If you forgot that Hoby Milner is still on the Brewers 40-man roster, you are forgiven. After all, it’s pretty easy to forget about a soon-to-be 31-year-old reliever who regularly rode the shuttle between Triple-A and the big leagues and pitched primarily in a mop-up role. In 21 2⁄3 innings with the Brewers, he put up just a 5.40 ERA.
Milner is still with the organization, though. While he has pitched in parts of five big-league seasons, he has only accumulated approximately two years of service time, meaning he is not yet eligible for arbitration. The Brewers could keep him through the 2025 season if they wanted to.
The southpaw has one more option year remaining, so he could once again fill a shuttle role in 2022. However, there are some indicators from his performance at both the MLB and Triple-A levels last season that Milner could become a more regular member of the bullpen moving forward.
Last season, Milner changed where he stands on the mound before beginning his pitching motion. He previously centered his back foot on the rubber. He shifted it to the first-base side as a Brewer. Statcast’s release point tracking illustrates the change, but it is also discernible in standard game footage.
The adjustment is not a new one for Milner. He previously stood on the first base half of the rubber when he debuted for the Philadelphia Phillies in 2017.
On the surface, Milner’s rookie year appears to be his strongest season, but his shiny 2.01 ERA was largely smoke and mirrors. His strikeout rate was just 15.8% and his walk rate 11.5%, resulting in an ugly 1.38 K/BB ratio. An unsustainable 91% strand rate helped him mask a 1.47 WHIP.
It’s no wonder that the southpaw crashed and burned in a sophomore season that saw him allow eight runs in just seven MLB innings. After these struggles, he moved to the center of the rubber in 2019 and 2020.
The Phillies traded Milner to the Tampa Bay Rays after designating him for assignment in July of 2018. He appeared in only eight games for the Rays over parts of two seasons, but it was during this time that he began making an important improvement.
Milner’s breaking ball is officially classified as a curveball, but it often behaves more like a sweeping slider or slurve due to his arm angle. Because it lacks depth, it needs to have as much horizontal movement as possible to be effective.
With the Phillies, Milner’s curveball lacked that movement. When he joined the Rays organization, he began to add several inches of horizontal break, a trend that has continued through his subsequent stints with the Los Angeles Angels and the Brewers.
As the shape of his curveball improved, Milner began using it far more often while backing down from the extreme sinker-heavy approach that he used earlier in his career.
In 2021, as Milner made frequent trips back and forth between the Brewers and the Nashville Sounds, the combination of a refined curveball and returning to his old position on the rubber produced some notable results at both levels.
With the Brewers, his strikeout rate shot up to 30.3%, thanks in part to the whiff rate on his breaking ball jumping to 35%. Milner had never exceeded a strikeout rate of 22% in any of his previous big-league seasons. He also slashed his walk rate dramatically to just 3% and averaged 10 strikeouts per walk, a head-turning improvement from his K/BB woes as a rookie.
It may be easy to write these numbers off as small sample size noise, but they were continuations of Milner’s performance in Triple-A, meaning he excelled in two of the three true outcomes for 53 2⁄3 total innings across two levels. His figures were even more remarkable with the Sounds—a 40% strikeout rate, 1.7% walk rate, and 24 K/BB ratio. Milner posted a fantastic 1.69 ERA that was backed up by a 1.55 FIP and 71 DRA-.
None of this is to suggest that the lefty is suddenly without warts. His ERA with the Brewers was north of 5.00 for a couple of reasons. He did not throw enough effective changeups to hold his own against right-handed opponents. When batters made contact against him, it was loud contact. Milner served up eight home runs and yielded a 12.3% barrel rate. His career home run rate prior to 2021 was 1.62 per nine innings.
That said, much of that damage on balls in play was unsustainable. A .393 BABIP, 35% line drive rate, and 32% HR/FB ratio will almost always trend downward over a larger sample, even for a below-average pitcher. Milner’s 85 DRA- with the Brewers indicates that he pitched far better than his ERA suggests and dealt with some poor luck.
Milner will have to earn a roster spot out of spring training, and he may once again occupy a low-leverage shuttle role to start the year. However, the veteran sidewinder has been making improvements and adjustments over the past couple of seasons, and there was evidence in 2021 that things are starting to come together for him. Don’t be surprised if he makes a more significant impact for the 2022 Brewers.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs, Baseball Savant, and Baseball Prospectus.