How Shelby Miller Resembles the Model Starting Pitcher

I don’t know if you can really understand until he’s yours. You might’ve forgotten, but Cliff Lee pitched for the Mariners once, and while I knew Lee was an ace starter beforehand, it wasn’t until I watched him every five days that I really “got” it. Lee was perfect. He wasn’t and isn’t the best starting pitcher in the world, but he’s close, and he does everything perfectly, just like you’d want him to. He’s always pitching in the strike zone, so he doesn’t get himself in trouble. He works quickly, which is refreshing, and his command is as good as anyone’s. Because of the zone work, Lee doesn’t issue walks, and because of the command and the quality of the stuff, Lee manages to rack up the strikeouts. Lee’s quick and always ahead in the count, and if you’ve had the chance to watch him and root for him, you know the way that I feel. When Lee isn’t pitching, you wish that he were.

Lee, then, is a superior form, a rare form, and he shouldn’t be the subject of many comparisons. Certainly, you wouldn’t expect to see his name linked to that of a right-handed young starter with basically two pitches. In terms of scouting reports, Cliff Lee and Shelby Miller don’t have a whole lot in common, aside from the fact that they throw baseballs at guys in equipment. But when you look at the processes, when you look at the results, Miller’s following in the right footsteps from a very young age.

I mean, you could make this really easy if you wanted to. Lee, this year, has got a 66 ERA- and an 81 xFIP-. Miller, this year, has got a 63 ERA- and an 82 xFIP-. Bam, that simple! Article finished! Article not finished, although you already know where it’s going. If you care only about general ideas, and not at all about details, then you’ve read as much as you need to.

Lee’s been interesting, in that he’s long run good strikeout rates without missing an extraordinary number of bats. The rate of contact has never been bad, but Lee’s been generating more strikeouts than you might think. He’s up to it again in 2013, with a below-average contact rate but an above-average strikeout rate. League-wide, there’s a strong correlation between the two statistics, just like you’d think, and you can plot them to try to come up with a simple “expected strikeout rate.”

kcontact2013

We find Cliff Lee comfortably above the best-fit line. We find Shelby Miller more comfortably above the same best-fit line. Lee ranks sixth in baseball in the difference between actual K% and expected K% based just on contact. Miller ranks first, striking out well more than a quarter of batters instead of the expected fifth. There are a variety of reasons for why a pitcher might deviate from the line, but with Lee and Miller both, the key is the way they pitch so aggressively.

It’s relentless strike-throwing, is what it is. Lee’s got baseball’s highest strike rate, and Miller’s in ninth out of 133. Lee’s got baseball’s fourth-highest zone rate, and Miller’s in 11th. Just on these two numbers, Miller isn’t meaningfully different from, say, Kevin Slowey, but Miller’s more able to miss bats, which is what allows him to pitch so aggressively without getting burned.

I’m going to use some numbers available at StatCorner. The site tracks pitches thrown ahead in the count, behind in the count, and even. “Ahead” counts are 0-and-1, 0-and-2, 1-and-2, and 2-and-2. “Behind” counts are 1-and-0, 2-and-0, 3-and-0, and 3-and-1. “Even” counts are 0-and-0, 1-and-1, 2-and-1, and 3-and-2. Here’s a table:

Ahead Behind Even
Miller 43% 14% 43%
Lee 42% 13% 45%
Average 36% 17% 47%

Miller and Lee both have worked in advantageous counts well more than the average. And there are other ways of looking at this, which we’re going to do below, because why not? As long as we’re looking at information that seldom gets eyes, we might as well present a lot of it.

This year, 128 pitchers have started at least ten games. Using Baseball-Reference, I ranked them in descending order of rate of plate appearances ending with the pitcher ahead. I know that’s kind of a mouthful, but it’s a simple concept, and here’s the very top of the list:

  • Shelby Miller, 42.4%
  • Cliff Lee, 42.0%

How about the rate of plate appearances that get to an 0-and-2 count? No better count for a pitcher than an 0-and-2 count. The very top of the list, again:

  • Phil Hughes, 28.9%
  • Cliff Lee, 28.5%
  • Shelby Miller, 27.3%

Hughes’ inclusion shows that the correlation between this and success isn’t perfect, but maybe Hughes has been doing better than his ERA would suggest. Or maybe he’s just been making molehills out of mountains. Finally, how about plate appearances that get to two-strike counts? The very top of the list:

  • Shelby Miller, 65.6%
  • Cliff Lee, 60.4%

This is a big one. Baseball-Reference appears to have searchable count data going back to 1988. Let’s run that same query for 1988-2013, looking at individual pitcher seasons with at least ten games started. Rate of plate appearances that get to two-strike counts:

Miller has made a habit of getting himself into two-strike counts, doing so two-thirds of the time someone comes to the plate. This is the highest rate in at least recent history for a starting pitcher, and though these counts are happening a little more often with strikeout rates on the rise, two-strike counts are lethal, and Miller is finding them. Miller is earning them, and Miller is thriving as a consequence.

