Stadium, however, decreases dingers by 10 percent for lefties and seven percent for righties. Rangers Ball Park won’t do Mills any favors (119 lefty HR park factor, 114 righty HR PF), but in the AL West he’d also make a few starts at Seattle’s Safeco Field (95 lefty HR PF, 82 righty HR PF) and Oakland’s Coliseum (89 lefty HR PF, 80 righty HR PF), which put a crimp on power hitters. Some towering drives that would clear the fence in Canada will land softy in fielders’ gloves in the good ol’ USA.
As an added bonus, the Mariners had the worst park-adjusted offense in the majors last year, and the A’s ranked in the bottom 10. Admittedly, Texas has a nightmarish lineup. But barring the import of some big bats or serious improvement from within, Mills would get to take on two of the AL’s weaklings in cozy confines.
On top of favorable park factors and the joy that is facing Seattle and Oakland, Mills benefits from what could be a fantastic defensive outfield. Peter Bourjos patrols center field as well as any player in the majors, earning gushing scouting reports about his range as a prospect and then saving seven runs more than an average CF during his rookie year in 2011. Vernon Wells was a disaster in center in years past but rated well in left field last year (see, trading Napoli was totally worth it!), and in any event the Angels will make him a $21 million-a-year bench player by June at the latest by installing uber-prospect Mike Trout in a corner spot. Trout is a sublime fielder, too, and would give the Angels pair of plus CFs roaming the outfield. Torii Hunter isn’t spectacular, but he’s capable. If a hitter lofts a Mills pitch and it stays in the park, there’s a good chance it’s turned into an out.
None of this would mean much if not for the last part of the equation, opportunity. L.A.’s 1-3 is set with Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana. But Jerome Williams currently occupies the 4 spot after four years out of the majors followed by 40-some innings of so-so-pitching, and the Angels might prefer for prospect Garrett Richards to open 2012 in the minors to work on his changeup. Other than Trevor Bell, there’s little depth after that. Jerry Dipoto could always swing a trade for a starter or sign a free agent or two, but the Angels don’t appear intent on parting with valued prospects or bidding on top-tier talent.
Maybe Mills is a Quad-A hurler, but he could hardly ask for better circumstances than a trade to the Angels to prove otherwise. While his upside is modest, Mills could be a decent fill-in in deep mixed leagues if he makes the rotation. He’s also a prime example of why context — park factors, quality of competition, team defense, playing time opportunities — is so important. When you get blindsided by an aching elbow or a shredded shoulder and must scramble to fix your roster, knowing which waiver wire guys won’t add insult to injury can make all the difference.