Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 11/19/14

If you knew exactly what pitch was coming, it would probably be easier to hit. Somehow, Wade Miley is an exception.

Miley’s season has been quite a pleasant surprise for the Arizona Diamondbacks. He’s amassed 14 wins and a shiny 2.80 ERA, corroborated by a 3.09 FIP. He’s given up fewer hits than innings pitched and he’s been almost as stingy as Cliff Lee with his walks. He’s probably the leading candidate for NL Rookie of the Year right now, or at least one of the co-favorites along with Todd Frazier.

And yet, Miley is getting it done by throwing almost 75% fastballs. If they were really special fastballs, that’s one thing – but the league average fastball velocity is 91.1 mph and Miley’s is, yep, 91.1 mph. So how is he finding success throwing average fastballs perpetually in the strike zone?

First of all, it’s interesting to look at just how pedestrian some of Miley’s statistics look when compared to the National League average:

K% BB% AVG BABIP LOB% ERA FIP NL AVG 19.90% 8.10% 0.250 0.294 72.30% 3.98 3.93 Miley 17.80% 4.40% 0.240 0.280 74.80% 2.80 3.09

He hasn’t gotten particularly lucky, his strikeout rate sits in a very Paul Maholm kind of world, and his results as far as earned runs go are pretty terrific.

O-Swing% Z-Swing% O-Cont% Z-Cont% Cont% F-Strike% SwStr% NL AVG 30.60% 64.70% 66.50% 87.30% 79.60% 60.20% 9.10% Miley 32.70% 67.60% 67.50% 90.50% 82.40% 59.00% 8.50%

Batters make more contact against Miley, he’s below average in swinging strikes, and he’s even below average in first pitch strikes. Nothing really to see here. Looking at John Sickels’ pre-season rankings of rookies, he even gave Miley a C+, ranking him 13th on this list of Diamondback prospects, suggesting he could be a nice fourth or fifth starter.

So again, exactly how is he having all this success?

Miley’s approach is seemingly quite simple, it’s almost a clinic in basic pitching philosophy. Work both sides of the plate, keep the ball down, don’t give in to hitters when you’re behind, play to your strengths. Can it be that easy?

He’s been murder against left handed batters to the tune of .199/.239/.290 and he’s been much more hittable by right handed batters as they go for .252/.289/.401 against Miley. So let’s start with his approach vs. righties.

Against right handed batters, Miley typically starts with a two seam fastball, throwing it 63% of the time. It’s almost always down and away, and when he misses, it’s typically off the plate down and away:

When Miley is ahead in the count versus right handers, he goes with his four seam fastball about half the time, and it’s almost always down and in:

With two strikes on a right hander, he finally breaks out his slider, which is typically thrown out of the zone, and he generates almost 16% whiffs on said pitch. Not thrilling, but nice (it’s classified here as a curve, but general consensus is it’s a slider):

What’s particularly interesting is that almost the only time you get to see his change is when he’s behind in the count against right handed batters, throwing it over 20% of the time, and he frequently throws the pitch out of the strike zone:

Miley’s not behind in the count very often, but when he is – he seems to realize he can’t give it the old “here’s my best fastball, try to hit it” approach because right handed hitters average .338 and slug .574 against his two seamer, which is his pitch of preference against righties.

In fact, for a control artist, Miley walks batters after 3-1 and 3-0 counts at just about the same rate as the national league average – 45% and 50%, respectively. Of all the batters Miley has faced in a 3-1 count, they are hitting just .174 but their on base percentage is .525. When he’s behind against a right handed batter, it seems he’s willing to risk the walk rather than give up a big hit.

It seems all too simple to say, but the key for Miley is to get ahead of hitters — and frankly, the takeaway for opposing batters is they should swing early and often. Compared to the NL average, Miley is worse than average on his first pitch (getting killed, in fact), but when he’s ahead in the count, he’s one of the best:

Miley is a great example of a pitcher accepting what his strengths and weaknesses are and attempts to play them in his favor as much as possible. Obviously, all pitchers are trying to maximize their success with whatever their repertoire allows, but it’s particularly hard to do when you rely on a mediocre fastball almost three quarters of the time and your ability to strike batters out is well below league average. I’m not sure if his success is particularly sustainable given his skill set and the distinct possibility that hitters adjust, but Miley is winning baseball games by knowing when to throw in the zone, knowing when to cut his losses in an at-bat, and by maximizing his platoon advantage versus lefties.

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