I know this post has been heavy with numbers, even for FanGraphs. I know it’s easier on the eyes and easier on the mind to look at some stills and some .gifs, and I flirted with the idea of adding some Miller .gif porn just because. But I’ll stick with the stat porn, and let it stand on its own. Shelby Miller doesn’t have Cliff Lee’s command, and one of the reasons Miller gets into so many deep counts is because, relative to Lee, he’s a bit harder to hit. So he gets deeper in terms of both strikes and balls. But if you thought a Miller/Lee comparison would be outlandish, at least by the numbers it makes a lot of sense. They both know where the zone is, and they know how to stay within it. They have the confidence in their stuff to be aggressive, and the confidence is justifiable. Shelby Miller isn’t Cliff Lee. No one is Cliff Lee. But Miller’s close enough to feel like a daydream.




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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


28 Responses to “How Shelby Miller Resembles the Model Starting Pitcher”

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  1. Tim says:

    Great article. Miller is sort of forgotten in the (deservedly) hyped Matt Harvey discussion, but Miller has been fantastic, and he’s doing it with two pitches. I can’t wait to see him when he starts implementing his surprisingly decent change-up.

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    • Rick says:

      His changeup is not surprisingly decent. I was actually surprised by how terrible it is. He completely slows his body and his arm down, and as a result, his changeup is 12-15mph slower than his fastball with very little armside action, which is a big enough difference for hitters to pick up. Not to mention he can’t throw it for a strike.

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  2. derp says:

    Shelby Miller has one of it not the worst pitch efficiency marks in baseball among starters, however, which is definitely not something a model pitcher should be doing.

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  3. Cool Lester Smooth says:

    I don’t think getting people to 0-2 correlates to success so much as a good K/BB. Hughes strikes out a lot of people and doesn’t walk anyone. He just gives up a metric fuck-ton of homers. Enough to cancel out his otherwise awesome peripherals.

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    • Cus says:

      Hughes’ problem is obviously that he lacks an out pitch, or even the ability to beat guys with a high fastball. That is one thing separating Miller and Harvey from the pack.

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      • Cool Lester Smooth says:

        Hughes’ problem is that he hasn’t been able to throw the curveball that made him a top prospect since the night he tore his hammy in 2007.

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  4. Schu says:

    Don’t apologize for posting numbers. Your post was a lot more intelligent precisely because you left out the nonsense. Very good article, thank you for writing it.

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  5. 65Kyle08 says:

    GAY RIGHTS!!!!
    Equality 4ALL

    -18 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Lenard says:

      While I support what you’re saying, this isn’t exactly the proper forum for it. You’re just starting to get annoying.

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      • David says:

        This reminds me of that old saying: “I approve of what you say, but will defend no longer your decision to say it.”

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        • David says:

          Pretty sure its the opposite… Evelyn Beatrice Hall, writing as S.G Tallentyre, commonly attributed to Voltaire… “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”

          Also makes a strong appearance in Arrested Development.

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        • David #3 says:

          I think David was joking, David.

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        • vivaelpujols says:

          fangraphs commenters are the worst.

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        • ALEastbound says:

          @vivael

          way off subject here but go to any Blackberry stock post on the web and you will find the real “worst” posters of all time!

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  6. Trent Todd Chad says:

    Self-indulgent, obnoxious writing style that pisses me off everytime.

    -9 Vote -1 Vote +1

  7. Andy says:

    Curious, but who has the biggest negative difference in expected to actual strikeout rate? It looks like there’s one guy who really stands out (in the bad way).

    Also earlier you tweeted that 41% of plate appearances against Cliff Lee have gone 0-2, which seemed too crazy to be true. Here you have 28.5%. Just wondering what was up with that tweet.

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  8. Huisj says:

    “It’s the…is what it is.” Did Rod Allen write this?

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  9. Henry says:

    Hey Jeff, i read the hardball times article on elbow rehab (he mentioned you), but it didn’t really go into any actual research, I think that is a very important topic, and the question of “does elbow rehab actually work/ is it worth it?” is a very interesting one. I would love to see an article about this, and I’m sure it would be an interesting read whether the results showed any distinct conclusion or not.

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