As a 25-year old rookie in 2012, Wade Miley went 16-11 with a 3.33 ERA in 29 starts for the Diamondbacks. Considering the hitter-friendly confines of Arizona’s Chase Field, that was worth a 122 ERA+ (meaning that Miley’s ERA was 22% better than the league average). It’s true that Miley has regressed in the past few years, as he’s coming off a season in which he posted a 4.34 ERA for a last-place Diamondbacks team, but Miley’s success in his rookie season indicates that he has some ace potential that could come into play for the Red Sox this season.
Miley hasn’t joined the Red Sox with huge expectations after his down year, with most feeling like he’ll be an unspectacular mid-rotation starter at most. However, there are a number of reasons why Miley was unable to find success in Arizona last season and an erosion of skills was not one of them.
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The first and most obvious of those reasons was Arizona’s infield situation. Miley has induced ground balls at a well above-average rate throughout his career, posting a 51.1% rate in 2014, which didn’t mix well with the infield defense of the Diamondbacks, which was mediocre at best last season. That led to a spike in BABIP, from a career mark of .303 all the way up to .317 as a number of former groundouts trickled into the outfield for Miley.
That problem will be corrected in Boston, as the Red Sox sport above-average defenders at first base (Mike Napoli), second base (Dustin Pedroia), and third base (Pablo Sandoval) with Xander Bogaerts not too far behind at shortstop. As long as the Red Sox’ starting infield stays healthy and productive, they should be one of the better groups in baseball, which will help Miley as much as anyone.
In addition to the Diamondbacks’ infield problem, Miley also slightly changed his pitching style a year ago. Miley began to throw his slider significantly more than he had done in the past, throwing it 25.8% of the time last year versus 18.2% in his career. This led to increases in both strikeouts (8.2 K/9 last year, 7.0 in his career) and walks (3.6 BB/9 last year, 2.8 in his career).
With one more year of experience under his belt, plus an unreal defensive catcher in Christian Vazquez, Miley might better be able to harness his command of that slider. If he is able to continue inducing ground balls at an elite rate, Miley could become one of those rare pitchers that can get ground balls and strikeouts at well above-average rates, a very valuable combination.
Of course, the most likely scenario is that Miley will slot in as Boston’s number three starter and remain in that role. Being a workhorse sinker-baller (he has thrown at least 194.2 innings in each of the last three years), Miley doesn’t need to be an ace to be effective. His ERA should naturally rebound with the superior defense and the presence of Vazquez behind the plate. However, Miley could also be in line for a breakout year if all breaks right and, while unlikely, that’s not something we should totally count out.