Eyeball Analyst: How Milone Converted Contact Into Outs

It's already quite evident that Tommy Milone is AN's latest polarizer, in the mold of such recent dividers as Jack Cust, Daric Barton, and Trevor Cahill. This post, however, is not about how good Milone is or how successful he will or won't be next week. It's about how he held the Royals to 3 hits over 8 shutout innings, while getting only two swinging strikes and not recording a single strikeout.

First, a few qualifiers to put last night's start into proper perspective. As I analyze why Milone was effective against the Royals, note that my observations come with this context:

- Milone cannot possibly sustain success missing bats once every 46 pitches, nor if he maintains a K/9 IP ratio anywhere near zero.

- Going forward, Milone will surely miss a lot more bats, and generate a lot more strikeouts, than last night's aberration suggests.

- The Royals hitters were facing Milone for the first time. In an unfamiliar matchup, pitchers have the advantage. It's likely that this identical performance, later in the season against Kansas City, would yield worse results. Milone picked a great time to trot out there with fewer weapons than usual.

- Luck was not a big factor last night, in that 3 of the only 4-5 balls hit hard were hit safely for doubles. Donaldson made a fine play on a tough hop, but that ball was not smoked, and 2 of the 3 line drives on the infield were soft liners resulting from hitters being jammed. Really the only "lucky" contact was a line drive speared by Daric Barton.

The reason strikeouts are essential is not that a low BABIP is always pure luck. Last night, Milone held the Royals to 3/21 batting (.143), along with 3 outs on the bases, because he induced a ton of soft contact. Strikeouts are also essential because they preclude bad luck. If Milone keeps allowing so many balls to be put in play, it's not just that he will need good luck it's that he will also need to avoid bad luck -- the bloops, choppers, dribblers, and perfectly placed bouncers and fly balls that can turn good pitches into bad results. However, last night Milone succeeded largely because he consistently induced weak contact, not because he relied on good luck.

Now onto why he was able to be successful with the "poorer stuff than his usual mediocre stuff" he brought to the party, at least as I saw it...

Milone is a great study for the notion of "controlling bat speed". Hitters always gear up first for the fastball, because if they don't they will be late on even an average fastball. The changeup, coming in looking like a fastball but often about 10 MPH slower, generates swings and misses from bats that go through the zone before the pitch does. However, there is an important in-between stage where a swing is between "solid contact" and "whiff" and Milone consistently found that space last night.

What's Happening

Milone is adept at generating swings that are a hair early or late (usually early). Note that this does not cause batters to swing and miss, like they would if they were earlier or later. What it does cause, when a batter is a hair out in front, is two important things.

One is that the batter, adjusting at the last moment to being out in front, has to slow the bat a bit as he completes the swing so as to allow the bat to catch up. This generates weaker contact. The other is that by hitting the ball at a different point in the swing than intended, the batter's intended line drive (level) swing gets off just enough to cause the ball to leave the bat at more of an angle at the point of contact. This produces more lazy fly balls (think of a fungo hitter in batting practice who does this on purpose) and choppers. Note that it may not be the body that is off-balance; it may be the bat, or specifically the swing (where the bat is when it hits the ball).

Why It's Happening

You've heard of a fastball, a cutter, a curve, and changeup. There is no such pitch that is called a "fade". Milone throws a lot of pitches that appear to fade as they approach home plate, as if the final 10 feet are more laborious for the baseball than the first 50 were. My hypothesis, however, is not that Milone has perfected a pitch we've never heard of, nor one that defies physics and travels on its own preferred velocity-trajectory.

What's really going on, I imagine, is that Milone is "adding and subtracting" on his fastball very effectively, rather than sitting at a common velocity. I recall him throwing his fastball occasionally at 87MPH or 88MPH, but also often anywhere from 83MPH-86MPH.

A check of FanGraphs confirms this, in that FanGraphs lists him throwing 3 fastballs ("fastball," "2-seam fastball," and "cutter") and lists the average velocities as 85.8 MPH, 86.4 MPH, and 84.1 MPH respectively. Remember that the 2-seam fastball has sinking action and the cutter comes in on RH hitters, so right out of the chute you're looking at three different velocities and three different types of movement.

Now add to that variety a little "extra or less" finger pressure that adds or subtracts a MPH or two and you have the equivalent of the following arsenal:

Fastball: 86 MPH...Or 87 MPH...Or 84 MPH
Sinker (2-seamer): 86 MPH...Or 88 MPH...Or 84 MPH
Cutter: 84 MPH...Or 85 MPH...Or 83 MPH...

Now add the changeup (80 MPH), mix in an occasional curve (74 MPH), and you have a repertoire that even if it doesn't miss bats will keep batters consistently off balance -- not enough to generate swings and misses but just a hair early or late as they adjust their swing at the last moment to make contact.

To my eyes, the Royals hitters repeatedly had to adjust their swing right as they were about to hit the ball, resulting in swings that were weaker and less level at the point of contact, producing weak or non-level swings that were partly due to their unfamiliarity with Milone and partly due to Milone's precocious ability to control bat speed.

Long term, Milone will need to add "missing bats" and "balls not put in play" to his body of work in order to be successful. But for a 25 year old rookie to be able to go out without his best stuff, or even his best signature command, and still toss a 3 hit shutout for 8 IPs by controlling bat speed so expertly? You have to be encouraged by that. Or at least appreciate it for one start.

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