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How the Brewers can try to make Shelby Miller right again

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Texas tried and lost patience, but Milwaukee gets to try at the minor league level

MLB: Texas Rangers at Detroit Tigers Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

In the offseason of 2015, the Arizona Diamondbacks front office made up of Chief Baseball Officer Tony LaRussa and General Manager Dave Stewart made some of the worst baseball decisions in the history of the sport. First, they signed then 32-year old Zach Greinke to a mega deal that would pay him $34-$35M per year until he is 37 years old (until year 2021). The total tally for the deal would cost the Diamondbacks $206.5M over the five years.

Going into the 2016 season, Arizona had a good young team with a nucleus of Paul Goldschmidt and A.J. Pollock to build around. With Greinke in the mix as the ace, Arizona was looking to build a rotation to be reckoned with. They also had a once-effective Patrick Corbin coming back from injury and a young fireballer looking to take the next step in Robbie Ray. What the front office felt they needed was a #2 level pitcher to compliment Greinke, and they had their sights set on the Atlanta Braves’ Shelby Miller.

What the Diamondbacks front office saw was a pitcher who was entering his age-25 season. In 2015 with a rebuilding Atlanta Braves team, he posted a record of 6-17. As is the case a lot of the time, the win-loss record fails to show the quality of pitcher. Miller performed much better than his record (205 13 innings pitched, 3.02 ERA, 127 ERA+, 3.45 FIP, and 1.25 WHIP). He also notched an All-Star appearance that year. He had pitched well in St. Louis in his three previous seasons, and LaRussa knew him well from his days managing the Cardinals. There was a lot to like about Shelby Miller, and any team’s front office would possibly if not probably see a young pitcher ready to the next step.

LaRussa and Stewart certainly felt that way, and they felt it so strongly that they went into trade negotiations thinking that they wanted the young hurler at any cost. Atlanta extracted a cost from Arizona that has gone down in MLB lore. For Miller, Atlanta received young center fielder, Ender Inciarte, that year’s No. 1 overall draft pick, Dansby Swanson, and a right-handed pitcher, Aaron Blair. Arizona also received Gabe Speier.

Inciarte has been a solid offensive weapon and a stellar defensive center fielder for Atlanta. Dansby Swanson is figuring it out, and becoming a very good major league player. Shelby Miller fell off a cliff.

In 2016, Miller was 3-12 with a 6.15 ERA. Worse yet, Miller’s follow through in his delivery was falling so low that he would hit his hand against the mound. His struggles on the mound, issues with his delivery, injuries, and quite possibly the pressure of living up to the trade cost incurred by Arizona took their effect on the young pitcher.

Between 2013-2105, Miller pitched in 561 23 innings with ERAs of 3.06, 3.74, and 3.02 respectively for each of those years. His time in Arizona was something altogether different. From 2016-2018, Miller totaled just 139 MLB innings. Tommy John surgery shut him down in 2017. Elbow problems in 2018 cut into his time on the mound. Thankfully Shelby Miller’s tortured tenure with the Diamondbacks ended with a non-tender after the 2018 season.

In January of this year, the Texas Rangers signed the still young (28 years old) right-hander to a one-year, $2 mil deal. Texas likely felt a change of scenery and being healthy would potentially net positive results. The potential was not realized. He pitched to a 8.59 ERA over 19 games, including eight starts. He allowed 58 hits and 29 walks in just 44 innings pitched. In July the Rangers let him go.

David Stearns and Company, looking at a situation that is low-risk but potentially high-reward, signed Miller to a minor league contract. As my colleague, Brad Ford, indicated in a recent post, Miller’s velocity still sits in the mid-90s, but he has changed his pitching repertoire quite a bit since 2015. Back then he was using a cutter and a sinker 21% and 34% of the time respectively. The cutter and sinker have become afterthoughts since his glory days in St. Louis and Atlanta. With increased four seamer usage (over 60%) as well as the curveball usage with little success to show, Brad ask that I take a deeper dive.

2015 pitch outcomes based on pitch types: Shelby Miller
2019 pitch outcomes based on pitch types: Shelby Miller

We can see that Brad is on to something. Where did the cutter and sinker go and why? He is still pumping his fastball at 95 mph. His curveball has sharp, downward movement (12-6), but is not a pitch that is swung at and missed. In some seasons, Miller struck out a fair share of hitters (10.54/9 in 2012 for example), but for the most part, he has been a pitch to contact pitcher. One striking difference between now and 2015 is his walks per nine. In 2015 he had a BB/9 of 3.20. With Texas this season, his BB/9 is 5.93. He cannot find the strike zone (bottom 8% in walk percentage), and he does not have a pitch to get opposing hitters out as is indicative of his 3rd percentile MLB ranking in K%. What is obvious is his lack of confidence in throwing anything other than the four seam fastball and curve, which are not really getting anyone out either.

His results are not good.

Between 2015 and 2019, something happened that caused Miller to change his pitching repertoire. In 2015, Miller spread things around nicely throwing his four seam 33.1%, his sinker 33.8%, and his cutter 21%. In 2016 (trade year from Atlanta to Arizona), he went to a majority of four seamers (50.9%) and less sinkers (13.8%) and cutters (18.2%). Could this have been a change in pitching philosophy in Arizona? Could this been the result of his delivery issues? Were the delivery issues related to throwing the sinker and cutter (sinker especially)? I am not sure, but I am suspicious.

