Adam Morgan was a revelation in 2017. The former top starting pitcher prospect, whose career was almost completely derailed by multiple injuries, emerged as an unlikely success of the post-Baby Ace Era in a committed relief role, throwing harder than ever and looking like a legitimate lockdown relief option.
As great as it is to see Morgan emerge and carve out a role for himself, the Phillies still look to be a little thin from the left side entering the 2018 season. This goes beyond the obvious gap in the starting rotation, where the club once again has no southpaw set to slot into the rotation just yet. With non-roster invitee Fernando Abad being granted his release Wednesday, just ahead of his out clause kicking in, the Phils are now down to Morgan, Hoby Milner and Zac Curtis for two presumed spots in the Major League bullpen. Austin Davis, Cole Irvin, Brandon Leibrandt, and Ranger Suarez are lurking, with various potential future roles, but none of those four will make the Opening Day roster.
Morgan will make the team, that much is certain, and if he’s as good in 2018 as he was last season, that will take a lot of pressure off of whoever follows him. But if Morgan goes down, can Milner reasonably hold down the fort until he returns? Is he on the cusp of a breakout of his own?
The Phillies were fortunate Milner was even available to them at all last season. After he was left unprotected, the Cleveland Indians drafted the former seventh-round pick with the 15th realized selection in the 2016 Rule 5 Draft. This after appearing in 49 games across two levels for the Phillies, striking out 76 and walking 15 in 65 innings. Three other left-handed pitchers - Caleb Smith, Tyler Webb, and former Phillies great Daniel Stumpf - were all picked ahead of Milner, but all three also pitched in the Majors in 2017. Decently successful crop of guys, that.
Anyway. Milner was eventually returned to the Phillies in late March 2017 and, freed from his Rule 5 status, was optioned back to Triple-A. Shortly after Joely Rodriguez crashed and burned and was traded to Texas, though, Milner was recalled, and made his Major League debut on June 24, and the paradox began to form.
Milner pitched in 37 games, totaling 31.1 innings, and allowed just seven runs. His 2.01 ERA and 212 ERA+ are among the best numbers a Phillies lefty reliever has put up. This being the future, though, we have increased awareness of and visibility into the context of these numbers, and the foundation of those ERA derivatives look to be made more of clay than brick and mortar, and it’s cause for concern.
Milner was not overpowering, nor did he exude exemplary command of the strike zone. He struck out 22 and unintentionally walked 13 of the 139 batters he faced. Among lefty relievers who logged at least 30 innings last year (there were 59 of those), Milner’s overall K%, BB%, and K%-BB% ranked 54th, 49th, and 57th, respectively.
Yet, in direct contrast, Milner’s Statcast numbers are uncannily great. He allowed the lowest average exit velocity of any left-handed pitcher in 2017 (150-plus pitches thrown).
That’s lower than Andrew Miller and Sean Doolittle and Felipe Rivero and everybody else! Unexpected!
This is the best kind of season we can expect from Milner, who has to thrive both by not grooving pitches (duh) and getting poor contact from opposing hitters. He exists as an anachronism, a junkballing deception machine who sits 88-91 with his fastball but who looks like he’s delivering his pitches from first base.
The location of that pitch isn’t an accident; far from it. Milner’s walk totals show he still has trouble with his nibbles, but he lives in that part of the zone, especially in two-strike counts to lefties.
Milner only totaled three whiffs on those two-strike pitches to same-handed hitters during the 2017 season, though, as lefties were able to make contact on those tease pitches (69.8 percent) and stay alive far more often against him than on average on across the league (62.9 percent).
What it comes down to for Milner is the changing of a hitter’s eye level. That, coupled with his exceptional extension and drastic horizontal release point puts him in some interesting company.
First, compare his zone profile with his two-seamer, compared to his slider.
Pretty striking. Milner is almost entirely dependent upon being able to bury his slider, and nearly avoids throwing it for a zone strike altogether. His fastball, meanwhile, is one he prefers to elevate when he’s not throwing it as a get-me-over. Yet, despite placing so many fastballs in the upper half of the zone, hitters weren’t really able to punish him much if the ball crossed above the belt.
Why? Some of that is almost certainly tied to his delivery, which is deceptive in a rather unique way.
Milner is releasing his pitches almost as far in front of the rubber as Aroldis Chapman, combined with the sidearm qualities comparable to that of Tony Watson and Clayton Richard. Despite not throwing as hard as any of them, Milner is able to leverage his ability to hide the ball and give the hitter less reaction time into a persistent game of cat and mouse, this despite releasing his sinker and slider with varied release points.
In an age wealthy with overpowering arms, Milner stands out as a curiosity. His pedestrian velocity and seemingly concerning peripherals match up paradoxically with a clear game plan and deceptive intent. Barring a stuff gain in the vein of Adam Morgan, Milner may never quite ascend to the ranks of shutdown relievers like Miller or Rivero, but he also may not need to. Assuming he can keep his walks under control, Milner may indeed be primed to continue inducing bad contact from opposing hitters and staying frustratingly effective if he sticks to his approach. It’s a tight rope he’s walking, but his Nik Wallenda act may yet last for longer than we initially expected.