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Are You For Real? Surprising MLB Pitcher Starts from Week 23

Welcome back to "Are You For Real?", a weekly column where we take starting pitchers who had surprisingly good starts over the past week and put them under the microscope to determine whether they're legit or just smoke and mirrors.

The NL Central is our center of attention this week, as we'll be looking at two interesting starts from hurlers in the heartland that occurred last week. We'll be breaking down the return of longtime big leaguer Wade Miley in Chicago, and we'll be looking at perhaps the best start of Luis Cessa's career in Cincinnati.

Roster percentages are taken from Yahoo and are accurate as of 09/12/2022.

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Wade Miley, Chicago Cubs – 16% Rostered

2022 Stats (prior to this start): 23 IP, 3.13 ERA, 3.55 FIP, 8.3% K-BB%

09/11 vs. SFG: 5 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 5 K

Always battling injury, Miley has spent most of 2022 on the shelf for Chicago, with his two starts last week representing his first MLB action since June 10th due to a shoulder strain. Miley’s second outing went much better than his first, as Miley held the Giants to just one run over five innings in the no-decision. The Cubs may be long out of the race, but Miley presents an interesting option for fantasy teams still in it. Can Miley be a late-season contributor, or should fantasy managers pass this lefty over?

A 10-year veteran of the big leagues, Miley’s fantasy value has oscillated quite a bit over his long career. He was an exciting up-and-comer in the early 2010s with Arizona, lost his mojo and became an afterthought in the mid-2010s, and then underwent a resurgence with Milwaukee and Houston before inking a two-year deal with a club option for 2022 with Cincinnati in 2019. In a move of exceptional cheapness, the Reds let Miley go instead of paying him the better-than-market salary of $10 million, which is how he wound up on the Cubs, his eighth big league team.

Miley may be on his eighth team, but despite all the uniform changes over the years, he still uses the same approach on the mound, more or less. Miley technically throws six pitches, though the sinker and curveball are used less than 3% of the time by him. In practice, he normally works with four pitches, a four-seamer, cutter, slider, and changeup.

Miley did throw his sinker and curve more often in past seasons, but part of his late-career resurgence was Miley phasing out ineffective pitches in favor of his stronger options. That’s been the case for Miley when healthy this year as well, as he’s leaned heavily on his cutter and changeup. The cutter has been a career-saving pitch for Wade Miley, as his transition from a sinker-heavy approach to a cutter-heavy approach was the main driver behind his success. To demonstrate this, here’s a look at Miley’s pitch usage by season.

He didn’t even throw a cutter until 2017, and it quickly became his most used pitch (brown line). Notice too how his sinker (orange) really drops off over that same time period.

A hybrid between his four-seam and slider, Miley’s cutter is characterized by sharp horizontal movement, making it closer to a breaking ball than a fastball on the cutter spectrum. Batters have struggled against the pitch this season, posting just a .222 AVG, .361 SLG, and .293 wOBA against the pitch.

Miley’s cutter excels best at inducing weak contact, as opponents have an 88 MPH average exit velocity off the cutter this season along with a 53% groundball rate. The exit velocity number is a bit high by Miley’s standards (he was at 83.5 MPH last season), but that can be attributed to a rough first outing and a small sample size. Here’s a graph outlining the average exit velocity against his cutter game-by-game this season.

The first start really threw the overall number out of whack and going forward one would expect Miley to induce weak contact at similar rates to his past seasons.

So, Miley can induce soft contact. Big deal, right? That’s good for the Cubs, but we’re fantasy players, which means we want to chase those juicy strikeouts. Strikeouts have long been an area of deficiency for Miley, but 2022 has been a different story for him in the starts he’s made. Miley has a career-high 11.3% swinging strike rate and his 20% K rate is his best since 2014. Both of these numbers are pedestrian by today’s standards, but there’s still reason for encouragement when considered in context with Miley’s pitch usage.

Miley has begun throwing two pitches—the changeup and slider—more frequently in 2022, which may be leading to increased strikeout numbers. Miley’s 29.2% changeup usage is the highest of his career, and his 7.5% slider usage is his highest since 2017, the year he introduced the cutter. It seems that Miley might be shifting his game ever so slightly, and if these changes are here to stay, then he could be a better strikeout pitcher than in years past.

It’s a small sample, but his slider has a 29% swinging strike rate this season, while his changeup has a 20.7% swinging strike rate and a monster 44.4% chase rate. These numbers might be inflated a bit, but the changeup and slider have long been Miley’s best punchout pitches, and he could begin to put up more formidable strikeout numbers with increased usage. He won’t be Gerrit Cole or anything, but a 20% strikeout rate is possible for Miley.

Even if his strikeout numbers improve, strikeouts were never the reason someone added or considered Wade Miley for their fantasy team. Miley is added as a boring, reliable veteran arm that (when healthy) can deliver 5-7 solid innings for most of his starts. There’s nothing in his profile that would suggest Miley has lost it or will be irreparably damaged by his injury, making him a solid, sneaky player to add for the final few weeks.

