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Twins 2015 outlook: Is Tommy Milone worthy of a rotation spot?

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series designed to take a glance at players who could play a part for the Twins in 2015. We’ll take a brief stock of where they’re at now and try to offer a little analysis. We’ll examine players one at a time as we lead up to Twins spring training.

Previous outlooks:

Kennys Vargas

Today: Tommy Milone

After a trade the sent outfielder Sam Fuld to the Oakland A’s, the guy the Twins got back underwhelmed in Minnesota.

Now we might know why.

Tommy Milone, who was something of a spare starter in Oakland after they acquired Jon Lester and Jeff Samardzija, had a benign tumor in his neck, according to reports. Milone had inflammation in September of last year, and according to several reports it wasn’t until after the season that it became known what was wrong. He said he had the tumor removed in early December and is on his regular offseason throwing program.

Milone, who turns 28 in February, has a nice track record that suggests he was better than he showed in his six appearances for the Twins. Still, there’s no denying he struggled after the trade.

In six games (five starts), Milone had a 7.06 ERA (5.90 FIP) with the Twins, including a 14:11 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He gave up four home runs in just 21 2/3 innings and had allowed more than 2.2 walks and hits for every inning pitched (2.215 WHIP). In short, he was ineffective at getting outs and preventing runs.

I had heard on several occasions that an injury was the primary culprit for Milone’s struggles with the Twins, and this latest revelations certainly would seem to explain the subpar performance.

He reportedly had the tumor removed in early December and has started his normal throwing program. He should be in competition for the starting rotation. (I currently have him projected to make the opening day 25-man roster, but it seems he’ll have to earn that spot considering how much competition there should be at the back of Minnesota’s rotation.)

In a case like this, I believe it makes more sense to focus on his career track record if we’re going to try to project his future performance. The injury that contributed to his poor showing is seemingly behind him.

 

Who is the real Tommy Milone?

Factoring in his time with the Twins, Milone’s 2014 numbers are not that pretty. In Oakland, though, he was the kind of pitcher that teams covet and it made me wonder why the A’s were so willing to part with the pitcher to get Fuld.

Sure, they had rotation depth after trades to acquire a pair of bona fide top-of-the-rotation starters, but we learn every year that teams crave pitching depth.

In 96 1/3 innings in Oakland’s starting rotation, Milone had a 3.55 ERA (4.42 FIP) and a 61:26 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Let’s look at his first two seasons with the A’s, 2012-13. In those two years, Milone earned a combined 346 1/3 innings and pitched to a 3.92 ERA, which was about league average over that time. He struck out about 3 1/2 times as many batters as he walked, with 263 strikeouts against 75 walks.

If you’re into a slightly deeper stats dive, follow me here: In 2013, Milone struck out 18.9 percent of the batters he faced, while walking 5.9 percent of batters. If you subtract that walk percentage from his strikeout percentage you’re left with a 13.0% strikeout-minus-walk percentage. Some believe that stat (K-BB%) is a better indicator than strikeout-to-walk ratio, because a ratio can be heavily skewed by a very low number in the denominator. (E.g.: Phil Hughes set the all-time Major League record for strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2014 because he more or less refused to walk batters, but few would argue that Hughes had the greatest pitching season in MLB history.)

That strikeout-minus-walk percentage had him in the top 25 among American League starters in 2013. Here’s the list of names that surrounds him:

Pitcher K-BB % A.L. Rank
James Shields 13.5 % 20
Chris Tillman 13.1 % 21
Doug Fister 13.1 % 22
Tommy Milone 13.0 % 23
Hiroki Kuroda 13.0 % 24
Jose Quintana 13.0 % 25
Ervin Santana 12.8 % 26
Jered Weaver 12.6 % 27
Phil Hughes 12.3 % 28

Source: Fangraphs.com

His best year was 2012. That season he also ranked 23rd among A.L. pitchers in strikeout-percentage-minus-walk-percentage (12.8 percent). His ERA that year (3.74) was also 23rd in the American League, sandwiched between Max Scherzer and Jose Quintana.

In 490 1/3 career innings, Milone has a 3.98 ERA and strikes out 6.48 batters per nine innings, compared with 2.13 walks per nine innings.

And before he was traded from the Nationals organization to the A’s organization (in the Gio Gonzalez trade), his final minor league season was awfully impressive.

In 148 1/3 innings for that Nationals’ Triple-A affiliate in 2011, Milone pitched a 3.22 ERA (2.28 FIP) and a 1.03 WHIP. He struck out 155 batters, compared with just 16 walks. That’s – you guessed it – an awfully impressive K-BB % of 23.6 percent. ┬áHis 2011 minor-league strikeout rate (9.4 per nine innings) and walk rate (0.97 per nine innings) jump off the page.

His Twins debut was ugly. There’s a larger body of work and longer track record, however, to suggest Tommy Milone is a good pitcher than there is evidence to the contrary.

Rotation?

Which pitchers fill out the rotation on Opening Day is, at this point, a guessing game. Injuries often play a factor and it’s hard to say how much the Twins will value spring training performance (which is by nature, a small sample size) compared with how much they’ll value previous performance.

Milone has the credentials to be in a Major League rotation, and if he has a good spring it’s not hard to see Minnesota taking him north as one of its five starters. On the other hand, if he has a bad spring, will he be bumped? Will someone else impress enough to force his way into the starting rotation? What do the Twins think of starting Alex Meyer? Trevor May? Mike Pelfrey?

All these questions currently have no answers and that’s part of the fun of spring training. It’s a big riddle and in January there are more questions than answers.

For now, I’ve ventured to guess that Milone, recovered from his surgery, will be in the rotation in the first week of April. I’m more than willing to admit that’s just a guess.





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Next Story Glen Perkins to receive cortisone injection Wednesday