After a full-year of stellar Triple-A production, Washington Nationals pitching prospect Tom Milone will finally earn his first major league start this weekend against the New York Mets. While his debut likely won’t be the most anticipated start by a young Washington Nationals pitcher this week, his performance over the next month very well may be the story of September.
Milone, 24, posted a 12-6 record in 24 starts for the Syracuse Chiefs this season. After initially receiving criticism early in his career for his inability to strike batters out (posted a 6.3 K/9 in A+ in 2009), the left-hander improved to become one of the best strikeout pitchers in the Nats minor league system this year, posting 155 strikeouts in 148.1 innings pitched in 2011. The number, however, that has caught not only the eye of scouts this summer, but also that of the national media, stem from Milone’s unprecedented control. For two consecutive seasons now he has posted fewer walks than he has starts, and this season he nearly matched his win total, 12, with his walk total, 16.
The combination of superior control and the ability to strike batters out at the highest level of the minor leagues is not something that can, nor should be ignored. This is why Milone has piqued the interest of so many Triple-A onlookers up to this point. To add even more intrigue, Milone has managed to produce outstanding numbers at each level, despite scouts often dismissing him as not having Major League stuff, or any top level out pitch. Nevertheless, the numbers can’t be ignored and while they may inevitably lead to nothing, they certainly have a number of people wondering if Milone can dominate at the next level the way he has at every one before.
So what can we reasonably expect?
Some critics have said that Milone is a second coming of John Lannan. A weak tossing southpaw who pitches to contact and despite all odds manages to get out of innings and maintain a relatively low ERA. Over the past two seasons he has been able to shed those comparisons in the lower level of the minors as his strikeout rate has risen, but the question still remains whether his stuff is good enough to fool big league talent, or if he will need to learn to pitch to contact the way Lannan has.
Clearly to be successful Milone will need to maintain the same level of deception that he had at the minor league level. Fangraphs today wrote that much of his success has come when pitching with no runners on base, to a pretty extreme degree. Fortunately a good way to avoid base runners is to not walk them, but it will be interesting to see if he will be able to keep runners off base when facing a squeezed strikezone and smarter batters with more talent.
While we can’t be certain what Milone will turn out to be, the excitement that the 10th rounder could someday develop into an important part of the Nationals rotation is what fuels the excitement around him. With Stephen Strasburg’s first 2011 start to come on Sep. 6, it certainly could be a very eye opening month for the Nationals heading into what should be a very competitive 2012.