It looks like in 2017, he got back to throwing more cutters and sinkers, but that became a Tommy John surgery year for him. In 2018 he went back to majority four seamers, but he had issues with TJ recovery and elbow inflammation. Would injury concerns or feel for those pitches coming off injury have played a part in reduction of cutter and sinker usage?

I am not sure why he is not throwing the cutter and the sinker any longer, but I looked at every one of his cutters and sinkers he threw for Texas. The cutter is actually a really encouraging pitch. It looks as if Texas had Miller throw the cutter against particular hitters whose names were Trout, Pujols, Bregman, Altuve, Springer, and Gordan Beckham. There were others, but each of these names saw multiple cutters from Miller. When he threw the cutter for a ball, it usually ended up in the dirt. When he threw it for a strike, it had good run in on the hands. No one but Jonathan Lucroy put a cutter into play, and it was softly hit. This pitch may need some refinement, but there is a lot to like if he would throw it more, and a lot more.

Miller has only thrown the sinker 10 or so times this season. A few of those times, the pitch runs up and out of the zone on him. That is certainly not what one wants to do with that pitch. The few times he was able to get the pitch down, there was really nice movement. Even when it is up, but in the zone, the pitch still ran in on right handed hitters. Unfortunately he just does not use the pitch.

Shelby Miller pitch types and usage

When he is not walking people, he is getting hit these days. He is in the 18th percentile in exit velocity, 20th percentile in xSLG, 18th percentile in xBA, and 6th percentile in xwOBA. All grade out as poor on Baseball Savant scales. Miller, and the Texas Rangers, were more confident in his ability to get the four seam fastball and the curve over. But he needs something else in his repertoire to keep hitters off balance. The pitch that I saw with the best chance of doing that is the cutter. Yet he threw it just 3.6% of the time in Texas.

As I mentioned this is a low-risk proposition. He was once a good pitcher that has been derailed by injury for sure, and confidence issues likely. Can they turn him around? Texas had to try to get Miller right at the major league level. The Brewers will not have that problem. The way that they do it might just be based around what Brad Ford saw when he did a little differential analysis between the last year he was good and this year. It would be a real surprise to me if he isn’t throwing his cutter and sinker (cutter especially) in San Antonio, and I would not be surprised if he were to become a solid, back-back-of-the-rotation starter or even a pretty good reliever.

One last item to think about regarding Miller. Remember he had Tommy John surgery. The recovery time for that surgery is said to be 12-15 months, and in many cases it is said that the pitcher comes back better than they were. That narrative may be based more in myth than in reality, especially when it comes to established big league pitchers who are not 22 years old.

As we know, Miller is in his second year removed from Tommy John surgery. It has taken other pitchers more than the requisite 12-15 months to get back to pitching effectiveness. I did a little analysis of pitchers that were once good pitchers at the major league level, and looked at their performance after TJ surgery. Look at these pitchers’ performance levels first year back vs. next few years after. Sorry for all of my Sabermetric nerds out there (like me), I used ERA for simplicity.

Alex Cobb:
Year 1 - 8.59 ERA
Year 2 - 3.66 ERA
Year 3 - 4.90 ERA

Homer Bailey:
Year 1 - 6.65 ERA
Year 2 - 6.43 ERA
Year 3 - 6.09 ERA
Year 4 - 4.87 ERA (so far 2019)

Zack Wheeler:
Year 1 - 5.03 ERA
Year 2 - 3.31
Year 3 - 4.51 (so far 2019)

Yu Darvish:
Year 1 - 3.41
Year 2 - 3.86 ERA
Year 3 - 4.95 ERA
Year 4 - 4.98 ERA (so far 2019)

Lance Lynn:
Year 1 - 3.43 ERA
Year 2 - 4.77 ERA
Year 3 - 3.69 ERA (so far 2019)

Andrew Heaney:
Year 1 - 7.06 ERA
Year 2 - 4.15 ERA
Year 3 - 5.40 ERA

Nathan Eovaldi:
Year 1 - 3.81 ERA
Year 2 6.00 ERA (so far 2019)

Every one of the pitchers listed are pitchers that have had Tommy John within the past few years (comeback came in 2016, 2017, or 2018). Everyone of these pitchers enjoyed success at the MLB level to varying degree prior to the surgery. In every case, performance diminishes from pre-surgery, but there is some form of resurgence in many of them. The time period, however, is varied. Cobb and Wheeler were good going into the second year, but struggled after. Darvish and Eovaldi were good immediately, but Darvish fell off in year 3 and Eovaldi is struggling this year and hurt. Heaney and Bailey have never returned to form. Lance Lynn has not quite returned to form either (although 2019 might change that narrative as he is pitching quite well of late), but been relatively effective for 3 years since surgery.

What this tells me, is that Shelby Miller might find his way again, but not to the same level as he was in St. Louis and Atlanta. His timeline for best performance after TJ surgery just might be in the not-so-distant future. Couple that with increased usage of his cutter and sinker to go along with his four seam and curve, and you just might have a decent pitcher. Unfortunately the likelihood is just as high that Shelby Miller may never be good again. That would be a shame for such a hard-luck kid who once was a very good pitcher. Let’s hope that the Brewers’ pitching development group can work their magic and bring Shelby Miller back to form.

Baseball statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball Reference, Baseball Savant, and Brooks Baseball