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March 29, 2011

Prospectus Q&A

Andrew Miller

by David Laurila

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Andrew Miller is an enigma getting another chance. Just how many more he’ll get, or needs, remains to be seen, but it is notable that the flame-throwing southpaw is only 25. Given all he has been through, you’d be excused for thinking he is older.

Drafted sixth overall by the Tigers in 2006, Miller was seen as a can’t-miss pitching prospect. The 6-foot-7 University of North Carolina product made just three minor-league starts before his big-league debut, seemingly erasing “prospect” from his description before the ink had even dried on his multi-million-dollar contract. His stuff was electric, his future neon bright. Or so it seemed.

Today, Miller is with his third organization and—whether he wants to admit it or not—at a crossroads. In 79 major-league appearances his record stands at 15-26, his ERA an ugly 5.84, his WHIP an almost unthinkable 1.74. He has endured more than one crisis of confidence, and no shortage of well-meaning but ultimately ineffective advice that has gotten him to where he is now: in Triple-A with the Red Sox, desperately hoping to find the success that eluded him in Detroit and with the Marlins.

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David Laurila: As we speak, where are you at in your career?

Andrew Miller: You know, a lot of times you hear about guys being at a crossroads, but I don’t think I’m quite there. I’m still young, although I certainly haven’t accomplished what I would like to have at this point in my career. I’ve had good stints and bad stints, and ultimately it all boils down to inconsistency. It’s nice to know that I can compete at this level, but I haven’t shown that I can consistently compete at this level and stick. That’s what I’m looking for. At this point in my career, that’s what I need to find if I want this to go where I think it can.

It’s obviously a process and it takes a lot of work. It’s not an easy game. If it was, everybody would be doing it. You always hear that cliché, but I think I’m getting there. I’m getting more and more comfortable. Last year was a really tough year, but my plan is to look back on it and say I learned a lot and became a better pitcher. I worked through a bunch of stuff. I think it’s coming. I don’t think it’s going to be like a switch that just turns on; it’s there and it just clicks. That would be nice, but I think I’m just going to have to keep working at it and it will eventually come.

DL: You’ve been asked this a million times, but why haven’t you met expectations?

AM: I don’t know. Like I said, it’s a tough game and I think the consistency for me is… going back to that, it’s such a key word. Whether that’s inconsistency in mechanics or my mental approach, I don’t know. I just think it’s something that generally takes a lot of experience. We live in a world of instant gratification and when I came up and pitched pretty well at times, people just assumed that it was going to be there. I certainly, myself, at times assumed that it was just going to stick. You get humbled pretty quick at this level. You pay your dues and build your experience, and eventually it comes. I think I’m getting close to that.

DL: In your rookie year, had somebody asked, “Are you ready yet?” you would have said, “Yes.” In retrospect, were you?

AM: I don’t know. Like you said, if you’d have asked me then I’d have said, “Absolutely.” I would have told you I have a lot to learn, and I would have told you it’s not always going to be easy. I like to think I have a pretty good head on my shoulders and knew it wasn’t going to be easy and come naturally, but I certainly wouldn’t have expected the bumps in the road that I’ve had.

I’m trying to turn this into a positive and look at it as a growing experience. I’m still 25 years old. I’m fortunate to have the major-league experience that I do. I know what it’s like to pitch at this level, and to pitch against this quality of lineups, and to have success at times against them. It’s just finding that, and going out there and doing it on a regular basis. 

DL: Baseball culture is such that one never admits to mental weakness, but have you maybe not been strong enough in that respect?

AM: I think when things are going well, the game gets a lot easier. You do the right things and you’re not consciously thinking about it. I think that a true test is when things are going tough, how quickly can you get right back into the correct frame of mind and go out there and compete, because you have to be in the right frame of mind to compete at this level. Whether that’s dealing with failure or fixing inconsistencies or whatnot, there’s a lot to learn, and it’s certainly something I can get better at. I’m working toward that. I’m treating the mental side of the game now just the same as the physical, and I think maybe I didn’t do that in the past.

DL: Have you stood on a major-league mound and realized you were thinking too much?

AM: Yeah, I think that would sum up the last year and a half or so. I certainly got into a situation where I was thinking about all the wrong things. Instead of thinking about competing and thinking about attacking the hitter and the strike zone, my frame of mind was more concerned with what I needed to do mechanically, or what do I need to do to throw a strike. It wasn’t, “I’m going to throw a strike right here.”

That is something everybody can work on, and I’m spending a lot of time on doing that now. I think it’s starting to pay off. It’s darn near impossible to pitch at this level and not have your mind in the right place, and I can certainly say that there were plenty of times in the last year-and-a-half to two years where I have been on a major-league mound thinking about entirely the wrong things. Part of that is human nature, but part of it is training yourself to fix it and getting yourself in the right frame of mind. 

