Carson Smith and Roenis Elias Swapped for Wade Miley and Jonathan Aro
In my post about Hisashi Iwakuma’s departure in free agency, I said that some would say that the move (or non-move, rather) can only be seen in context, and to properly judge it, we’d need to see Jerry Dipoto’s Plan B. As I was pressing ‘post’ on that one, Dipoto was unveiling that plan B by finalizing a trade with Boston, headlined by lefty starter Wade Miley. So there you go, context-hounds. We now have more information, and can say that it’s not just Iwakuma for payroll flexibility and a comp. pick. It’s Hisashi Iwakuma, Carson Smith and Roenis Elias for Wade Miley, Jonathan Aro and a comp. pick. There, doesn’t that…no? That doesn’t make you feel any better?
To be fair: Dipoto doesn’t consider this plan B. Take it away, Jerry:
Dipoto on Miley: "It was Plan 1-A. When Kuma opted to head for the Dodgers, this was the preferred route."
— Bob Dutton (@TNT_Mariners) December 7, 2015
It’s not Plan B, it’s Plan 1-A once Iwakuma left. “That’s just re-defining what ‘Plan B’ means!” you shout, correctly. So it is, but it’s nice to hear some confidence about exactly how the M’s wanted to respond: “This was the preferred route.” So who is Wade Miley, and why is this route so attractive? Miley’s a left-handed starter who’s been remarkably durable, tossing at least 193 IP in each of the last four years. He throws a fastball in the 91-92mph range, has a change-up and then a slider and curve. Coming up, he leaned more on the curve, but has increasingly shifted to the slider as his primary breaking ball. As you’d expect, he faces quite a few right-handers, so he’s thrown the change-up more than either of his breakers in recent years.
In an ironic inversion of Iwakuma’s FIP-mastery, Miley’s “undervalued” in part because of his *inability* to pitch to his FIP. After sticking close to his FIP in 2012 and 2013, Miley’s ERA was significantly worse in 2014 and, especially, 2015. In part, that’s BABIP related, as he’s allowed BABIPs north of .300 in both years, and his career mark is now above league average. His K rate is below average as well, at around 17-18%. He managed to get it as high as 21% in his final year with the Diamondbacks, but it fell, as you’d expect, with the move to the American League. He’s below average by o-Swing (swings at pitches out of the zone), and thus his contact rate’s a bit worse than average as well. Thanks mostly to his change and slider, Miley gets his fair share of ground balls, which helps him keep the ball in the park – he gave up only 17 HRs last year despite being a lefty in Boston.
Still, there’s a reason he’s a “buy-low” candidate. He had a 4.80 ERA in the first half last year, and his seasonal mark was 4.46. Given the park, that’s not awful, but it’s still 6% above league average, slightly better than the 14% below average mark he turned in for Arizona in 2014. In his “good” second half with Boston, his BABIP stayed about where it was, despite the Sox giving Hanley Ramirez less time in LF. His K:BB ratio got better, but he still gave up plenty of runs. And that brings us to another reason he isn’t Iwakuma: with men on, Miley’s pitched worse. For his career, batters are putting up a .310 wOBA with no one on, and .336 with men on base. In 2015, those figures are .310 and .340, respectively. Again, for reference, in Iwakuma’s career, batters hit .292 with the bases empty and .278 with men on. No..it’s just…something in my eye. :sniff:
It’s easy, and, considering the context of the past 12-24 hours, tempting to overemphasize Miley’s weaknesses. He put up 4.1 fWAR in 2012 for Arizona. He’s 29 this season, and he’s signed to an extremely team-friendly deal that’ll pay him just shy of $15m for 2016 and 2017 combined. The M’s also get his $12m team option for 2018. That’s great for a guy projected for just under league average for 2016, and if you squint, there’s some room for optimism there given his new park and the defense behind him. His history of underperforming his FIP is less conclusive than Iwakuma’s history of OUTperforming it, so maybe DIPS will help us out. Given the contract, it’s harder to even call this a buy-low situation – it’s more like taking advantage of loss-aversion, where Boston’s sense of Miley’s value may be influenced by a bad year, while Seattle is looking at the larger picture of expected contribution versus guaranteed outlay.
The problem is not that I think Miley’s bad. I saw him in AAA in what had been a disappointing year for him (this was 2011) and thought he’d be good. The durability is a clear plus, and it’s the one area where he’s head and shoulders above Iwakuma. The problem here is what it cost the M’s. The M’s sent lefty Roenis Elias east, and while many on Twitter believe Elias is straight-up better than Miley, I’m not among them. I would note that there are “team friendly contracts” and then there are pre-arb contracts like Elias’ that pay around the league minimum. That’s gotta be attractive to the team that just committed hundreds of millions to David Price.
