|BOSTON RED SOX|
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Peter Gammons created a mini-controversy last week, as he tweeted that the Yankees (amongst others) had tampered with Miller in attempts to have him opt out of his contract. Miller did not, and the Yankees instead grabbed Brian Gordon, whom the esteemed Jay Jaffe covered in detail last week. It feels funny that a starting pitcher with a career 5.84 earned run average and 5.06 Fair Run Average is the center of such a firestorm, but then again, Miller was in headlines earlier this season, when it was revealed that the Red Sox took an extra step to prevent another team from claiming him on waivers. A successful waiver claim would have triggered a club option for the 2012 season at $3 million, and given Miller’s stock at the time, guaranteed money proved an effective defense mechanism.
So, here is Miller, once again in a major league rotation. Five years ago, when the Tigers made him the sixth-overall pick in the draft, there were frontline starter expectations. And why wouldn’t there be with a lanky lefty who possesses the stuff Miller had coming out of the University of North Carolina. Miller reached the majors later in the 2006 season and struggled in a 10-inning stint. He again struggled in 13 starts for the Tigers in 2007, and after the season, Detroit traded him (and others) to the Marlins for Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis.
To say Miller’s career with the Marlins went poorly is being kind. Miller made 58 appearances (41 of those being starts), completed 220 innings pitched, and walked 125 batters, giving him a 1.41 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his Florida career. After three seasons with Florida, Miller would be out of options entering the 2011 season, and the Marlins opted to trade him for something—anything—rather than losing him on waivers in the springtime. Anything became Dustin Richardson last November, as Boston decided to attempt and salvage Miller’s potential.
Miller has spent 2011 in Triple-A with unimpressive overall results, as he still gave up nearly five free passes per nine innings pitched. The saving grace in Miller’s performance is a recent stretch of four starts with improved results. In those four starts, Miller has fanned 26 batters, walked four of them, and loaded his batted ball basket with grounders. It is a small sample size and should be treated as such, but there are already some narratives being attached to the improvements that make you say, “Well…maybe.”
Former Prospectus contributor Marc Normandin wrote about the big one floating around, concerning Miller’s pre-game preparation. It wouldn’t be the first time a pitcher changes his regimen before games and finds improved success. One recent anecdote to point to is Jeff Niemann. Early in 2009, Niemann found himself struggling once he got around the 90-pitch mark, and as it turns out, those endurance issues may have stemmed from the big fellow throwing too much before the game started. Miller’s, on the other hand, might have their genesis in not throwing enough before the game started.
Or it could be that Miller’s problems have less to do with the physicality of pitching, and more to do with the mentality. Normandin pointed out that Miller has the tendency to nibble around the plate, and Miller himself says he now feels more aggressive out of the gate. Being aggressive on the mound is a common theme today, as minor leaguer Dirk Hayhurst wrote about the subject too. Pitching to contact has a negative connotation, as it implies that you want the batter to hit the baseball. In reality, it’s about the mindset, and not being afraid of the batter possibly putting the ball into play.
It’s not about throwing meatballs down the middle or never using the margins of the plate to your advantage, but it is about going after hitters with a sense of confidence in your stuff. Nibbling is a difficult thing to quantify, as it can mean different things for different pitchers, but if Miller has indeed began to own his stuff, then perhaps his career can once again head down the promising path that so many expected it to.