Saturday, August 18, 2012

Desert hope

Padres fans, be encouraged that Wade Miley is having the best year of any Diamondbacks pitcher, even if you detest the Diamondbacks.

The same scout charged with drafting players for the Padres pushed for Arizona to select Miley in 2008. Chad MacDonald scouted Miley when the lefty pitched for Southeastern Louisiana University. Even though Miley didn't often face top-flight opponents, MacDonald, Arizona's assistant scouting director, still liked him--a lot. When Miley's name came up in the club's predraft talks, MacDonald did the Khrushchev thing. "Chad really pounded the table for us to draft him," said Josh Byrnes, Arizona's general manager at the time.

"He was an easy one to like -- left-handed with three major league pitches thrown for strikes," MacDonald said. "He was durable. I thought a little more was in there. I wasn't the only one in the organization that liked him. Give (scouting director) Tommy Allison all the credit in the world for drafting him."

Following are several words about the challenges of pitching in Arizona. The arid climate bedevils many pitchers. They say the dryness makes the baseballs too slick. Batted baseballs go faster and farther in Phoenix than they do in San Diego. For a grounds crew, it's more difficult to maintain a uniform playing surface in Phoenix, where the ballpark is air-conditioned part of the time and baked at other times. Outfielders and infielders alike says it's trickier to play defense in Phoenix than in San Diego, which is a paradise for defenders. Dave Roberts, a former outfielder who played for three NL West teams, said groundballs to the outfield in Phoenix sometimes "snake." This makes an outfielder cautious, making it easier for runners to take an extra base. In San Diego, groundballs stay true. What's more, flyballs here dawdle in the cool coastal air, allowing Cameron Maybin to take a false step or two yet still run down the ball.

Miley has breezed across the difficult terrain to deliver a 13-8 record and a 2.96 ERA. His ballpark-adjusted ERA listing by baseball-reference.com is 146+. Average is 100; the higher the number, the better the performance. Every Padres starting pitcher who's made at least six starts has an adjusted ERA below 95.

Miley is far from a cinch to repeat the success he's having. All the same, the Padres won't complain if MacDonald's evaluations for them are as successful as his read on Miley, who was drafted 43rd and has far outperformed Arizona's No. 26 pick of that year, Daniel Schlereth, another lefty pitcher. Byrnes joined the Padres as a consultant late in 2010. Last November, one month after becoming GM, he hired MacDonald and put him in charge of the draft. As it happened, the first player he selected for the Padres was a lefty pitcher, Max Fried. I've heard great things about Fried from scouts not affiliated withe Padres.

"You're always more surprised when things don't pan out with a player you like than when they do," MacDonald said. "Wade had a good look in his eyes, which made it little easier to take him."

Miley didn't evolve on his own into major league pitcher. He had rough patches early in his minor league career. Good for him that a veteran baseball man, Bob Gebhard, took a keen interest in him. Gebhard is a gruff but caring teacher who has spent 48 years in baseball. Last winter, he received the Chief Bender award, baseball's top individual honor for player development. Gebhard, who can be blunt, challenged Miley to better prepare himself, to toughen up. To his credit, Miley took the words to heart.

"I wish him all the success in the world, except when he faces us," MacDonald said.

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