We are in the midst of a spoiled era of Cincinnati Reds pitching, one incredibly overdue given the length of time in which baseball has been played in the Queen City. We watched in earnest as Trevor Bauer took home the National League’s Cy Young Award last fall, the first in the history of the Reds franchise. We balked at trade rumors surrounding Luis Castillo and the vaunted New York Yankees, knowing the young ace was worth nothing less than star shortstop Gleyber Torres in return.
With Kyle Boddy, Driveline, and Derek Johnson at the helm of the system’s pitching coordination, it seems few things are off the table anymore. Tyler Mahle’s long-awaited breakout burst through with a 133 ERA+ in 2020, Tejay Antone went from overlooked to a spin maestro, and even Hunter Greene and his electric arm look healthy and poised for the first time in years heading into 2021.
No, the club’s pitching staff on-paper doesn’t look as emphatic as it did last year. Bauer’s departure into free agency leaves a serious void, while the likes of Anthony DeSclafani, Raisel Iglesias, and Archie Bradley have also followed, a trio of talented arms off the roster that have not been replaced from outside the organization with any real confidence. Still, the arms still in the fold at the moment are enough to make decades-long runs the Reds have put in the history books blush, as the Sonny Grays and Michael Lorenzens simply were not employed for long stretches in recent franchise history.
Really, it’s enough arm talent to make an otherwise auspicious member of the team’s pitching staff seem almost superfluous at the moment, and that’s a bit jarring given recent context. There’s an arm on staff who has pitched to a tidy 3.64 ERA over his last 55 starts dating back to the beginning of the 2018 season, his 123 ERA+ in 262.1 IP indicative of an arm plenty capable of keeping runs off the board at an above-average rate.
In how many recent winters in Reds history would you turn to the back of that baseball card and immediately count on them as the rock of the club’s entire staff? Do I really need to haunt you with Opening Day starters of the last fifteen, twenty years?
No, Wade Miley is not the presumptive ace of this staff. He’s older now, he throws a full dozen miles per hour slower than many of his peers for much of his time on the mound, and he’s one of the more quiet, unassuming players in all of baseball. He was the smallest signing of an otherwise franchise-record spending spree last winter, overlooked by both his free agent peers and by the depth of his starting rotation mates. Then, groin and shoulder injuries limited him to a mere 14.1 ineffective innings on the mound during a shortened season with zero fans in stands, enough to further relegate him from the front of our minds when assessing just what the Reds have in-house for the upcoming 2021 season.
On the surface, a 34 year old coming off multiple injuries isn’t exactly a player on whom you’d like to heap outsized expectations. That said, Miley has never been anything akin to a max-effort pitcher on the mound, his modest 90.9 mph career fastball average serving as evidence, and last year’s limited sample had him sitting at 90.2 on average with that offering. That coincided with a continued uptick in his cutter usage, too, a pitch he leaned on nearly 50% of the time again in 2020 - something he only began leaning into during the 2018 season with Milwaukee, the one where Derek Johnson was his pitching coach for the first time.
In an era of obscene strikeout rates, it’s easy to overlook a pitcher who lets batters retire themselves these days. That’s Miley’s calling card, however, as his 18.0% K-rate since the start of the 2018 season ranks 12th lowest among the 104 big league pitchers who have thrown at least 250 innings in that time. That coincides with a rock solid 18.8% soft-hit rate, though, a well above-average mark indicative of a pitcher who serves as an effective changeup to the fireballing arms around him.
While those tactics aren’t exactly excellent ways to highlight oneself in the Wins Above Replacement world, they can still serve as plenty effective means to success over the long haul. Tortoise-like, if you will. All the way back in 2019, Miley’s end-of-season line of 167.1 IP, 3.98 ERA, and 116 ERA+ steadied a 107 win Houston Astros team that came within a win of a World Series title that season, and while he wasn’t part of the postseason push that year, he served as precisely the kind of bulk-competence during the regular season grind that got them there in the first place.
For the 2021 Reds, that’s something that’ll be in great need. Not only are there high-profile departures and zero proven arms being brought in to replace them, the jump from a 60 game regular season to a 162 game slate in 2021 is going to ask arms everywhere to ramp up in significant proportions to simply complete all the innings necessary. For a pitcher of Miley’s age, you could maybe even make the argument that his limited wear and tear during 2020 might actually work doubly in his advantage in that regard, as an effective season on the sidelines after over 1400 IP in his career might end up serving him well in a push for 160-175 IP this upcoming season.
Certainly not flashy, and still with enough warts to make a guarantee of 2021 cromulence far from a guarantee, Miley has slipped to the back-burner a bit this winter. Still, it’s easy to overlook that he still may be poised to provide the Reds with a big dose of exactly what their otherwise depleted pitching staff needs right now - a steady, predictable hand to offset what might end up a staff full of very high highs and very low lows given its inexperience.