Sunday, November 23, 2014

Random Ex-Brave: Kevin Millwood

As I said last Sunday, I hope to use this day during the offseason to touch on some of the ex-Braves who played both major and minor roles during the last 25 or so years along with their careers before and/or after their time in Atlanta. For more random Ex-Braves, click here.

While it was clear that the Braves were no longer going to be among the highest spenders in the game following the AOL and Time Warner merger, nothing drove that point home with such sadness than Kevin Millwood's trade to the Phillies following the 2002 season. Millwood was expected to be the leader of the Braves' rotation, not get shipped off to Philly. But, even our Braves' budget had its limits.

Millwood was born on Christmas Eve in 1974 in Gastonia, North Carolina; a suburb of Charlotte. An unapologetic fan of Duke University basketball, Millwood would become well known in baseball for his easy-going nature that probably began in Gaston County. He would later graduate from Bessemer City High School, a member of the Yellow Jackets and likely classmate of Phil Crosby, who played fullback behind Peyton Manning at the University of Tennessee. Millwood never made it to college as he joined the Braves organization after they made him their 11th round selection in 1993.

Over the next four and a half seasons, Millwood would progress through the minors, but rarely shine. In fact, it wasn't until a nine start run in 1997 with Richmond that Millwood started to pull away from the pack of minor league starters that also included Brad Woodall and Damian Moss. The Braves, who had dealt former top pitching prospect Jason Schmidt to the Pirates for Denny Neagle, were looking for their next young (and cheap) addition to their star-studded staff and after Millwood appeared in 11 games, including nine starts, for the Braves in '97, he was was expected to make the jump the following season.

Millwood would be part of the historic 1998 pitching staff that boasted five pitchers with at least 16 wins, including Millwood's 17. I don't buy into win-loss record having much value, but that's still rather impressive. The 23 year-old even had three of the Braves' 24 complete games, which is an astounding numbers in today's game, including his first of six major league shutouts. On April 14th, Millwood gave up a double to the Pirates' Jermaine Allensworth, but no other hits in a 13 strikeout performance. Those baker's dozen strikeouts would remain his career high, though he would repeat the effort one more time. Despite his success, Millwood would not appear in the '98 postseason because of the stacked rotation. His time would come in 1999, though.

In fact, Millwood would go to his only All-Star Game in 1999, a down year for Braves All-Stars as Millwood was joined by only Brian Jordan. In the Midsummer Classic, Millwood tossed a scoreless sixth inning with a strikeout of Bernie Williams. He also led the National League with a 0.996 WHIP and picked up his only 200 strikeout season. His biggest moment of the season and probably of his Atlanta Braves career came in the postseason in the NLDS against the Astros. After the legendary Greg Maddux took a 6-1 loss in Game One (Mike Remlinger gave up 4 ER to turn it into a rout), Millwood got the ball in Game Two. That alone speaks to Millwood's season. The Braves won their division by 6.5 games and home field advantage by three. They could have set up the Big Three, but rewarded Millwood with the Game Two start instead. It was a good idea as Millwood shut down the Astros, giving up a solo homer to Ken Caminiti in the second and nothing else, to cruise 5-1. Two days later, with the Braves having used five relievers, including Remlinger (who took a BS) and closer John Rocker, Bobby Cox called on Millwood in the 12th up 5-3. Millwood pitched a perfect frame, getting a strikeout, and picked up his only major league save. The rest of the postseason wasn't quite as dominant, though Millwood enters this blog's lore by starting Game Six of the NLCS against the Mets that ended in a, you guessed it, walk-off walk.

Established as the young gun of a staff of legends, the Braves had reasonably high expectations for Millwood in 2000, but the new millennium didn't get off to a good start. While Millwood started a career best 35 games, his numbers took a fall. Things didn't get much better in 2001 and he missed time due to injury, pitching just 121 innings.

Two years away from free agency and a potential big contract, Millwood entered 2002 as a pitcher at a crossroads. He had a 4.53 ERA in his last two years, including 56 starts, and if it meant anything, Millwood also had a losing record for two teams that went to the playoffs. Millwood badly needed, and got, a bounceback season in 2002 as he posted a 3.24 ERA, threw his second shutout, and struck out 178 - the second most of his career. The Braves naturally felt he was on the right track and once they dealt with issues with the rest of the staff, Millwood looked like a fit at the top of the rotation for the foreseeable future.

