And on we march to the LCS! Unfortunately, one of the teams making that claim this year yet again is the Cardinals, who dispatched my Dodgers to the golf courses of Southern California for the second straight year. And one of the guys who helped set up their 412th-straight NLCS clash with the Giants was 23-year-old Shelby Miller, who pitched 5 2/3 reasonably strong innings in the Division Series clincher.
Now, if you rewind just two months to the beginning of August, this highlight would’ve been an improbable one to predict. At the time, Miller was staggering his way through a terribly disappointing sophomore campaign. His 4.14 ERA and 1.39 WHIP through July were paired with ugly strikeout and walk rates, resulting in a brief demotion from the rotation and an ownership rate that cratered at 67 percent in Sportsline leagues after the All-Star break. Hope for the breakout that many envisioned pre-season looked to be as fleeting as Miller’s command, and those with long-term dynasty league investments in the talented right-hander were exploring options to ship him for cents on the dollar as trading deadlines approached.
Well, some interesting things happened in August and September, and Miller’s tweaked his attack in ways that have produced far better results over his last eight starts and counting. So let’s take a look at what’s changed and what it may or may not mean for expectations heading into 2015.
Miller was drafted out of high school in the first round, 19th overall, by the St. Louis Cardinals in 2009. Any time an organization like the Cardinals that typically targets college arms breaks their mold and snaps up a high schooler in the first round, it’ll raise eyebrows, and when they sign him to a club-record $2.875 million bonus to pry him away from a strong college commitment, it ups the ante all the more. Miller was seen by scouts as one of the top high-school arms in the country thanks to a prototypical frame, balanced, clean mechanics, and a power arsenal. His four-seam fastball drew praise as one of the best pitches in the draft class, and while there were minor concerns about sloppy present command his athleticism and simple, repeatable delivery led scouts across the board to project improvement going forward.
Miller immediately jumped to the top of the Cardinals Top 11 prospect list after signing. He earned a full-season assignment to Quad Cities in 2010, where he continued to impress our own Kevin Goldstein over four viewings. He would hold on to the mantle of Cards’ top prospect for each of the next two years during his ascent up the minor league chain, cracking the top 10 of the 2012 BP 101 after dominating two levels. All systems appeared go. It was that year at Memphis of the Pacific Coast League, however, that the first red flags began to emerge. His fastball lost a tick of velocity and a full grade of projection, his secondaries stagnated, and concerns about his focus and commitment surfaced for the first time. He rebounded from a disastrous first-half ERA over six to return to dominant form in the second half and salvage his season, but some palpable damage had been done to his prospect standing.
Fast-forward two years, and Miller has produced a very uneven big league career to date. He’s posted stretches of absolute brilliance, most notably the first half of 2013 when he rocked a 2.02 ERA over his first ten starts of the season. But he’s also given fantasy owners long of stretches of avert-your-eyes terribleness. His command has come and gone with maddening inconsistency, leading to plenty of fantasy baseball frustration—at least up until the stretch run this summer, anyway.
What Wrong Right in 2014
Let’s start with the negatives. Miller was more or less unusable in standard leagues for large swaths of 2014. He held his surface stats together through April, winning three games with a 3.15 ERA. But he posted a terrible 1.46 WHIP and below the deck there were harbingers of doom looming all over the place. His ERA was propped up by the unholy combination of a .237 BABIP and 95 percent strand rate, while his walks were up and his whiffs down considerably. I maintained my optimism then, but while he did manage to reign in his command some in May, lady luck took a bite out of his topline numbers as his line drive rate and BABIP spiked. His whiffs continued to wither away as summer progressed, bottoming out in July at a minuscule 11.5 percent rate that would make Mark Buehrle blush. Even with the late-season recovery we’ll discuss below, Miller finished the season as just the 92nd-ranked starting pitcher in standard 5×5 formats. Worse yet, the bulk of that value was tied to his 10 wholly unpredictable Wins. His 4.54 FIP was the seventh worst among qualified starters, while his final tally of 6.25 K/9 represented a staggering dropoff from his nearly one-per-inning mark in 2013.
So what happened here? Well, first and foremost batters swung and missed at significantly less of his pitches. For the first four months of the season Miller maintained an extremely four-seam-heavy profile, relying on the pitch over 70 percent of the time. But that pitch generated a swinging-strike rate roughly three percentage points below last year’s clip. Batters also managed to stay more patient with Miller this year, chasing balls out of the zone at a three-percentage-point lower pace than they did in 2013. Unable to induce as many chases and simultaneously unable to fool batters on pitches they did offer at, Miller saw his whiff rate fall off the table for a huge chunk of the season.
And for its part, his curveball—already a below-average deuce for generating swings-and-misses—also lost about three percentage points of whiffs, lowlighted by a failure to generate a single swing-and-miss in 79 total offerings in the month of July. His curve took on a notably softer feel this season, and that may help us to explain a bit of the pitch’s regression. All told, Miller threw the pitch on average more than two miles an hour slower, leading to a rounder pitch with a longer vertical drop but less bite. In addition to swinging and missing less often at the pitch, batters teed off on the softer version to the tune of 40 more points of batting average and 50 points of slugging against, and he gave up a robust 29 percent line-drive rate on the pitch. Ouch.
