A look at free agent Kevin Millwood

As the Mets continue their search for a bargain-basement pitcher, one name being mentioned in the mainstream media is Kevin Millwood. This is a terrible idea. Yes, I know, I usually present the strengths and weaknesses first and give the reader the information to make up his mind first before I give my opinion. But while reasonable people can disagree on many things, this is not one of them. Signing Millwood is not something a team with designs on winning games should do.

Strengths

Millwood is very durable. He’s made 30 or more starts in five of the last six years and the one season he failed to reach that plateau, he made 29 starts. The veteran righty has solid control. Lifetime he has a 2.80 BB/9 and last year he posted a 3.07 mark in the category. Also, Millwood saw his strikeout rate go back up last year. He had a 6.23 K/9, which followed up 2009’s 5.57 career-low mark.

Weaknesses

Where to start? Let’s begin with his age, as Millwood turns 36 in December. In four of the last five years, his ERA has been above 4.50, with three of those years (including 2010) being above 5. The one year he was below 4.50 was clearly a fluke, as he had a 4.80 FIP and a 4.78 xFIP. That season he had a 78.6 LOB%, one of the best marks in the game. Lifetime, Millwood has a 71.4 LOB%. The three previous seasons before his fluke year, his numbers were: 68.5, 67.7 and 67.6.

Millwood has a lifetime 6.97 K/9, which is a good rate. But he’s been below that mark the last six years. The guy who struck out over eight batters per full game when he broke in with the Braves is gone and he’s not coming back.

His fastball velocity has dropped in five consecutive seasons, down to 89.0 last year. In the first season in which we have the data (2002), his fastball was 25 runs above average. Last year it was a negative offering at -1.7 runs. His changeup (-1.6) was equally bad. And those were his two best pitches. His curve ball was twice as bad (-3.4) while his slider, a pitch he threw 21.6 percent of the time, checked in with a -13.4 run value.

Earlier, it was noted that Millwood has solid control. But the flip side of that is when he does throw it in the strike zone, batters hit the ball pretty good. Hitters made contact 91.4 percent of the time Millwood threw a pitch in the strike zone. He gave up a career-high 30 HR last year and hitters had a .322 BABIP. While most pitchers have a BABIP around .300, Millwood has had a mark of .313 or above in five of the past seven seasons.

Millwood used to be able to get batters to swing and miss, as you might recall from his days with the Braves or be able to deduce from his once-high K/9 rates. But his percentage of swinging strikes has declined seven straight years, to a 5.9 percent rate in 2010. That would be the worst mark among the pitchers who threw at least 50 IP for the Mets last year.

Outlook

At one time, Millwood was an elite pitcher. Then he was a reliable mid-rotations starter. But now he throws meatballs up there. Yes, he won 13 games and had a 3.67 ERA in his fluke 2009 season. But look at the other years that surround that season.

2007: 10-14, 5.16 ERA
2008: 9-10, 5.07 ERA
2010: 4-16, 5.10 ERA

That’s the Millwood that teams will be getting in 2011, assuming he doesn’t suffer any age-related decline. If you go to Baseball-Reference and look at his age-based comps, you see many big-named pitchers, like Doug Drabek, Kevin Appier and Frank Viola. But if you check what those guys did at age 36, it was not pretty. For every Dennis Martinez, who had a fine season at 36, you’ll find a Bill Gullickson or Rick Rhoden to make you go, ewww.

Millwood had a fine career, one that most pitchers would trade for in a heartbeat. But that career is just about over. Forget the pitcher he was in Atlanta or Philadelphia. Instead, remember the guy the Mets faced in 2010. In his start against New York, Millwood posted the following line:

5.1 IP, 11 H, 8 ER, 1 BB, 4 Ks, 3 HR

That was Millwood’s season in a nutshell. Why anyone who watched that start, or more seriously who watched him pitch the last five years, would want to add him to the staff is beyond me. While Millwood fits the bill of a veteran pitcher willing to sign a cheap contract, let’s hope Sandy Alderson doesn’t even offer him an NRI.

Not all SP trade targets are upgrades

Let’s pretend you are the GM of the New York Mets, your team is on the fringe of playoff contention, your job is on the line and you have decided to acquire a pitcher to help the team get to the post-season and save your hide. You have identified three pitchers who can be had in a trade. Here’s a look at the three contenders.

Player A is the oldest of the bunch, currently in his age 35 season. He is a two-time 18-game winner but is currently 0-6. He is on the last year of a multi-year deal that pays him $12 million this season.

Player B is in his age 28 season. He is noted for having a live arm but has yet to put it all together, although he did have 12 wins the previous year. He is making just over the minimum wage and will be arbitration-eligible next season.

Player C is in his age 29 season. Unlike the other two players, this one has spent all of his career in the National League. A former number-one pick, he has been considered a disappointment, but has also spent his entire career on losing teams. He is a free agent after the season.