Having already lost Tom Glavine to the Mets, it also looked like Maddux was also going to head elsewhere. With the other 1/3 of the Big Three, John Smoltz, as their closer, it looked like 2003 was going to be the first year with none of the Big Three in the rotation since 1986. But Maddux and his agent Scott Boras threw a wrench into the Braves' plans when they chose to accept the Braves' offer of arbitration. Under the old system, to gain draft pick compensation, the Braves had to offer arbitration, or essentially an offer of one year. The Braves felt Maddux's market would be similar to Glavine's, the latter of which had at least the Phillies and Mets fighting over him. Instead, the market was drying up and rather than take a short-term offer to pitch elsewhere, Maddux and his significant salary came back to Atlanta.

This put Braves general manager John Schuerholz in a tough position. Every team could see that the Braves were now over budget, especially when they had already added veterans Mike Hampton, Russ Ortiz, and Paul Byrd as they tried to cobble together a rotation for 2003. Millwood was supposed to be at the top of it with a slew of names, including Horacio Ramirez, Trey Hodges, Jung Bong, and Jason Marquis, battling for the fifth spot. But with Maddux coming back and no money for Millwood's rising salary, the Braves were faced with the decision to either non-tender Millwood and get nothing for him or take whatever low-ball offer the Braves could get for him. After trying every other team, the Braves called Philly, who had failed in their efforts to sign both Glavine and Jamie Moyer. Ed Wade agreed to send switch-hitting backstop Johnny Estrada to the Braves for Millwood. The deal almost made sense for the Braves. They had young Brian McCann in the minors, but he was a few years away. They also had incumbent Javy Lopez returning for the final year of his contract and in his defense, Estrada was a decent, if not old, prospect. Still, it's a deal that the Braves didn't want to make and it's a deal that made an inter-divisional rival very happy.

Millwood would go to spend two seasons in Philadelphia, notably accepting salary arbitration himself for the second season. He had a solid, though uneven, season in 2003 that included his biggest personal highlight, a 10-K no-hitter of the Giants on April 27th. But the Braves handled him each time they faced him, accounting for four of his 12 losing decisions that year. After returning to the Phillies following the lack of a long-term deal, Millwood struggled with injuries and didn't pitch all that well when he was on the mound in 2004. This led to a one-year stay in Cleveland in 2005 where Millwood picked up his only ERA title as he led the AL with a 2.86 ERA.

He finally got the big long-term deal as he headed to Texas for $60M over five years. It was a big moment that secured his future, but he was labeled a bust. Millwood was healthy for the Rangers, though h often was getting beat around. His ERA in Texas was 4.57 with a WHIP of 1.45. However, looking at the league and the park he played in, Millwood wasn't all that terrible. In four years with the Rangers, Millwood posted a fWAR of an even 13. While the Rangers probably expected more for the $51M they ultimately paid him, it wasn't like he was B.J. Upton useless. Following his trade to the Orioles in 2010, Millwood spent one year in Baltimore with the Rangers paying $3M of his $12M salary. He struggled badly and ended the year with an AL-worst 16 losses. The O's did lose 96 games that year so we can't put all of the blame on Millwood, but a 4.86 FIP isn't going to usually look too good.

From there, Millwood's career takes a bit of a nomadic turn in 2011. He tried to get his luck with the Yankees organization, but opted out a month into the season after throwing 16 innings in the minors and not getting a call-up to the majors. He signed with the Red Sox next and spent a couple of months starting games for Pawtucket with little success. They finally released him in mid-August and the floundering Rockies gave him a call. Colorado at least gave him a shot in the majors and he appeared in nine starts in Denver. Millwood closed his time with the Rockies on a high note, throwing seven innings of one-run ball in Houston as his mates bashed the Astros 19-3.

