After trading away Doug Fister and Michael Pineda within the last six months or so, the Mariners have opted to fill their rotation on the cheap this offseason. First they added Hisashi Iwakuma on a sweetheart one-year deal, and this weekend they brought in Kevin Millwood. It’s just a minor league contract, but Jon Heyman says he has a good chance to make the team thanks in part to his relationship with manager Eric Wedge and pitching coach Carl Willis, who had the right-hander with the Indians back in 2005.
Millwood, now 37, spent the first two-thirds of last season toiling away in Triple-A for both the Yankees and Red Sox before hooking on with the Rockies down the stretch. He made nine starts, pitched to a 3.98 ERA with a 4.30 FIP, and hit two homers in 23 plate appearances (.316 ISO!). That’s pretty neat. What isn’t neat is his fastball velocity, which has fallen from the low-90’s a few years ago into the danger zone of the mid-to-high-80’s…
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Despite having a reputation as a ground ball pitcher, Millwood has never really been much of one. I call it Jon Garland Syndrome, when a guy is dubbed a ground ball pitcher because he doesn’t strikeout anyone out and people fish for a reason to explain his success. Anyway, Millwood’s career ground ball rate (going back to when the data started being recorded in 2002) is just 42.4%, and he topped out at 46.4% with the Rangers in 2007. Over the last two seasons — 40 starts with the Orioles and Rockies that coincide with the velocity drop — it’s just a 38.3% ground ball rate. Unsurprisingly, his homer rate has been through the roof: 1.43 HR/9 and 4.8% in terms of homers per plate appearances with contact (league average was 3.4% in 2011). Ballpark has a little something to do with that.
Because he was never much of a strikeout guy — 6.96 K/9 and 18.1 K% career, 6.17 K/9 and 15.8 K% last two seasons — any fantasy value Millwood provides will come in the form of wins, ERA, and WHIP assuming the traditional 5×5 format. The Mariners aren’t expected to contend, so don’t plan on using the guy to pad your win total. His relatively low walk rates — 2.77 BB/9 and 7.2 BB% career, 2.68 BB/9 and 6.9 BB% last two years — aren’t enough to overcome his extreme hitability, which has resulted in more hits than innings pitched in each of the last two years and in five of the last six. He’s managed a sub-1.30 WHIP just once in the last six years, that was last season’s small sample showing with the Rockies.
All we’re left with is ERA at this point, and the Mariners figure to help Millwood out a bit in this department. First of all, Safeco Field* will be the first true pitcher’s park he’s called home since his days with the Braves (though Progressive Field in Cleveland is as neutral as it gets). ESPN’s Park Factors say that Safeco has held offense to roughly 85% of the league average in recent years while StatCorner says it’s more like 95%. Every little bit helps. The Mariners also have one of the game’s best defensive units, having turned 71.8% of batted balls into outs over the last two seasons compared to the 70.8% league average. Like I said, every little bit helps.
* Interestingly enough, Millwood’s career numbers at Safeco Field are awful. We’re talking 13 starts with a 5.17 ERA and ~4.55 FIP in 78.1 IP. All of those innings were thrown against the Mariners, and once upon a time they actually had a pretty good offense. Millwood’s numbers at his new home park are an interesting little factoid and nothing more, I fail to see how they can tell us anything meaningful.
It’s been a while since Millwood was fantasy relevant, and that doesn’t figure to change next season despite the pitcher friendly environment in Seattle. He might luck into a superficially low ERA, meaning 3.50 or so, but otherwise you can’t count on wins, strikeouts, or WHIP. In ottoneu leagues, he’s a $1 pitcher good for maybe 600 points if he makes it to the mound for 30 starts, which puts him in the Brian Duensing, Jeff Karstens, Chris Volstad category. There’s not much to see here, but knowing who to avoid is just as important as knowing who to draft.
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