Here are their ERA and FIP numbers for the past five seasons, with the most-recent season last:

Player A
ERA – 4.52, 5.16, 5.07, 3.67, 4.29
FIP – 3.87, 4.55, 4.02, 4.80, 4.71

Player B
ERA – XXX, 3.16, 5.53, 4.21, 4.43
FIP – XXX, 3.54, 5.29, 5.09, 5.29

Player C
ERA – 4.07, 3.85, 4.70, 4.97, 4.22
FIP – 4.14, 4.20, 4.77, 4.53, 3.62

If you were going to prioritize these pitchers on the information available, how would you do it? We know Player A has been a good pitcher in the past but he has not been impressive this year, his previous season was the result of some good luck and he has a sizeable contract. Player B may have a golden arm, but the results are just not there. Player C has been undervalued in the last two seasons but will not receive any “league bonus” by switching to the National League.

By now you have probably figured out that Player A is Kevin Millwood, Player B is Victor Zambrano and Player C is Kris Benson. We know how Zambrano and Benson played out and there is no reason to expect that Millwood will be significantly better than either of those two.

There is no doubt that Millwood is being hurt right now by the gopher ball. If we use xFIP (which I didn’t in the above comparisons because it was not available for all years for Benson and Zambrano) we see Millwood has a 4.03 mark this year. It really does not change much from his FIP the previous four seasons. Besides, Millwood’s HR troubles come at home, where he has allowed 9 of his 14 HR. In Camden Yards his ERA is 3.28, compared to 5.11 in road parks. So Millwood’s troubles this season are more than just the long ball.

His K/9 is up over last year, but Linear Weights shows Millwood’s fastball, slider and curve all as below-average pitches in 2010. He is striking out more batters and allowing fewer walks but when batters do hit the ball, they are doing damage. Millwood has a lifetime .306 BABIP and this year it is at .311, so it’s not that batters are being extremely lucky against him.

Despite the increase in K/9, Millwood is no longer a power pitcher. His average fastball velocity is 89.3 this year. The fireballing righty who came up with the Braves is gone. Even more troubling is that lefties are killing Millwood this year. LHB have a .319/.374/.488 slash line against him. Basically, any lefty batter in the league transforms into Joe Mauer when Millwood is on the mound. That production versus lefties means he is useless against the Phillies and might singlehandedly resuscitate the career of Chipper Jones.

But let’s give Millwood the benefit of the doubt and say that his xFIP is indicative of his talent level for this season. Who would he replace in the rotation? Hisanori Takahashi has a 3.93 xFIP while R.A. Dickey checks in with a 4.25 mark. Using the metric that is most favorable to Millwood leaves him no better than the team’s current options. And for that the Mets are supposed to pick up that contract AND trade something of value to get him?

I am all for addressing the rotation. But if the team is going to acquire a pitcher, it needs to represent a true upgrade from the current talent on hand and be someone that you want to start both a playoff game and a key division contest. Millwood fails on those accounts. Acquiring him would be the 2010 equivalent of trading for Benson and Zambrano. Instead, the Mets should focus on Cliff Lee or Roy Oswalt if Omar Minaya is to buck tradition and make a key mid-season move.

Murphy’s Law rears ugly head again

While it may not have been as damaging as the injuries that piled up last season for the Mets, Daniel Murphy’s season-ending injury will certainly have ramifications with the roster in to the summer.

Murphy was perhaps days away from being recalled before he again was involved in another freak accident. On Wednesday night in Buffalo, while playing second base of all places, Murphy suffered an MCL tear of his right knee after an opposing player slid into him in an awkward manner. Previously, Murphy suffered a right knee sprain in the final week of spring training and was working his way back into shape. Yet another setback in a maddening season filled with its highs and lows.

Murphy was not going to be an everyday starter when he eventually would have been recalled since Ike Davis has taken over that position, but this injury still stings.

The Mets lack punch off the bench and Murphy’s bat could have come in handy for the stretch run. While in the minors, Murphy was trying to get work in at second base, while also playing first and the outfield, and possibly fill in for the oft-injured Luis Castillo, but that point is moot now.

So do the Mets now try to get a second baseman off the trade market? As of now, if Castillo does go on the DL, the plan is for the Mets to recall prospect Ruben Tejada and place him on the bench while Alex Cora plays second base.

That affects the bench now. If Murphy and Castillo are on the shelf, you have to go with Gary Matthews, Fernando Tatis, Chris Carter, Henry Blanco and Tejada.

Is that enough?

Matthews has been nothing short of a disappointment and Tatis is nothing to get too warmed up about. Blanco is what he is, a defensive back-up catcher. Everyone in Mets nation loves “The Animal” Carter, but can he sustain it? He’s great off the bench. However, with the Mets now without Murphy, the team sure could use a utility hitter with pop.

Here’s a name that is sure to conjure some memories — Ty Wigginton.

You know that Baltimore would be willing to ship him off knowing they have no plans for him being with the team long term. Wigginton earlier in the week confessed that he loved his time in New York, but would not get worked up in trade talks.

Wigginton has proved he still has plenty of pop left in his bat (13 home runs) and would be embraced back in New York. Ideally, you would like a lefty bat with power (Russell Branyan?), but if Wigginton and stabilizing pitcher Kevin Millwood could come to New York cheap, I don’t see the possible downside?