Verdict:

Miley is, for the most part, the same pitcher he’s been for the past few seasons. Injury prone and unexciting, but able to consistently produce results thanks to a heavy diet of cutters and changeups that induce weak contact with regularity. A jump in changeup and slider usage is interesting as it could lead to better strikeout numbers from Miley than we’ve seen in past seasons, but he’ll likely struggle to eclipse a 20% strikeout rate. Add if you need help with ratios or volume for the past few weeks. He won’t save your season, but he likely won’t tank it either.

 

Luis Cessa, Cincinnati Reds – 5% Rostered

2022 Stats (prior to this start): 48.2 IP, 5.18 ERA, 5.48 FIP, 8.8 K-BB%

09/08 @ CHC: 5.2 IP, 3 H, 2 ER, 0 BB, 8 K

Cessa had his best start as a Red, perhaps even the best start of his career on Thursday in Chicago. Cessa fanned eight Cubs over five and two-thirds in the no decision. The eight strikeouts tie a career-high from 2017, and it was the first time Cessa made it past the fifth inning since July 25, 2018.

Cessa entered Cincinnati’s rotation in late August and has had mixed results (3.78 ERA, 5.04 FIP in four starts), but made a pretty big statement on Thursday and may emerge as a late-season asset if he can sustain this productivity. Is there something more here with Cessa, or was this just a flash in the pan?

For those who follow international signings and prospects, it probably feels like Cessa has been around forever. He originally signed with the Mets back in 2008 as an international free agent and has spent most of his time in the big leagues as a reliever with the Yankees before coming to Cincy in a deadline swap last season. Cessa hadn’t started a game since 2018 prior to this year, but necessity forced Cincinnati’s hand in making him a starter.

Cessa seems to have a starter’s repertoire, using a four-seam fastball, sinker, changeup, and slider on the mound. Cessa’s arsenal used to be much more simplistic, with him leaning almost exclusively on the fastball and slider. He’s incorporated his other pitches more frequently in the past couple of seasons, but Cessa still lives and dies with the four-seamer and slider, especially relying on the latter pitch for strikeouts.

It was all about the slider in this start against the Cubs for Cessa, as he threw the pitch 45% of the time and earned 10 of his 13 whiffs with the offering. Cessa’s slider has been nearly impossible to hit for opponents all season, with batters posting a paltry .176 AVG and .292 wOBA off the pitch this season. Opponents have fared a little better in the power department with a .412 SLG against the slider,  but it’s still been Cessa’s best pitch this year.

What makes Cessa’s slider so effective is the exceptional movement he gets with the pitch. Cessa’s slider has nearly two additional inches of break and nearly five additional inches of drop compared to the league average. At 2529 RPM, Cessa also has one of the higher spin rates you will see with a slider. Here are a few examples from this start.

.

With the high spin, strong vertical movement, and relatively low velocity the pitch resembles a slurve more than a true slider. Cessa threw a curveball when he first came up to the majors, using it alongside his slider, but the two pitches seem to have melded into one for a plus offering.

The problem is that, outside of the slider, there isn’t much to like about Cessa’s game. His primary fastball is a mid-90s sinker that’s lost a tick since he’s joined the rotation. He does have a 54.5% groundball rate with the pitch, but opponents are still hitting .333 with a .347 wOBA off Cessa’s sinker this season. Cessa also throws a changeup, which has been pulverized for a .372 AVG, .465 SLG, and .378 wOBA this season.

One saving grace for Cessa may be that his pitch selection has varied quite a bit by role this year. He was all about the sinker out of the bullpen, but the sinker has taken a backseat to his four-seamer since joining the rotation. Here’s a look at his sinker (top) and four-seam (bottom) usage by game this season.

The four-seam usage is on an upward trajectory while the sinker is slowly being phased out. Although his sinker has been hit hard this season, this would be a lateral move for Cessa as both pitches have performed about equally for Cessa over his career. His four-seam fastball might have a .250 AVG against this season, but Cessa has surrendered an outlandish .710 SLG and .374 wBOA off his four-seamer this season.

Cessa has allowed 1.66 HR/9 this season and given up four bombs in four starts since joining the rotation. His 21.3% HR/FB ratio will likely regress to something more in line with league average, but he may still struggle with the longball, especially pitching in Great American Ballpark.

Verdict:

While this start was nice to see, the fact is that Cessa’s slider isn’t good enough to overcome the mediocrity of his other pitches. He might flash a nice outing like this one here or there, but let’s not forget that it took injuries to Graham Ashcraft, Hunter Greene, Vladimir Gutierrez, and TJ Zeuch for Cessa to even crack the rotation, and there’s a reason for that.

He has value as an NL-Only spot starter or deep league desperation play, but if you’re battling things out in a heated roto race or in a head-to-head playoff scenario, you’re probably best served without Luis Cessa in your lineup.



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