Monday, August 15, 2011

Syracuse Chiefs vs. Scranton Yankees Recap - Give Tom Milone a Shot

I was lucky enough to attend the Syracuse Chiefs vs. Scranton Wilkes-Barre Yankees game on Saturday night at Alliance Bank Stadium in Syracuse. The Chiefs won 4-2 in exciting fashion, and any time I can see the Yankees lose live I am thrilled, even if it is a minor league version. I root even harder against the AAA Yankees than I do against the major league team, because they use the "Yankees" nickname, dropping the awesome "Red Barons" moniker that they'd used as a Phillies affiliate from 1989 to 2006. Using the major league team name isn't inherently bad - Pawtucket has been the Red Sox since they got their team in 1970, and Indianapolis has been the Indians since 1952, even though they haven't been affiliated with the Cleveland Indians since 1956. You just can't drop your awesome nickname in favor of association with the major league team. And just so I'm being consistent, I was also against the Salem Avalanche becoming the Red Sox as well. It's just amplified when it's as great of a nickname as the Red Barons.

The game was a good time. Before the first pitch, we were treated to the Wall of Fame induction ceremony, highlighted by the induction of former Chief, Syracuse native and Fowler High School graduate Jerry Brooks, who had lots of family in attendance. The pitching matchup featured former Rockies/A's pitcher Greg Smith for the Yankees and International League strikeout leader Tom Milone for the Nationals. I discussed Milone's exceptional season in a previous post, and I will discuss him a bit more in a moment. Smith, if you recall, was traded by the Diamondbacks to the A's as part of a December 2007 blockbuster, where he Brett Anderson, Carlos Gonzalez, Chris Carter, Aaron Cunningham, and Dana Eveland were traded for Dan Haren and Connor Robertson. The next offseason, Smith along with Gonzalez and Huston Street were traded to the Rockies in exchange for Matt Holliday. So at least Smith can say he was traded for two of the best players in baseball. He has had little success above AA and, at 27, has reached the organizational soldier part of his career.

Smith was solid, giving up only 1 run in 5.1 innings, leaving with a 2-1 lead. In the bottom of the 7th, still trailing 2-1, reliever Buddy Carlyle struck out Chris Marrero to end the inning - or so it appeared. The pitch skipped by Gustavo Molina, and Marrero sprinted to first. Meanwhile, Roger Bernardina, who was on second base, had taken of for third on the wild pitch. When he saw the throw toward first base, he didn't miss a beat, continuing toward home. Molina's throw pulled Yankee first baseman Terry Tiffee off first base, and his throw back home was much too late, a turn of events that tied the game and left the Yankees stunned.

In the bottom of the 8th, the Chiefs Seth Bynum and Jhonatan Solano hit back to back home runs off of Yankee reliever (and long-time Florida Marlin) Logan Kensing to take a 4-2 lead, and that's where the score would sit. Jeff Mandel got the win for Syracuse, Josh Wilkie the save, but it was Tom Milone's pitching that was the highlight of the night.

Milone is nothing like any pitcher in the majors right now. The closest comparison in recent memory would be Jamie Moyer, which would tell you something about why a lot of scouts are skeptical of Milone's ability to succeed in the majors. Moyer has long been considered an anomaly because of his ability to get excellent results out of such mediocre stuff. Despite that, Milone has a 3.47 ERA in 129.2 innings for Syracuse, striking out 131 and walking only 13.

On Saturday, his line looked a lot like that - 7 innings, 8 hits, 2 runs, 0 walks, 6 strikeouts. His fastball topped out at only 87 miles an hour, but he doesn't throw it that often. He was throwing a secondary fastball that looked like a cutter or a two-seamer (it is described as a cutter on most of the sites I can find) that sat around 85. His changeup was around 78. But that curveball! Oh yes, that curveball. He seemed to throw three different types, one around 73, one around 67, and a third that was, no exaggeration, 60 miles an hour. It was that SLOW curve that made hitters look silly, swinging themselves into circles. It was fascinating to watch.

I have no idea whether Milone can sustain that success in the majors, sitting at 85 and throwing curveballs that wouldn't even get a speeding ticket. Three of his strikeouts were Jorge Vazquez, whose strikeout to walk ratio of 149 to 26 seems to allude to a complete inability to hit ANY curveballs. In reality, there are a lot of players who are in AAA, rather than the majors, because of that. Vazquez has major league level power, 27 homers in 395 at bats, but he can't, seemingly, tell a curveball is coming until after he swings and misses at it. He's good enough to play in AAA, but not the majors, where EVERYONE throws at least some kind of curveball. Maybe given 500 at bats he'd hit 30 homers, but he'd also probably hit .125, have a .200 OBP and strikeout 250 times. Major league hitters are in the majors because they can hit (or at least identify and lay off of) curve balls.

Or so the theory goes. Jamie Moyer won 267 games. In an 8 year stretch from 1996 to 2003, he had a 121 ERA+. He also had his first good season at age 30 and his second good one at 33, so it's fair to say that it didn't come easily to him. Calling Tom Milone the next Jamie Moyer is silly, because Moyer's career was so unique and unpredictable. Just because he's not Jamie Moyer doesn't mean he doesn't deserve a chance. The Nationals are far out of the playoff race, and Milone has shown at every level that he can get batters out. It's easy to get forgotten in an organization with Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg, but it's Milone's status as the polar opposite, stuff-wise, of those two that makes him so fun to watch.

So, make it happen Nationals. Look past the radar gun and give the lefty with the 60 mile per hour curveball his chance.

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