Out of nowhere, Tommy Milone has allowed three runs in his last 26⅓ innings pitched. Ever since his worst outing of the season — a Saturday afternoon stinker at Fenway Park in which he gave up six runs in four innings — Oakland's fifth starter has been nothing short of dominant, twirling his latest masterpiece on Monday afternoon at the Coliseum.
In that game, he came a Jed Lowrie error short of seven full innings of shutout ball against the Detroit Tigers' offense, one that, while struggling as of late, still features two of baseball's best hitters in Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera (who is likely the best).
Milone's resurgence is remarkable. Just three weeks ago, it's quite possible that timing and timing alone caused Dan Straily to be sent to Sacramento instead of Milone, allowing Drew Pomeranz to take over the role of fifth starter. At the time of the move (the afternoon of May 9), Milone was on turn to pitch later that day, while Straily had pitched two days prior. Despite that, Straily (at the time, 1-3, 4.93 ERA) had been slightly outperforming Milone (0-3, 5.86).
Milone must have seen Straily's demotion as a wake-up call, because ever since, he's been lights-out. In his first start thereafter, he threw eight shutout innings against the Nationals, giving up just two hits and three walks. He took the loss in his next start, against the White Sox, but still managed six innings of one-run ball. Next was a start against the Rays, who managed just two runs in 5⅔ innings from Milone, and that brings us to Monday's start against the Tigers.
In May, Milone's opponents have put up a meager slash line of .195/.266/.363. In terms of total bases, the time period was actually very comparable to April, but his ability to keep runners off base in the first place has improved in leaps and bounds, given his opponents' line of .263/.340/.368 in the season's first month.
Since giving up a grand slam to David Ortiz on May 3, Milone has given up just one home run. Believe it or not, that's consistent with his season as a whole. Ignore that fateful afternoon against the Red Sox, in which he gave up three, and Milone has given up just two home runs all year, one in his first start of the season to Seattle's Mike Zunino and the other to Chicago's Gordon Beckham, a leadoff shot on May 14.
On the season, Milone's HR/9 is down to 0.83, a drastic improvement from the figure of 1.44 he posted last year and still substantially better than his rookie season in 2012, in which he gave up 1.14. It's interesting — his numbers as a member of the Nationals organization were consistent and stellar in solid sample sizes between between 2009 and 2011, hovering around 0.55 with slightly over 150 innings pitched each season at different levels of minor league ball. But in Oakland, he quickly developed a reputation of being fairly home run-prone, one he's doing his best to shed this year.
So what changed between April and May? At first glance, nothing is happening differently mechanics-wise, as his release point hasn't changed, nor has his velocity.
But here's something: in May, Milone got to pitch at home. He started at the Coliseum just once in April, whereas tonight will be his fourth home start of the month, along with two outings on the road. The phenomenon of "Home Milone" as opposed to "Road Milone" is very much alive. His opponents' wOBA in road games? .349. In Oakland? .235.
On a more basic level, Milone is simply locating better. His strikeout rate has almost doubled, from 10.4% in April to 20.2% in May. He's fooling batters more consistently and generating substantially worse contact, as evidenced by a drop in BABIP from .289 to .214. He's also stranding runners at an unsustainable rate, having prevented 87.6% of base runners from scoring in May, as compared to 60.7% in April. He'll enjoy that one while it lasts. Fielding-independent measures, often not generous to A's pitchers, aren't impressed. Milone's May ERA of 2.67 translates to an FIP of 4.21.
Regardless, Milone will have the opportunity to continue the run tonight, against two potential game-changers with platoon advantages against him: Mike Trout and Albert Pujols. He has the benefit of the home field, home crowd, and a chilly East Bay evening doing its best to keep the ball in play, too. The bottom line: if Milone doesn't pitch well tonight, this article is going to look really stupid. If he does, well...wow. What a month for a guy who people wanted sent to Sacramento a few weeks ago.
A sellout is expected at the Coliseum tonight, and temperatures are expected to drop into the mid-50s by around 8pm. There's also a dual event (Sesame Street!) happening at Oracle Arena, so my two cents on how to not be miserable if you're going: bundle up, and take BART.