Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images
Browsing the Baseball Refence pitching WAR leaders will find some familiar names on top along some guys having career years: Robbie Ray, Zach Wheeler, Gerrit Cole, Walker Buehler, Gerrit Cole, Corbin Burnes, Max Scherzer, Brandon Woodruff, etc. One name that sticks out at #3 in the league (as of 9/11): Wade Miley? Not exactly known for his dominance, Miley has quietly turned himself into one of the most valuable pitchers in all of MLB in 2021. After never posting a season above 3.1 rWAR, he is all the way up to 6.2 with a little under a month left in the season. The big question: how has he done it?
Looking at surface level data, not much has changed from his career norms. Among seasons he has thrown more than 100 innings, this season contains personal bests in all three slash line metrics, with hitters having a .250/.307/.382 line against Miley on the year as opposed to his career average of .265/.328/.415. While his BABIP is just .292, the league BABIP is .289, so this combined with the fact that the rest of his batted ball data is in line with career norms likely doesn’t explain away this season as just luck.
As one would expect, the key to his terrific season has been his command. Of all qualified pitchers, Miley is 2nd in the league in Edge% (the percentage of pitches he throws that are just on or off the edge of the zone, i.e. the hardest pitches to hit in the big leagues) at 46.8%. When you’re throwing the ball like that nearly half the time, it’s incredibly hard for hitters to square you up, as evidenced by the fact he’s tied for 8th in the league in Barrel% at just 6.1%.
Miley is essentially a two-pitch guy, throwing his cutter and changeup over 73% of the time, and this is where the changes become noticeable. For example, look here at the subtle differences in his heatmaps on his cutter from 2019 (left)-2021 (right):
As you can see, Miley did a good job pounding the cutter inside to righties in 2019, but he often either ran it too far inside (a ball) or left it leaking over the heart of the plate. In 2021, he is much more consistent with the placement, essentially telling hitters “I’m throwing this ball middle in, turn on it if you can,” and they often haven’t done it with any authority. Visual example of a good Miley cutter from 2021:
Example of a bad Miley cutter that he left leaking over the middle of the plate in 2019:
Using the same process for his second most thrown pitch, the changeup, we can see the location progression from 2019 (left) through 2021 (right):
Again in 2019 Miley had the right idea, but left too many towards the middle of the plate, right in the hitters barrel path. This is what it looks like when a changeup stays towards the middle of the zone:
Fast forward to 2021 and you see what is the most beautiful patch of red that you’ll ever see in a pitch heatmap. For all you young pitchers out there: this is where you want this pitch to end up. Down and in to righties and down and away from lefties. Absolutely dotting the edge of the zone with this pitch gives a hitter almost no chance:
Regardless of how you feel about the sustainability of his 2021 performance (he's probably not this good), there is no denying how big of an impact Miley has had on the Reds surge towards the postseason. Should they qualify he will be throwing very important innings for them, and the Reds would have to like their chances in those games.