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Despite a short debut, Wade Miley is an important addition to the Cubs' rotation

Ryan Herrera Avatar
May 11, 2022

The Cubs claimed Wade Miley off waivers six months ago after the Reds declined to pick up his $10 million club option for 2022.

Miley hasn’t necessarily been a high-profile arm since making his major league debut on Aug. 15, 2011. He’s only made one All-Star team (2012 with the Diamondbacks), he bounced around between seven other teams prior to joining the Cubs, and he’s only pitched in five total playoff games (four with the Brewers in ’18, one with the Astros in 2019).

So why, then, did the Cubs go out and claim him after a division rival decided he was too expensive to keep around?

Well, because their starting pitching was brutal in 2021. Just look at the rotation’s combined 2.6 fWAR (second-lowest in baseball, lowest in the National League), its 5.27 ERA (fourth-highest in the majors) or really any other team starting pitching statistic. Needless to say, FanGraphs’ leaderboards don’t have a ton of positive things to say about the Cubs’ 2021 rotation.

Though he was just days away from turning 35 years old when he was waved by Cincinnati, the Cubs saw in Miley a proven veteran arm who could help bring consistency to their inconsistent group.

“We picked him up in hopes of getting who he’s been,” manager David Ross told reporters at Wrigley Field on Saturday. “He’s a guy who knows how to compete. Been a part of winning. Been part of a lot of winning.

“Love the pace. Just knows how to navigate a lineup, knows how to go out and compete every five days. A veteran presence. Definitely a stabilizing force in the rotation.”

The starters haven’t been much better, if at all, to kick off the 2022 season. The Cubs’ combined starting fWAR (0.5) and ERA (4.90) again ranked near the bottom of the league heading into Tuesday, while plenty of other stats were nothing to write home about.

Not that any of that was of Miley’s own doing, specifically, because he hadn’t thrown a pitch for the Cubs after beginning the season on the injured list. In fact, as the Chicago Tribune’s Meghan Montemurro pointed out on Twitter, before Tuesday, he had faced live hitters just three times since he arrived at Cubs spring training in March.

Remember how slowly the team went about ramping him up once camp finally began? He was on a slower, veteran ramp-up schedule, one that saw him still not throwing much more than short bullpens a week-plus into spring training. It wasn’t much different than how he treated the time before spring started.

“With the whole lockout thing, it’s hard. Like, when do I ramp up?” Miley said on March 21. “I didn’t know, and I can’t ramp up, stop, and then ramp up again. Then I’m toast. So I played it pretty slow. I was keeping my shoulder, I was keeping everything right, so I could just start throwing.”

When he finally got further into that ramp-up, which included throwing live batting practice in Mesa, he started dealing with inflammation in his left elbow. That ultimately led to him being shut down from throwing, and in turn, put him on the 10-day IL to begin the year.

All that is to say, it’s been a much longer process than the Cubs would’ve liked to get one of the most proven arms on the roster onto the mound for a meaningful baseball game, but that process finally came to an end on Tuesday when Miley made his debut in San Diego.

Honestly, it was surprising to find out Ross told reporters in San Diego on Monday that Miley would start the next night. He only had one outing in his rehab assignment with Triple-A Iowa, and though that went about as well as he could’ve hoped — Miley threw 41 pitches over four scoreless innings, and he told reporters on Saturday that he even went out to the bullpen for another “up” — it wasn’t farfetched to think Miley needed one or two more rehab starts before he’d be activated off the IL.

Perhaps Miley was truly ready to go, or perhaps Marcus Stroman’s recent IL placement or Justin Steele’s left thumb issue forced the Cubs’ hand. Either way, Miley was out there on Tuesday, kicking off what Ross and Co. hope is a season in which he brings stability to a rotation that already looked unstable throughout the first month of the year.

One of the things that’s been talked about all season is the lack of length from Cubs starters. Yes, we knew pitchers weren’t going to be completely stretched out due to the shortened spring training after the 99-day lockout, so we didn’t think anyone would go out and throw seven-plus innings right out of the gate. But the Cubs have had even more trouble than expected getting starters to go deeper into games.

Even after Kyle Hendricks’ 8 2/3 inning gem on Monday, the Cubs still had just 10 starts of at least five innings in 28 games. As someone who’s gained a reputation as an innings-eater, that’s one area where Miley can certainly be a huge boon. Take his individual numbers from last season, for example:

  • In 2021, Miley started 28 games
  • In those 28 starts, Miley finished at least five innings 21 times
  • Of those 21, Miley finished at least six innings 16 times
  • Of those 16, Miley finished at least seven innings 10 times — including when he threw his first no-hitter on May 7

And really, that was just a continuation of who he’d been his entire career. Just take a look at his first 11 seasons in the big leagues, in which Miley started a combined 277 games. In those 277 starts, Miley:

  • Lasted at least five innings 222 times
  • Lasted at least six innings 158 times
  • Lasted at least seven innings 72 times

No, that didn’t show in his first outing in a Cubs uniform. In his team’s 5-4 loss to the Padres, Miley was tagged for three earned runs over just three innings. After making quick work of the initial two San Diego batters in both the first and the third, Miley couldn’t finish off either inning without damage and ended up needing 64 pitches just to get through three frames.

“I knew I was going to be a little limited on how deep I can get, pitch count-wise,” Miley, who walked five batters and gave up five hits, told reporters in San Diego. “I didn’t really know exactly the number going in, and if the innings weren’t so stressful, they probably would’ve let me go a little longer. But it was just, I would get two quick outs and just walk, walk, walk, walk. It’s tough to pitch like that.”

However, let’s again take into account that Tuesday was really only the fourth time he faced live hitters in 2022. There just haven’t been many opportunities for Miley to even simulate in-game situations, and if not for the current uncertainty surrounding the rotation — when discussing Miley’s outing with reporters in San Diego, Ross mentioned that the Cubs “were in desperate need of pitching” — Miley might’ve gotten a couple more rehab starts before taking the bump for the big league club.

Now that he’s getting going with the Cubs, though, Miley needs to continue doing what’s made him a reliable arm.

Last season, both his 49.4 ground ball percentage and his 78.5 percent contact rate were 10th-highest in MLB among qualified pitchers, while his 18.1 percent strikeout rate was sixth from the bottom (per FanGraphs). But despite opponents putting plenty of balls in play, his average exit velocity (85.7 mph) was in the 95th percentile and his hard hit percentage (34.2%) was in the 83rd percentile (per Statcast).

Miley is more often than not going to let batters hit the ball. However, his knack for limiting hard contact and keeping balls on the ground, in addition to Nico Hoerner’s impressive defense at shortstop (including him making highlight reel throws seemingly once a series), to Patrick Wisdom and Alfonso Rivas’ solid defensive play at the corners and to the eventual debut of four-time Gold Glove winning shortstop Andrelton Simmons, signals that Miley can be successful in 2022 with the same approach that’s made him successful in the past.

Tuesday might’ve been a bit too early for Miley to make his season debut, and it certainly wasn’t the outing he hoped to have, but the fact that the Cubs were confident enough to put him in that situations shows how much they’ll rely on his veteran presence this year.

“For what we needed and how badly we were in need of some starting pitching, for him to go out and give us a chance to win and continue to build on him getting back to full strength, I thought it was pretty good,” Ross told reporters Tuesday.

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