What Went Right in 2014
The Cardinals acquired Justin Masterson at the trade deadline. It’s a fun narrative to examine, as Masterson’s arrival in St. Louis coincides neatly with Miller’s deployment of a brand new two-seam fastball grip. It’s a pitch Miller has publicly credited Masterson with helping him develop and hone, and indeed his August and September pitch usage charts suggest Miller began going to the pitch as a legitimate compliment to his four-seamer right around the time he started to pitch more effectively down the stretch. The tides started to turn for Miller with an August 23rd quality start against the Phillies in which he deployed a sinker over 40 percent of the time seemingly out of nowhere. The outburst was apparently enough to put opposing hitters on alert, because his four-seamer proceeded to play up in each of his next three starts despite not really unveiling the two-seam compliment again until the middle of September. He then proceeded to drop the pitch into his mix at about a 15 percent clip over his final three regular season starts before going to it 10 percent of the time against the Dodgers earlier this week. We’re certainly dealing with some small sample sizes here, but there may just be something brewing. The two-seamer has produced a robust 58 percent ground-ball rate when he has gone to it. And perhaps just as importantly he’s managed to produce nigh on equal velocity with the four- and two-seam fastballs while generating over four inches of disparate movement between the pitches. That’s helped his four-seamer generate more swings-and-misses and less damaging contact in the process.
All told Miller’s final seven regular season starts produced a 2.08 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, and 32-to-nine strikeout-to-walk ratio over 43 1/3 innings. When coupled with the new pitch and distinct change in approach there’s at least enough here to offer owners a glimmer of hope going forward.
What to Expect in 2015
Ah, the $64,000 question. Well, it’s worth noting first and foremost that even during his run of success down the stretch he still wasn’t exactly overmatching hitters, and perhaps the biggest reason why centers around continued poor results with his breaking ball. His velocity remained down with the pitch in August and September, the shape remained the same, and he was still generating whiffs with less than five percent of his offerings with the pitch. His (modest) strikeout gains during the run were by and large the exclusive product of better four-seam results, and his improved strikeout rate (6.64 per nine) remained far below the benchmark for even a mid-rotation fantasy starter. If the missing strikeouts don’t return, there’s a constraining limit to just how high a ceiling we can expect. It’s not like we’re talking about a Doug Fister or Kyle Lohse type who can sustain a strong fantasy profile despite lacking big strikeout numbers. Miller’s a fly-ball pitcher with spotty control, and there just aren’t a ton of those who manage to thrive as consistent big league starters without the aid of significant a strikeout rate. If he can’t bring the potential for plus strikeout totals into the mix, he doesn’t make for a particularly attractive fantasy target.
I’d keep a close eye on both his two-seam deployment and his curveball velocity in the spring. It seems a wise bet to expect him to continue working the two-seamer into his arsenal on a more consistent basis given the success he’s found with the pitch lately, and if he demonstrates a similar ability next year to work both his two- and four-seamers in the same velocity band it’ll be a big thumbs up. Perhaps more importantly, I’ll be looking to see if he’s able to rediscover the velocity and plane of his curveball in Spring Training and on into April. Even if he can just bump his whiff rate with that pitch back up into the seven to eight percent range he registered in 2013 it could just portend a big step forward for Miller. If not…well, we’re more likely to get something in between the early- and late-season versions of Miller we got this year, and that’s a back-end guy in shallow leagues and a fourth starter in deeper ones.
The Great Beyond
I have absolutely no idea what to project for Miller long term at this point. He’s clearly a pitcher still searching for an identity at the big-league level. But he’s also a pitcher who will be entering just his age-24 season, and he happens to pitch for one of the best developmental organizations in baseball. And it’d be a mistake to forget that he’s a guy who for the first 21 years of his life received near-universal praise for his frontline talent and projectability. We shouldn’t be too quick in writing off that potential because he’s struggled to find consistency early in his career.
I’m going to keep my enthusiasm tempered for the time being, because the reality is that at this point it’s far more likely Miller doesn’t develop into the number two ceiling evaluators envisioned for him. 2015 will be something of a crossroads year for Miller. He’ll be arbitration eligible after the season, and given the organizational depth and perpetual win-now culture in St. Louis another poor season could very well be enough to lead to a change of roles at the least, if not a change of organization entirely. He could top out as a no. 4 starter, he could take the step forward everybody thought he’d have in him, or he could blow out his arm next May and never be heard from again.
Owners in dynasty leagues really have no choice but to sit tight and continue holding out hope that middle option comes to fruition. He doesn’t hold much value at all as a trade commodity, and there’s virtually no hope for an owner to generate surplus value moving him. For those in re-draft leagues he’ll make for a decent flyer provided you’re able to draft him for back-of-the-rotation value. Anything beyond that will probably be a tough draft-day cost to justify given the decidedly mixed results he’s produced to date.