DL: Are you doing most of that on your own, or are you working with [Red Sox sports psychologist] Bob Tewksbury?

AM: You have to do both. Having a resource like that is obviously great. I look forward to getting to know him better and using him more, because I know that he’s helped people in the organization. They think highly of him, and his track record is great. It’s a skill, just like throwing a curveball is a skill. Having the right mental approach is certainly a valuable skill, and it’s something you need to pitch well.

DL: When you were in Detroit, did you utilize [sports psychology coach] Brian Peterson?

AM: To be honest with you, not at all. I never did. I don’t know whether that was being hard-headed, or like you said, there’s a tendency in this game to think “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” I think it’s something I probably overlooked when I was younger, but that’s something I’m not taking for granted now. I’m certainly trying to take full advantage of it.

DL: How have pitching coaches impacted your career?

AM: A lot of people have worked really hard for me and have spent a lot of time with me. Like I said, last year was a tough year, but I had some people that really worked with me and I can’t thank them enough for that. It got to the point where I knew I had things to fix, and much of it was mental. I think there’s something to be said for over-coaching, or for thinking too much while you’re on the mound, but there is a place in your side work, or your drill work, where mechanics and coaching is great. To me, a good pitching coach is someone who helps you as much on the mental side as the physical side. I think you have to balance the two.

DL: How many mechanical changes have you gone through?

AM: I would say at first there were none, and then there was a phase over the last few years that it seemed like it was endless. It certainly wasn’t for lack of effort or desire. Everybody had my best interest in mind. I just think that a lot of times I carried it out to the game mound and you can’t pitch that way. At least I know I can’t pitch that way. Like I said, part of the experience I’ve drawn from is, “OK, I know that there’s a time and a place for working on things and thinking about mechanics, but there’s no place for that on the game mound.” You just can’t be successful that way.

A lot of the idea has been that I had to simplify. If I simplified my mechanics, my command would improve and I would throw more strikes. The general thought was always that I had pretty good stuff, but for me it was that the more I thought about mechanics, and the more I worked on mechanics and carried that to my pitching, the more my stuff diminished. I became more and more of an average or below-average stuff kind of guy. If you don’t have perfect command, it’s hard to pitch that way, so I’m trying to get back to throwing the ball in what is more of a natural way for me—more the way I threw before I ever thought about mechanics. There’s a fine line between improving things and taking away what’s naturally yours.

DL: How much has video been used in assessing your mechanics?

AM: I’ve watched video comparing a recent major-league start to a high school outing, or to college outings and early in my pro career. I think for me, a lot of that eventually accomplished what I was getting away from. I’m trying to get back to where my arm slot was and how I attacked hitters. I think as much of that was my mental approach on the mound as it was my physical approach. By thinking mechanically so much, things began to change and now everything was out of whack. When you’re going well, it becomes a pretty simple game. You don’t think a whole lot, you just execute the pitch. Your arm works naturally, your body works naturally, and I think I got away from that.

DL: Where is your stuff right now?

AM: I think it’s coming back. It’s been frustrating to go out there and feel like I’m putting out a greater amount of energy than I did in the past, only to see that my breaking ball is not as sharp, or my fastball velocity is not as good. But I think that stuff is coming back. I’ve also learned the last couple years that when you’re on that game mound, you just have to compete and be aggressive. I’m getting back to that right now.

DL: Successful pitchers sometimes go from a small market to a big market and struggle because of the extra pressure. You’re a relatively unsuccessful pitcher who is going into a big market needing to relax.

AM: That’s an interesting way to look at it. For me, this is an interesting scenario. Yeah, you’re talking about a big market, but I’m certainly not a big fish here. You have so many big names, and perennial All-Stars and such an established roster, that I’m not really a focus of the media. That’s not anything I have to worry about. For me, the experience I’ve gained from pitching in the big leagues the last few years is that I know what it’s like to pitch in front of a crowd and all that stuff; I don’t think I’ll be in a situation where I’ll be surprised or anxious about pitching in the Boston market. I’ve done it; I’ve pitched in Boston before. That hump is not there for me. Detroit had some media scrutiny. We certainly had great crowds. It’s something I’ve experienced, so I’m more concerned about what I do on the mound. I think I can be pretty good at managing stuff away from the field.

DL: Any final thoughts?

 AM: I’m excited. I think this is a good place for me. I certainly thought that coming in, and it’s just been validated the longer I’ve been here. I can’t speak enough of how well they’ve treated me and how they’ve handled me. It’s a situation where I’m trying to simplify, but then at the same time they’re trying to help me come back to what I think I can be, or what I think I can accomplish. So far, the way they’ve handled me is as well I could have asked for. I’m just excited to be a part of it and trying to pitch well. 

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