As simple as it might seem to send left-hander Wade Miley into his offseason with a $500,000 buyout check in lieu of picking up his $12 million team option for 2018, the Orioles' offseason will be shaped in part by what they do with one of the few known, if not expensive, quantities that could return to their beleaguered rotation.
Miley, a veteran acquired last summer in a trade with the Seattle Mariners, has been a frustrating but constant presence in their rotation since that time, and a disastrous September similar to that suffered by the rest of the staff leaves him with a 5.52 ERA entering his final start of the season Friday night at the Tampa Bay Rays.
Once the season ends, the Orioles must decide whether it's worth bringing back a pitcher who has thrown the lowest percentage of pitches in the strike zone of any full-time major league starter just for the peace of mind that they only need to fill two rotation spots this winter instead of three.
"I haven't talked to them at all," Miley said. "I know on the business side, I haven't done my job. We'll see what happens. I don't know."
Said executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette: "Deciding those decisions, the club needs to look at the totality of work and see if it's worth the investment. They're significant investments."
The timing — a 9.92 ERA in September after a 2.60 mark in August — is unfortunate, Miley said.
"At the same time, it's not like I tried to suck in my last three starts," Miley said. "For whatever reason, I didn't perform at the level I wanted to perform at. I've got one more start. Hopefully, I can go out there and not even worrying about the option, just for my own good, be able to go into the offseason on a little bit stronger note. We'll see what happens."
There's plenty to back up the idea that $12 million for a pitcher with a 5.52 ERA is an expenditure any team working with budgetary constraints would want to avoid. While Friday will be his 32nd start of the season — which represents a full workload for a modern-day starter, he'll need to pitch 8 2/3 innings to avoid being one of two major league pitchers this season with at least 30 starts but without the requisite innings to qualify for the ERA title. Miley has 153 1/3 innings this year and the minimum requirement is one inning per team game, 162.
Among the 74 pitchers this season with at least 150 innings, Miley stands out in some dubious categories. According to FanGraphs, just 35 percent of his pitches have been in the strike zone and only 40.9 percent of his pitches have elicited swings. Both figures are the lowest in the major leagues, though the pitcher one spot above him in swing percentage is fellow left-hander Gio Gonzalez of the Washington Nationals, who has used a similar profile to great effect this year.
Nothing shows just how exasperating Miley's season has been for the Orioles than the fact that his 161 full counts are 20 more than the total of any other pitcher, according to Baseball-Reference.com's Play Index. Opponents have hit just .153 in those situations, but Miley has walked 46 hitters in those situations en route to an overall major league-leading 88 bases on balls.
It's all created a picture of inefficiency, though there's no denying that bad luck has been a factor. Miley has allowed an abnormally high .330 batting average on balls in play, and while it’s true that his walk rate makes his major league-worst 1.71 WHIP mostly his own doing, those runners have scored at a disproportionate rate.
His fielding-independent pitching (FIP), which calculates ERA based only on strikeouts, walks and home runs — factors a pitcher can control — is a slightly better 5.22. And his xFIP, which substitutes the league-average home run rate instead of a pitcher's actual one, is a 4.63.
But expecting improvement from Miley's homer and walk rates at age 31 after two seasons of each spiking might be unwise. So there’s reason to believe it will be difficult for Miley to turn around his performance in 2018.
For the Orioles' part, having Miley in the organization for two years can inform the decision.
"It's always helpful to have the player on your club,” Duquette said. “You get an opportunity to be around him, observe his work habits, how he goes about his business. You have a relationship with him.”
Those relationships resonate with Miley, too, to the point that he's open to returning even if the option isn't picked up.
"I do love it," he said. "There's no doubt about it that that would be something I would consider, but at this point, I'm trying to get through the rest of the year and my last start and hopefully end on a good note."
Whether one good start would change the Orioles' plans, though, is unclear.
"Again, you have to look at the whole picture," Duquette said. "We're going to need to improve our starting pitching in 2018. Obviously, we're disappointed with our staff this year. There's time for that."