And then there’s the fact that Elias – whose production is just slightly behind Miley’s on a rate basis in their Steamer projections – isn’t even the centerpiece of the deal for Boston. That’s not my read of it, that’s Dipoto’s. The M’s didn’t just send a cost-controlled starter, they sent their cost-controlled bullpen ace, Carson Smith. As an early Smith fan and president-for-life of the Carson Smith fanclub, I want to acknowledge that I may be biased here. I know the M’s got a righty bullpen arm in return, and that Jonathan Aro has pleasant minor league K rates and the like. But a bullpen isn’t – or shouldn’t – be an assemblage of K rates. A great bullpen should have a balanced set of skills, so that there’s an arm that can excel in any number of situations. Carson Smith is an elite – unquestionably elite – arm against right-handers, and he’s elite if the situation calls for a ground ball. The M’s bullpen clearly don’t have anyone as good against righties at the moment, and there’s no one in the same zip code as Smith if you’re up 1 in the 8th with the bases loaded and 1 out.*
I understand completely that Smith bombed out as closer, and that his results went south right when his velocity dipped in July. But the idea that Smith is or will be damaged goods isn’t air-tight. First, by Fangraphs’ velocity numbers, Smith’s velo drop looks especially dire. In July, Fangraphs had Smith’s FB velo down about 2 MPH from his April through June average. This coincided with some awful appearances, so it was definitely a concern. Still, there are two problems. First, Smith started throwing a change-up more in the second half to attempt to deal with the increasing numbers of lefties he was facing. MLBAM didn’t know he was throwing a change, and by movement, you can see why: it just wasn’t that different from his sinker. As a result, Fangraphs shows him throwing a lot more “sinkers” and a lot fewer “change-ups” than Brooks Baseball, and the reason is MLBAM miscoded a couple dozen cambios. Second, by Brooks, his velo mostly bounced back in September. I don’t want to oversell this: Smith had a velo drop in July, and his velo was inconsistent from game to game thereafter. But the idea that Smith’s velo just tanked in the second half is wrong.
So, can Jonathan Aro be another Carson Smith? No, just..no. I know we’re supposed to say that there are no stupid questions, but that…that is not a good question. Aro throws from a somewhat similar low 3/4 arm slot, though it’s not quite as sidearm. Instead of Smith’s sinking, buckets-of-armside-run fastball, Aro uses a four-seamer that gets above-average *vertical* movement. He’s got a change, but his outpitch was supposed to be a slider. He only threw 22 of them in the bigs, so we can’t say much, but this pitch generated zero whiffs and had 5+” of vertical movement. The different arm action makes a straight comparison pointless, but Smith’s slider dives well below 0 in vertical movement, and it’s a big reason why he runs GB% in the 65% range. Aro’s GB% – in 10 innings, of course – was 16.2%. Even in the minors, Aro is an extreme fly-ball pitcher. You can see what Dipoto’s thinking, given the ballpark and the OF defense he’s assembling, and you may think fly-balls-in-Safeco is the new market inefficiency, but they didn’t get a Carson Smith replacement, they got the opposite of Carson Smith.
Okay, we know who Aro *isn’t* and *won’t* be, but who does he remind you of? Vertical movement of 5″ on a slider is actually pretty rare, so we can narrow things down quickly. There’s one pitcher who throws a fastball with very similar movement and a slider that’s almost a dead ringer to Aro’s. Meet Athletics bullpen stalwart Evan Scribner. Scribner does some things very well: Scribner’s K-BB% is elite – fractionally ahead of Carson Smith’s – not only because he strikes out more than a batter per inning, but because he never, ever walks anyone. Seriously, Scribner goes months between walks, and has 4 BBs in the last 72 IP covering two seasons. Aro didn’t have THAT kind of control in the minors, but his BB rates were very low in AAA and in low-A. The problem Scribner has, and one that Aro shows signs of as well, is the long ball. Scribner gave up more HRs than any reliever in baseball last year, and while Aro didn’t show any HR-issues in the minors, he did in his cup of coffee. Aro and Scribner trade whiffs for fly balls by throwing up in the zone and having a slider that’s easier to elevate. You can do some great things with that, but HRs will be a perennial worry. Scribner’s essentially replacement level DESPITE an utterly bonkers K:BB ratio because of this. Jonathan Aro is not doomed to repeat Scribner’s mistakes, but he’ll have to figure something out.
The M’s seemed to give up an awful lot when you consider the pre-arb contracts Smith and Elias were on. Miley has the most experience and is better than he showed for Boston last year, but this deal stings. Dipoto told Bob Dutton that he preferred Miley to grabbing a free agent pitcher and sacrificing their first-round pick, but the past 24 hours makes you think more and more that Dipoto didn’t really HAVE that option. A few posts back, I mentioned that the M’s needed to fill out their roster and make a push given their average age. Dipoto’s first few moves were for mid-career guys, not youngsters, and dealing Smith/Elias pushes them more and more in that direction. Given the amount committed to Felix, Seager, Cano and Cruz, though, that was going to be tough. Either the M’s would need to open their pocketbook a bit more, or the M’s would need to trade to fill in their missing pieces. Letting Iwakuma walk because you couldn’t extend him a third year and then giving up a solid return for Miley suggests that the M’s simply didn’t have enough to sign mid-tier guys, and the flurry of trades kind of corroborates that. I don’t know the constraints Dipoto is operating under, so it feels uncharitable to castigate the man about this deal, but it’s been a bad day to be an M’s fan.
* The M’s apparently extended a NRI invite to Donn Roach, so there’s your extreme ground ball guy. I’ve liked Roach for years, and it’s a good move, but Roach is no Carson Smith.