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Kevin Millwood: Was he actually good?

Taking another look at the Phillies’ would-be ace from the early 2000’s

Phillies v Pirates
Kevin Millwood was thought of as the Phillies’ ace. But should he have been?
Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images

With baseball’s present non-existent, and the future currently a mystery, why not take a look back into the past? I’ll take a look at another former Phillies to see if he would be viewed any differently in present times.

Kevin Millwood came up with the Atlanta Braves in 1997, joining their stellar rotation that included perennial All-Stars and former Cy Young Award winners Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz. In his first five full seasons, he averaged 14 wins a year, including a top-three Cy Young Award finish in 1999.

After the 2002 season, the Braves were looking to cut payroll. When Greg Maddux unexpectedly chose to return, the Braves felt they had no choice but to get something for Millwood a year before he was due to his free agency. Surprisingly, they chose to keep him in the division, sending him to the Phillies in exchange for backup catcher Johnny Estrada. This was seen as a masterstroke by Phillies general manager Ed Wade, as Millwood gave the would-be contender Phillies a pitcher to head their rotation.

Early returns on the trade were excellent. Millwood had a 2.93 ERA through the first two months of the season, including a no-hitter against the San Francisco Giants.

The good times did not last. The rest of his season was uneven, and in September, with the Phillies desperately fighting for a playoff spot, he had an abysmal 5.94 ERA. When he ended his season by angrily tossing his glove at Phillies fans expressing their displeasure with his performance, it seemed like Millwood’s stay in Philadelphia was over.

Wanting to recoup a draft pick, the Phillies offered him arbitration. Millwood apparently didn’t want to go into free agency on what he considered a down note, so he somewhat surprisingly accepted their offer, and returned for a second season in Philadelphia.

Unfortunately, his second season wasn’t any more successful for either the player or team. He had a 5.15 ERA in the first half, and for the second straight year, as the Phillies unsuccessfully fought for a playoff spot down the stretch, Millwood wasn’t much help. This time, it was mostly due to injury as he was limited to just three starts across August, September, and October.

The Phillies let him walk in free agency, and naturally, he went on to have an excellent season for the Indians in 2005, leading the American League in ERA.

No-hitter aside, Millwood’s tenure in Philadelphia isn’t looked upon fondly by most fans. Touted as an ace, his surface numbers were far from ace-like, and he came up small when the team was still in the playoff mix late in the season. But looking a little deeper indicates that Millwood was probably better than we remember.

His FIP was significantly lower than his ERA in both seasons, meaning he might have been the victim of some bad luck. (I’d blame some of that on having to pitch half his games at Citizens Bank Park during its inaugural season of comically short fences, but he didn’t have a significant home/road split that year.) He also had plenty of company when it came to pitchers who disappointed for the Phillies in 2004. Pretty much every starter the Phillies used fell short of expectations that year.

It’s telling that Millwood’s best seasons came in Atlanta - where he was surrounded by multiple Cy Young Award winning pitchers - and Cleveland - where the rotation included two pitchers (Cliff Lee and CC Sabathia) who would also go on to win Cy Young Awards. Some pitchers simply aren’t meant to be rotation-leading stoppers, and can thrive in a less-prominent spot.

In conclusion, I’ll say that Millwood was a good pitcher who was miscast as an ace. It’s just too bad the Phillies didn’t realize that until it was too late.