Appreciating Kevin Millwood’s career

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It’s a trivia question that would have stumped most: who is the active leader in strikeouts among right-handed pitchers?

Until this morning, the answer was Kevin Millwood, at 2,083. Now it’s Roy Halladay, just 17 behind at 2,066, after Millwood announced his retirement.

An 11th-round pick by the Braves in 1993, Millwood opened his career in outstanding fashion, going 17-8 and 18-7 in his first two full seasons. He may have won the 1998 NL Rookie of the Year award, except he threw 1 1/3 too many innings in 1997. In 1999, he made the All-Star team, finished second to Randy Johnson in the NL in ERA and led the league in WHIP.

As it turned out, that was Millwood’s only All-Star team. He was 40-20 after his first 2 1/3 seasons. Afterwards, he was 129-132.

Following a 2002 season in which he went 18-8 with a 3.24 ERA, Millwood was involved in a controversial trade. The Braves, looking to cut payroll, shipped him to Philadelphia for middling catcher Johnny Estrada.

The deal didn’t really work out as hoped for either team. Estrada missed most of the 2003 season and then came back and had one fine year for the Braves in 2004. Millwood went 23-18 with a 4.34 ERA while earning $20 million in his two years with the Phillies. The team had no interest in bringing him back for the 2005 season.

With his stock down, Millwood signed a one-year deal with the Indians in free agency and then went 9-11 with an AL-best 2.86 ERA in 2005. He parlayed that campaign into a five-year, $60 million deal with the Rangers.

Millwood was a modest disappointment in Texas. After going 16-12 in a solid first season, he went 19-24 with ERAs over 5.00 each of the following two years. He bounced back with a nice 2009, going 13-10 with a 3.67 ERA, but the Rangers paid the Orioles to take him that winter.

Doomed in Baltimore, Millwood went 4-16 with a 5.10 ERA in his lone year in the AL East. Even though his numbers outside Camden Yards weren’t bad, no one wanted him afterwards. He finally got another chance with the Rockies towards the end of 2011 and went 4-3 with a 3.98 ERA in nine starts. The Mariners signed him last year, and he went 6-12 with a 4.25 ERA in 28 starts last season.

It’s hardly fair to label Millwood’s career a disappointment, but more was expected after his big start. His teams were often disappointments, and he never went to the postseason again after the Braves traded him (he was 3-3 with a 3.92 ERA in seven starts and two relief appearances with Atlanta).

Still, while Millwood wasn’t often great after the big start, he was never bad. He ended up with a first, a second and an eighth place finish in ERA. He won at least 16 games a total of four times. He led the NL in shutouts in 2003. He even had a couple of nice highlights in his final season with the Mariners. On May 18, he became just the 10th visiting pitcher to throw a shutout at Coors Field, pitching a two-hitter against the Rockies. Just three weeks later on June 8, he was involved in one of the most unusual no-hitters in history, throwing six innings before leaving due to injury and then watching as five relievers finished it off for him.

So, no, Millwood won’t be getting any Hall of Fame votes when the time comes. But 169-152 isn’t bad. Millwood is 188th all-time in wins and 59th in strikeouts. And given that he made about $90 million over the course of his career, he should have a lot of fun in retirement.

Must-Click Link: Do the players even care about money anymore?

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Yesterday I wrote about how the union has come to find itself in the extraordinarily weak position it’s in. The upshot: their leadership and their membership, happily wealthy by virtue of gains realized in the 1970s-1990s, has chosen to focus on small, day-to-day, quality of life issues rather than big-picture financial issues. As a result, ownership has cleaned their clock in the past few Collective Bargaining Agreements. If the union is to ever get back the considerable amount of ground it has lost over the past 15 years, it’ll require a ton of hard work and perhaps drastic measures.

A few hours later, Yahoo’s Jeff Passan dropped an absolute must-read that expands on that topic. Through weeks of interviews with league officials, agents and players, he explains why the free agent market is as bad as it is for players right now and why so many of them and so many fans seem not to understand just how bad a spot the players are in, business wise.

Passan keys on the media’s credulousness regarding teams’ stated rationales for not spending in free agency. About how, with even a little bit of scrutiny, the “[Team] wants to get below the luxury tax” argument makes no sense. About how the claim that this is a weak free agent class, however true that may be, does not explain why so few players are being signed.  About how so few teams seem interested in actually competing and how fans, somehow, seem totally OK with it.

Passan makes a compelling argument, backed by multiple sources, that, even if there is a lot of money flowing around, the fundamental financial model of the game is broken. The young players are the most valuable but are paid pennies while players with 6-10 years service time are the least valuable yet are the ones, theoretically anyway, positioned to make the most money. The owners have figured it out. The union has dropped the ball as it has worried about, well, whatever the heck it is worried about. The killer passage on all of this is damning in this regard:

During the negotiations leading to the 2016 basic agreement that governs baseball, officials at MLB left bargaining stupefied almost on a daily basis. Something had changed at the MLBPA, and the league couldn’t help but beam at its good fortune: The core principle that for decades guided the union no longer seemed a priority.

“It was like they didn’t care about money anymore,” one league official said.

Personally, I don’t believe that they don’t care about money anymore. I think the union has simply dropped the ball on educating its membership about the business structure of the game and the stakes involved with any given rule in the CBA. I think that they either so not understand the financial implications of that to which they have agreed or are indifferent to them because they do not understand their scope and long term impact.

It’s a union’s job to educate its membership about the big issues that may escape any one member’s notice — like the long term effects of a decision about the luxury tax or amateur and international salary caps — and convince them that it’s worth fighting for. Does the MLBPA do that? Does it even try? If it hasn’t tried for the past couple of cycles and it suddenly starts to now, will there be a player civil war, with some not caring to jeopardize their short term well-being for the long term gain of the players who follow them?

If you care at all about the business and financial aspects of the game, Passan’s article is essential.