Washington Nationals: Tom Milone Continues to Move Closer to DC Starting Gig

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Washington Nationals: Tom Milone Continues to Move Closer to DC Starting Gig
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
John Lannan

Tom Milone took the mound for the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs a few nights ago and the crafty left-hander (crafty is the term used for lefties who can’t throw a fastball much faster than 90 mph) threw seven shutout innings, allowing just five hits and no walks while striking out four.

Who is this guy that most Nationals’ fans have never heard of before? Think John Lannan but with a little better control.

I have enjoyed watching Lannan pitch the last three years, partly because he’s good, but also because I love it when underdogs succeed at the major league level.

An 11th-round pick in 2005 out of Siena College (17-5, 3.86), Lannan was considered to be no more than another organizational arm who might one day become a lefty specialist out of the pen.

In his first two seasons (Vermont and Single-A Savannah), that is how he pitched.

In 35 starts, Lannan was just 9-13 with a 4.89 ERA. In 2007, he blossomed and cut his hits per nine innings in half, and began hitting his spots.

In the span of just a couple of months, he was promoted to Double-A Harrisburg, then Triple-A Columbus and finally to the major leagues, where he started six games for Washington.

He finished the season with a record of 12-3, 2.31 ERA, and a slash line of 6.6/3.0/5.3 (hits/walks/strikeouts per nine innings).

Lannan’s career 28-38 record and 4.10 ERA with the Nationals is deceiving.

Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum had 26 quality starts two seasons ago, and former Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee had 23.

Lannan had 21.

In other words, he’s still young, still learning and he still gets clobbered when he doesn’t spot his pitches well.

Last season—probably due to a nagging arm injury—Lannan was horrible in the first half of the season, going 3-6, 5.76 before being sent down to Double-A Harrisburg in June. When he returned, however, he was his old self.

In 10 starts after being recalled, Lannan was 5-2, 3.42. Seven of those were "quality starts."

With a bit more luck and a little more offensive support, Lannan could win a dozen or so games each year for the next decade. He’s an ideal No. 5 starter.

In two starts this year, he’s pitched 10 innings, allowing 12 hits and three walks while striking out seven. Lannan’s ERA is 3.60.

Milone, like Lannan, is a lanky lefty who must pitch to spots to be successful.

He is eighth all-time in games started for Southern Cal.

In 2007, he was named Pitcher of the Year in the prestigious Cape Cod League with a record of 6-1 and a 2.92 ERA. He struck out 46 and walked just seven in 52 innings.

His next summer was spent in Wenatchee, Wash., pitching in a West Coast summer league. In 51 innings, Milone went 6-1 with a 2.61 ERA.

Against some of the best college hitters, Milone combined to go 12-2 (2.81 ERA) while striking out 101 in 103 innings. He walked just 13.

But a lack of a dominating fastball, and a so-so 16-17 career record with a 4.78 ERA at Southern Cal, relegated Milone to a 10th-round afterthought in the 2008 amateur draft.

Though major league scouts didn’t think much of his ability, Milone was confident that he would succeed.

Pitching for Vermont and Hagerstown that first year, Milone crafted a record of 1-6 but with a solid 3.51 ERA. He allowed 10.3 hits per nine innings but just 1.3 walks.

Nationals’ scouts saw enough to promote him to High-A Potomac for the 2009 season. And just like Lannan two seasons earlier, Milone blossomed.

After watching him pitch in a bullpen session early in the year, Potomac pitching coach Paul Menhart approached Milone about adding a cut fastball to his repertoire.

Pitching to contact is fine, he said, but disguising his 87 mph fastball would help him greatly.

Milone’s cutter looks like his fastball but dives at the last second. Against right-handers, it first dives in, then away as it crosses the plate.

His ERA was 3.89 when he began to throw his new pitch in early July.

By the end of the year it had dropped to 2.91, best on the team. His batting-average against, .275 the season before, was just .252 with Potomac.

Milone’s fastball tops out at 87 mph, but usually sits in the 84-86 mph range. His curveball is sharp and about 10 mph slower than his fastball, providing good separation.

His changeup, though, is by far his best pitch; one he can throw wherever he wants and at any point in the count.

His control is remarkable. Over his minor league career, Milone has walked just 68 while striking out 310, more than a 4-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio.

Milone has trouble when he’s not hitting his spots. When facing a walk, he tends to throw his fastball down the middle of the plate, a bad place for a slow fastball.

But that is a peril that all contact pitchers face. If you don’t have an “out” pitch, there just aren’t many safe pitches to throw.

Overall, Milone’s minor league numbers are similar to—and in some cases much better than— Lannan’s. Both players have started exactly 62 minor league games:

Record
Lannan: 22-20 (.524)
Milone: 25-16 (.610)

ERA
Lannan: 3.95
Milone: 2.98

Opponent’s Batting Average
Lannan: .258
Milone: .261

Hits/Walks/Strikeouts Per Nine-Innings
Lannan: 8.9/3.4/6.3
Milone: 9.0/1.7/7.6

No, that's not a misprint. In 62 games he has allowed just 1.7 walks per nine-innings. To give that number some context, Stephen Strasburg, who in considered be one of the best control pitchers ever, allowed 2.1 walks per nine innings in his time with Double-A Harrisburg last year.

No, Milone is not Strasburg but he has Strasburg control.

One would think that Milone might have a major league career similar to Lannan, that of a mid-to-back-of-the-rotation starter who can be counted on to win 10 to 14 games a year.

Sure, Milone is not on any watch list and isn’t considered much of a prospect. But Lannan didn’t show up as a true prospect until the 2008 season, after he had already pitched in the major leagues.

Milone has a prospect grade of “C” and is lumped together with a bevy of other non-prospect types like Taylor Jordan, Nathan Karns and Pat Lehman.

I am in no way suggesting that Milone is going to repeat the success of Lannan.

But he has similar tools, has even better control, and at 23, is mowing down older and more experienced opponents in the Eastern League.

Lannan was also 23 when he pitched for Harrisburg.

Yes, it seems unlikely that a 10th-rounder will eventually make the Nationals’ starting rotation, especially when you consider that the Nationals will have a solid rotation when all of the team’s walking-wounded return to the major league roster.

But isn’t that the same thing we all said about Lannan, the 11th-round selection from Siena College?

He’ll pitch for Triple-A Syracuse this year and will be just a phone call away from the major leagues.

Suddenly, the Nationals have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to young pitchers, and it’s about time. The 2011 season is looking better and better with each passing day.

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