Facing one of the worst offenses in baseball last night, Andrew Miller yielded 10 baserunners, became the first pitcher to give up a home run to Orlando Hudson all season, and walked away with a no-decision, despite facing an unimpressive mound opponent and pitching for a clearly superior team.
He also pitched out of trouble multiple times, pitched backwards when he needed to, and induced nine whiffs out of 89 pitches. For a pitcher making his first big league start of the year following an 8.54 ERA last season, three runs allowed in 5 2/3 innings ain’t half bad. Clay Buchholz‘s stint on the disabled list might not hurt much at all.
A closer look at Miller’s outing shows more good signs than bad, 4.72 FIP notwithstanding. He punched out six Padres, and threw 65% of his pitches for strikes (a tick better than league average). He threw 1-0 change-ups and 2-1 sliders. Though he surrendered seven hits, the first two were of the infield variety, the third a roller by Chase Headley that barely scooted through the hole on the left side.
Miller was at his best in the 4th. Jesus Guzman led off the inning by clubbing a triple to dead center (Jacoby Ellsbury might have had a play on the ball, but he misjudged it at first, which may have caused him to rush his leap against the wall). Miller then got Hudson to pop out, struck out Cameron Maybin (the other main attraction who went to the Marlins in the Miguel Cabrera–Dontrelle Willis deal), and got Anthony Rizzo to fly out to end the inning. The Guzman triple, Hudson homer, and the Rizzo double that chased Miller in the 6th fooled nobody. But if this is what the Red Sox should come to expect from their 5th starter, they’re in even better shape than we thought.
That Miller is even on Boston’s roster is an intriguing development. The #6 overall pick in the 2006 draft, he came out of North Carolina as a rare baseball commodity: an accomplished lefty with a fastball that could touch the high-90s. He struggled with command in Detroit, then struggled some more with the Marlins. But as polished as his employers might have deemed him to be, few pitchers have any business pitching in the major leagues the same year they get drafted, Miller included. Maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised that Miller found his greatest success at Triple-A Pawtucket this season (including a 22-to-1 K/BB rate in his final three starts there). It may have simply taken him five years to overcome getting jerked around from the majors to the minors and back, without getting a chance to properly refine his stuff.
In fact, perhaps the most encouraging sign from last night was Miller rediscovering some (albeit not all) of that lost velocity. Per Brooks Baseball, Miller’s four-seam fastball sat around 93, his two-seamer around 94. Though it’s only one start, that’s an encouraging bump from the 91 he averaged in three years with the Marlins. Miller never had enough command of his slider and change-up to succeed while throwing in the low 90s. Two or three ticks higher, and he just might. And seven combined whiffs on the slider and change-up last night offer a glimpse of what could happen if those pitches improve from early-career levels as well.
You don’t give up on talent like Miller’s, and the Red Sox did well to throw a minor league deal at a talented pitcher who could help them address what looked like one of the team’s biggest weaknesses earlier in the season: the back of the rotation. The second-best team in the AL faced a similar problem after Cliff Lee spurned them, Andy Pettitte opted to retire, and Phil Hughes turned into a pumpkin (at least temporarily). The Red Sox could point to Miller’s relative youth and pedigree in scooping him up; what the Yankees did in grabbing Bartolo Colon was dumpster-diving of the highest degree. It’s also proved to be one of the best off-season moves by any team.
High-revenue clubs like the Yankees and Red Sox will extend their share of non-roster spring training invites and minor league contract offers, same as any other team. But being willing to give such players a legitimate chance at a roster spot, much less a prominent role, is another matter altogether. Granted, the Yanks and Sox typically have more talented rosters and thus fewer jobs to hand out. But you wonder how much stigma a team might face when it gets its hands a little too dirty — ‘You have a $200 million payroll, and we’re paying to watch this guy?’ — that type of scenario.
It’s encouraging, then, to see New York and Boston management look past those sentiments and start to sweat the small stuff. When J.P. Ricciardi acquired Jose Bautista from the Pirates for a player to be named later in 2008, he didn’t have high expectations. “This guy isn’t like Mike Schmidt,” the Jays then-GM told the Toronto Star’s Richard Griffin. “He’s not going to come out and hit 40 home runs.” Ditto for the Rays and Carlos Pena. Tampa Bay actually cut the big first baseman during spring training of 2007; they only called him back because projected starting first baseman Greg Norton got hurt that same day.
Obviously, neither team knew what they had. But having the freedom to try new players due to flawed rosters and smaller payrolls made those success stories possible.
In the cases of Miller and Colon, necessity was the mother of invention: No matter how much money a team has, finding 12 good pitchers to fill a staff will always be a formidable task. If the Yankees and Red Sox focus their dumpster-diving attention mostly on finding cheap, capable arms, so be it. As long as they keep doing it. Just because you can afford filet mignon doesn’t mean you should ignore the occasional cheap, greasy, delicious burger.
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