John McGrath

McGrath: Mariners smart to take Miley’s stability over Iwakuma’s suspect durability

Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma throws against the Colorado Rockies on Sept. 11. Iwakuma, a free agent, signed with the Dodgers on Monday.
Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma throws against the Colorado Rockies on Sept. 11. Iwakuma, a free agent, signed with the Dodgers on Monday. The Associated Press

New Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Wade Miley shares a record-book distinction with the unforgettable Nolan Ryan and the very forgotten Sloppy Thurston. Which says something about the distinction, though I’m not sure what.

But Jerry Dipoto’s motives for acquiring Miley in a Monday trade with the Boston Red Sox were not steeped in an obscure record. Dipoto, who once served as an interim general manager for the Arizona Diamondbacks before taking on the challenge of overhauling the Mariners, knows Miley from the left-hander’s developmental phase as a top Diamondbacks prospect.

During Dipoto’s brief stint as a Red Sox consult this past summer, he got reacquainted with the former first-round draft choice from Southeastern Louisiana University.

Dipoto calls Miley “a proven major league starter who brings a level of stability to the middle of our rotation.” The key words in that description are “proven,” “stability” and “middle.”

Having made 98 starts over the past three seasons — more than any other lefty in the big leagues — Miley is an unsensational workhorse, who can be counted on to take the ball every fifth day. The tenuous durability of the Mariners starters wasn’t the primary reason for their 2015 flop, but it was a reason: Winning streaks are elusive when the rotation is uncertain.

At full strength, when the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars, Hisashi Iwakuma is an All-Star caliber hoss. This explains why the Los Angeles Dodgers just signed the right-handed free agent to a three-year deal for a reported $45 million. Baseball teams are swimming in money, none more so than the Dodgers, but that’s still a lot to guarantee a fragile pitcher who turns 35 in April.

After making three starts for Seattle last spring, Iwakuma was diagnosed with a strained back muscle that sidelined him for the first two and a half months. By the time he rejoined the rotation, on July 6, the Mariners were 38-45, 10 games out of first place.

If I’m forced to choose between Miley and an able Iwakuma starting any given game, the call is easy: Iwakuma. But if I’m choosing between relying on Miley and an injury-prone Iwakuma for a season or three, the call is just as easy: Miley.

The runner-up to Bryce Harper for the National League Rookie of the Year award in 2012, Miley is among the 74 pitchers to have accomplished what’s known as an immaculate inning: Three batters up, three batters down, nine strikes thrown, the defense converted into field-view spectators.

Sandy Koufax did it an unsurpassed three times, and fellow Hall-of-Fame pitchers Lefty Grove, Randy Johnson and Ryan did it twice. Names such as those suggest exclusive membership in an all-time great club.

But does anything scream all-time great about Brian Lawrence, Buddy Carlyle and Mike Magnante? They also threw immaculate innings, as did John Strohmayer, Jerry McLaughlin and Rich Harden.

Miley’s feat is notable because he was a rookie when he needed only nine pitches to strike out the side — Jonathan Herrera, Drew Pomerantz and Josh Rutledge — against the Colorado Rockies on Oct. 1, 2012.

The only other rookies to breeze through an inning on nine strikes? Sloppy Thurston, for the Chicago White Sox in 1923, and Ryan, for the New York Mets in 1968.

Thurston retired with an 89-86 record — he was a 20-game winner in 1924, when his 28 complete games led the American League — and had he been born 90 years later, his grandchildren would be lucky-for-life millionaires.

If any grandchildren are on the way for Miley, it’s likely they won’t be destitute. His contract guarantees him $6.1 million for 2016 and $8.1 million in 2017. Should the Mariners decline a $500,000 buyout in 2018, he’s looking at a third season in Seattle at $12 million, with an an additional $2 million in performance incentives.

And yet, by any definition of modern baseball economics, Wade Miley rates as a bargain. A lefty good to go at least six innings once a week, he fits nicely into the third rotation spot behind Felix Hernandez and Taijuan Walker.

Solidifying the rotation was not without cost for Dipoto. He gave up Carson Smith, a power-armed reliever blessed with the stuff of a lights-out closer, along with lefty starter Roenis Elias, capable of throwing the kind of curve ball that makes major league hitters wish they’d taken up soccer when they were 12.

But while Smith and Elias remain projects, Miley arrives in Seattle with a proven reputation for consistency. Count on him starting at least 32 times and throwing at least 193 innings, none of which figure to be immaculate.

Retiring three batters on nine strikes is an impressive accomplishment. More impressive is taking the mound every fifth game for six months. No issues, no questions, no drama, just be there in the way Hisashi Iwakuma couldn’t.

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