He would head back to the American League in 2012 on a minor league deal with the Seattle Mariners. A good spring allowed Millwood to break camp with the team and he K'd seven in his first start, a no-decision. On May 18th, he would head back to Denver and tossed a two-hit shutout against the Rockies. Of course, his biggest moment of the season came on June 8th. Millwood got the start against the Dodgers and left after six innings due to a groin strain. Oh, and he hadn't yet given up a hit. No worried as five relievers out of the M's pen took the no-hitter the rest of the way. What amazes me is that Millwood wasn't even able to get a win because he left with the game tied scoreless. Mariners went on to score once in the seventh.

Millwood finished 2012 with 161 more innings in the bank and 2 fWAR, but after 16 seasons that had seen him transition from young ace among legends to bust to journeyman, Millwood retired before spring training in 2013. As good as Millwood was in 1999, his career is better defined by its longevity and a winter where a legend forced Millwood to relocate.

2 comments:

  1. Millwood easily constituted Atlanta's best pitcher during the 1999 season. Not only did he lead the National League (all of baseball, actually) in lowest opponents' batting average (.202) and lowest opponents' on-base percentage (.258), and not only did he fan 205 hitters against just 59 walks, but Millwood ranked second in the National League in ERA (2.68, an ERA+ of 167) behind only Randy Johnson, and Millwood finished third in National League Cy Young balloting behind Johnson and Mike Hampton. Millwood constituted the toughest starting pitcher in the league to hit and reach base against, and he was the second-toughest to score against. He especially dominated down the stretch, during a tight pennant race with the Mets, as Millwood failed to yield more than 2 earned runs in any of his final 10 starts, going 6-0 with a 1.29 ERA during that span (and he was pitching at the peak of the Steroids Era, in a league where Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds were all juiced out of their minds). Included were no-decisions where Millwood allowed 2 hits and 1 run in 8 innings at Coors Field (pre-Humidor) and where Millwood yielded 2 hits in 10 shutout innings at St. Louis in a game that Atlanta eventually won in extras.

    Millwood carried his dominance over into the 1999 playoffs. Not only did he allow just one run versus Houston in Game Two of the National League Division Series, but he only allowed one hit (that home run by Caminiti). Indeed, his complete game one-hitter constituted the first in the postseason since Boston's Jim Lonborg in Game Two of the 1967 World Series, thirty-two years earlier. Millwood actually posted a 0.81 ERA through his first 22 and 1/3 innings of the 1999 playoffs (including 18 strikeouts against 1 walk), before tiring in the sixth inning of Game Six of the National League Championship Series, where he yielded four hits and three runs while recording just one out. From that inning forward, his ERA in that postseason was 27.00. Quite clearly, Millwood simply ran out of gas. Including the playoffs, he worked 252 and 2/3 innings, an enormous leap over his previous high of 174 and 1/3, established the previous season. But through his first 250 innings of the 1999 campaign (regular season and postseason combined), Millwood recorded an ERA of 2.52, winning 20 games and saving one more. And remember, that performance came at the peak of the Steroids Era.

    That work load seemed to lead to some physical ailments over the next two seasons, along with mediocre performances. Indeed, Millwood's ERA+ in 2000-2001 was exactly 100, rendering him the epitome of a league-average pitcher. But he bounced back in 2002 by winning 18 games with a 3.24 ERA (ERA+ of 129). He finished fifth in the National League in WHIP and seventh in SO:BB ratio, and for the second time in four seasons, he constituted Atlanta's best starting pitcher over the course of a summer and into the fall (in two starts versus Barry Bonds' Giants in the 2002 National League Division Series, Millwood recorded 14 strikeouts against 0 walks).

    Millwood followed his 2002 comeback campaign with two more mediocre seasons with the Phillies in 2003 and 2004, where he posted an ERA+ of 97 over 60 starts. Then he led the American League in ERA with Cleveland in 2005 at 2.86. To me, his "legacy" was that through the age of thirty, Millwood amounted to one of the best pitchers in baseball ... every three years.

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  2. Moreover, in 99 and 2/3 innings from August 13, 1999, through the first five innings of Game Six of the 1999 National League Championship Series, Millwood posted a 1.18 ERA. On a staff with Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz, Millwood virtually served as the definition of an ace.

    And in eight no-decisions during the 1999 regular season, Millwood posted a 1.66 ERA. He was deserving of about 25 wins that year ...

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