Next on our list is No. 57 Tommy Milone, who was traded to the Twins on July 31 for Sam Fuld. Let's take one last look at the lefty.
Name: Tommy Milone, aka Vampire
Position: LHP, starting
Stats: 16 starts, 3.55 ERA, 96⅓ innings, 61 Ks, 26 BB, 96 hits, 12 HR
WAR: 0.8 bWAR, 0.6 fWAR
How he got here: Acquired from Washington Nationals prior to 2012
2014 Salary: $510,000
2015 Status: Under contract with Minnesota Twins, 1st-year arbitration
2015 Salary: $2.775 million
Milone entered 2014 as part of the Oakland A's starting pitching depth, but he was pressed into duty when Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin went down in the spring. He started out a bit slow, with a 5.86 ERA through his first five starts, but he managed to keep his spot in the rotation due to Dan Straily's inability to keep the ball in the park. It was a good thing he did, too, because something clicked in early May and Tommy took off.
In his next 11 starts, from May 9 to July 4, Milone posted a 2.62 ERA and averaged over six innings per game. He struck out three batters for every walk during that stretch, and kept the hits and homers at reasonable levels. By all indications, this was the best he had ever pitched in his MLB career. It was everything that his biggest fans had ever hoped to see from him -- efficient outings, lots of contact, not many walks, and not many runs.
But then, on July 4, the A's traded for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel from the Cubs, and suddenly someone needed to get the boot to make room. Sonny and Kazmir were safe, and Jesse Chavez had still pitched better overall. That meant that Milone was the odd man out, and he reluctantly scooted back up the road to Sacramento. His reward for his greatest professional success was a demotion.
It got even worse. There were reports that Milone, unhappy with his treatment, uncharacteristically voiced that displeasure by requesting a trade. On July 31, the A's acquired Jon Lester, and in the aftermath they found themselves thin in center field. So, Milone was used as a trade chip to re-acquire Sam Fuld. And just like that, the Oakland portion of his rollercoaster season was finished.
The decisions made around Milone last year stirred a lot of debate on Athletics Nation. Trading him for Fuld was a questionable use of a cost-controlled pitching asset, but I'm comfortable writing that one off for now. The A's needed a center fielder and I don't blame Billy Beane for not trusting Coco Crisp and Craig Gentry to stay healthy; heck, Gentry did end up getting knocked out halfway through September and Coco didn't make it through the whole Wild Card game, so it's tough to argue that Beane was wrong to find a reinforcement. There wasn't anything available from within unless you believe that Billy Burns was ready to start everyday (he wasn't), and Fuld had enjoyed a career-best hot streak during the summer just like Milone had. The acquisition made sense, the cost was reasonable, and it was just too bad that it had to be Milone, whom I always personally liked. But I'm not going to second-guess the trade today.
The decision we're going to look at is the one to demote him in early July. As previously mentioned, he was pitching as well as he ever had in the Majors -- specifically, that was his best and most consistent sustained stretch of at least a couple months. In those 11 starts, he racked up that 2.62 ERA and allowed more than three runs only once. The closest hot streak I could find came at the end of the 2012 season, when he posted a 2.82 in his final eight outings with just one game over three runs. He didn't do anything remotely close in 2013. The first conclusion we can eliminate is streakiness -- he didn't have a history of pitching this well for stretches and then fading away again, because he'd never performed this well for this long and the only time he came close the season ended.
So, are there any possible reasons for his sudden resurgence? The first place I always look when a pitcher starts acting differently than normal is his pitch selection, and Milone did indeed appear to switch things up. According to Brooks Baseball, Milone started throwing a sinker that he'd essentially never used before, and he threw it over 20% of the time. The new offering came at the expense of his four-seamer and his cutter, both of which he threw less often, so this was more or less a matter of switching up the grip on his fastball. His ground ball rate did go up, though only slightly, and he induced more contact than normal despite hitting the zone less frequently than ever before. Perhaps he started focusing on getting hitters to chase down in the zone rather than trying to sneak four-seamers past them on the corners. Or perhaps all of the marginal changes were statistical small-sample flukes, and nothing much was different. It's more or less impossible to say right now.
What we can say for sure is that the hot streak didn't continue, regardless of what uniform Milone was wearing. He made four starts for Triple-A Sacramento leading up to the trade and was bad in three of them, earning a 6.43 ERA. He won his only start for Triple-A Rochester after the deal, but then he was brutal for the Twins upon his call-up to Minnesota. He made five starts and finished six innings only once (and five innings only twice), then lost his rotation spot and just made one mop-up relief outing the rest of the way. He racked up a 7.06 ERA in 21⅔ frames overall, with 14 Ks, 11 walks, and four homers allowed. "Good Milone" had vanished as quickly as he'd arrived.
So, where had he come from in the first place? Did he finally find his true-talent groove before having his confidence crushed and his season derailed by his July demotion? Was he just on the hot streak of his life and Billy Beane simply acted a week too early instead of a week too late? Was he getting ready to settle into a middle ground of No. 4 starter solidness that would have obviated the need for, say, Hammel? These are the questions that we are left with after Milone's 2014 season. We'll get some answers when we see what he does this year, but, in that Butterfly Effect sort of way, we'll never truly know what could have been if he'd been allowed to keep burying his change-ups and sinkers for three more months in Oakland last summer.
2014 season grade, relative to expectations: B ... Milone posted a 105 ERA+ for half a season, and anytime you're getting above-average production from your No. 5 guy you should be excited. Maybe it will prove to be a sustainable improvement, and maybe it won't, but it definitely happened and therefore Milone exceeded expectations. He could have earned an A if he hadn't started slow in April and had instead pitched for the whole season like he did when he was hot.
2014 season grade, overall: C+ ... Overall in Oakland, he pitched like an average starter with solid peripherals. That's a decent No. 4 guy if you can count on him to keep doing it.
On May 9, Milone threw the fourth-best start of the A's entire season (according to Game Score). Facing his old team, the Nationals, he struck out seven over eight scoreless innings while allowing only two hits.
LOOK OUT, TOMMY!
I think I speak for everyone at Athletics Nation when I wish Tommy the best of luck in Minnesota. He was a favorite for some of us and an absolute professional. Just make sure you beat the freaking Angels, dude. For all of us.