Walks are just the worst. There are few things more frustrating than seeing your team's pitcher give the opponent a free baserunner. Getting a papercut on your tongue. That is one thing worse than walks. There are a couple others. But walks are really high on the list of annoying things.
My dislike for free passes is the main reason why I have been excited about Tommy Milone since the second that Oakland acquired him for walk-prone star Gio Gonzalez. As a 24-year-old in AAA in 2011, Milone issued only 16 walks in 148 innings, and his 9.69 K/BB ratio had me dreaming of a poor man's Cliff Lee. As a rookie in 2012, Milone walked only 4.6% of the batters he faced. That mark was good for 6th in the entire Majors among qualified starting pitchers. If you can't overpower hitters, then you can at least keep them off the bases as much as possible so that the big hits won't hurt too much when they inevitably come.
Unfortunately, Milone has not built on that success this year. His BB% has moved up to 5.7%, a 24% increase from 2012. He ranks 26th in the Majors in that stat among 98 qualified starting pitchers. That's still good, but he needs to be great in that department in order to be even a league-average pitcher. It's the basis of his entire game plan on the mound.
However, it's not just that elevated walk rate that has me worried. In 31 starts last year, Milone had four games in which he issued at least three free passes - two games with 3, and two games with 4. In 16 starts this year, Milone already has six such games - five games with 3, and one game with 4. Last year, those four wild starts were each separated by at least a month; this year, three of those six games came in a four-start span, and two more came in his last three starts. It was easy to brush off last year's bad starts as fluke performances. This year, they are bunching together into elongated slumps. What the heck is wrong?
Let's start in the usual places. Milone's velocity is pretty much the same as last year, with his fastball dropping by about a half-MPH. He's throwing the same four pitches, but has eased off of his cutter a bit - but then again, the cutter wasn't a great pitch for him last year. He may have just scrapped it to spend more time with his change-up, or some of the cutters may just be mis-labeled as fastballs. I don't see much cause for concern physically.
Milone is hitting the zone slightly more than he did last year according to Baseball Info Solutions, so he hasn't completely lost his control. He's getting slightly fewer first-pitch strikes, but he's still 6th in the Majors in that department so it's not as if he's reverted from Tommy Strikeone to Tommy Ballone. He's also going to 3-0 and 3-1 counts about as often (or as seldom) as he did last year, so he's not falling behind hitters at an increased rate - besides, he's actually working more 0-2 and 1-2 counts than he did last year, which helps explain his slight increase in strikeouts. Batters are swinging at fewer of his pitches than last year, but it's mostly been at his pitches within the zone, so it's not simply a matter of opponents recognizing his breaking pitches and laying off of them; in fact, he's getting more swinging strikes than he did last year.
The only real blip that I can find is that more of Milone's 2-2 counts are turning into 3-2 counts, and more of those 3-2 counts are ending in walks. Do hitters know that his change-up is coming on a 2-2 pitch and lay off of it in only that situation? Is the change-up not good enough of an "out pitch" on its own for him to consistently put away batters on 2-2 and 3-2 counts? He's certainly not giving in on those counts - although he's allowing slightly more homers than last year, they mostly come earlier in the count. If anything, he's giving in to hitters less often in these deep counts, having allowed only one homer on a 3-2 count and none on 2-2 pitches (as opposed to last year, when he gave up three on 3-2 pitches and five more on 2-2 pitches).
Maybe that's the problem. With the effectiveness of Milone's change-up plummeting from last year (0.62 runs better than average per 100 change-ups, down from 1.71 last year), and an apparent loss in confidence with his cutter, Milone seems to lack the go-to out pitch that he had last year. The result is that he's nibbling on 3-2 counts instead of either aggressively going after hitters in the zone or getting them to chase on quality offspeed offerings. That brings us to the million dollar question: Is this just a small-sample, young-developing-pitcher fluke, or was he a bit over his head last year? Has the league figured him out, and if so, will he be able to make the necessary adjustments?
Milone was a slightly above-average pitcher last year. He is a slightly below-average pitcher this year, and his extra walks have played a role in that. Can he settle down and return to the level that he displayed last year? If so, he will continue to be a fantastic mid-rotation starter. If not, then he may soon find himself 5th or 6th in line to start games for the A's.
Milone's next start will come on Sunday against the Cardinals, who are 2nd in the Majors in scoring. So, uh...good luck with that, Tommy.