Shelby Miller Looks Broken

Last October, Shelby Miller became something of a mystery. After spending the year in the Cardinals rotation and developing into one of the league’s best young hurlers, Miller became nothing more than an active roster cheerleader in the postseaosn. He pitched one inning in the Cardinals five game NLDS victory over the Pirates, then didn’t enter a game in either the NLCS or the World Series. All told, St. Louis pitchers threw 152 innings in October, but even with that workload, the Cardinals managed to give 151 of them to pitchers not named Shelby Miller.

He insisted he wasn’t hurt. If he was injured, the Cardinals could have simply replaced him on the playoff roster with someone else, someone they would use. The fact that they carried him for all three postseason series suggests that it wasn’t a predetermined plan to not use him and supports Miller’s assertion that he could have pitched. Mike Matheny didn’t just trust him in any kind of meaningful situation, and the Cardinals didn’t play many low leverage innings in October.

The Cardinals didn’t say much publicly about their decision, but it was reported over the winter that Miller was dealing with some shoulder fatigue in September, so despite Miller’s claims that he felt good, there might have been a physical reason for his absence. However, with an off-season of rest, the Cardinals have put Miller right back into their plans, and were presumably hoping that a little rest would allow Miller to go back to what he was during the regular season last year.

Well, apparently, an off-season of rest hasn’t fixed anything, because the Shelby Miller that has taken the mound for two starts in April mostly looks like the September version who the Cardinals decided wasn’t up to pitching meaningful innings in October.

Between April and August 24th, Shelby Miller made 25 starts last year, throwing 140 innings and posting a 3.32 ERA/3.60 FIP/3.49 xFIP. He struck out 26% of the batters he faced in those starts, and by limiting walks as well (7% BB%), he was a quality starter every five days for the Cardinals. In 20 of those 25 starts, Miller posted an xFIP below 4.00, so while every pitcher experiences game-to-game BABIP and HR/FB fluctuations, Miller’s core profile remained pretty steady each time out.

Then came his August 30th start. From that point on, he made seven starts and posted an xFIP over 5.00 in six of those seven performances, only having one decent performance in which he induced a bunch of ground balls from the Brewers. The strikeouts went away almost entirely, and his K/BB ratio for the month was 18/16 in nearly 34 innings. The Cardinals weren’t just worrying for no reason. The September version of Shelby Miller was pretty terrible.

And the version that has taken the hill for his first two starts of April looks much the same. In his first start, Miller posted an xFIP of 6.16; his second start wasn’t much better at 4.84. 51 batters faced, six walks, seven strikeouts.

So, what’s changed? Why did Miller go from a strikeout machine to a pitch-to-contact guy who struggles to put batters away? Well, for one thing, hitters have stopped swinging and missing.

Brooksbaseball-Chart (2)

Or, for those of you who prefer tables to graphs; his monthly rate of whiffs per swing since the start of last year.

Month Hard Breaking Offspeed
13-Apr 23.2 20.0
13-May 24.9 17.8
13-Jun 27.2 17.1 21.1
13-Jul 23.3 22.2 20.0
13-Aug 26.4 22.6 31.8
13-Sep 16.3 16.7
14-Apr 13.6 14.3

In the eight starts he’s made since August 30th of last year, he’s thrown 110 breaking balls; hitters have swung and missed at two of them. Same thing with his off-speed stuff; 60 pitches thrown, two swings and misses. They’re hitting his fastball more as well, but the drop-off isn’t quite as dramatic as it is with the secondary stuff. However, that doesn’t mean the fastball isn’t the culprit.

For the first five months of the season, Miller’s fastball generated essentially an even number of balls and called or swinging strikes; 31% balls, 32% non-foul strikes. Since August 30th of last year, he’s at 35% balls, and only 23% called or swinging strikes. Miller is still a predominantly fastball centric pitcher, and he’s simply not getting ahead in the count as often as he was last year. If you’re pitching in even or neutral counts, there’s fewer reasons for hitters to chase your secondary stuff.

For his first 25 starts last year, opposing batters swung at 41% of the curveballs he threw; since then, 29%. It was called a ball just 36% of the time he threw it for his first 25 starts of 2013; it has been called a ball 48% of the time he’s thrown it since. Miller’s curve is designed to be chased, and when it’s working well, he throws it at the bottom of the strike zone, trying to get hitters to swing over top of it. Here is where he’s thrown his curveballs this year.

Screen Shot 2014-04-11 at 12.36.45 PM

They’re either nowhere close to the zone and easy takes for a ball, or hanging meatballs ready to get whacked. And it doesn’t help that the velocity on his curve has taken a plunge as well. During his good stretch last year, his curveball sat around 80; over his last eight starts, it’s sitting at 78. His fastball velocity is down as well, but not quite as much as the curveball velocity, and Miller needs his curveball to be a good pitcher.

It’s easy to write off his first two starts as just two starts, but this isn’t a two start thing. This is now an eight start thing. Since 8/30/2013, Miller’s line:

45 IP, 46 hits, 22 walks, 25 strikeouts, 4.69 ERA, 6.03 FIP, 5.47 xFIP

Right now, Shelby Miller is not a good pitcher. He hasn’t been for a while, and the Cardinals should absolutely be concerned. Perhaps his problems are fixable, and this is a thing will work itself out while he’s on the mound; they should hope so, because an off-season of rest didn’t seem to do any good. With pitchers who have sudden decreases in performance and rumors of shoulder problems, though, it’s hard not to think this might eventually require a trip to the surgeon’s table.

For both Miller and the Cardinals, one hopes that this is the kind of issue that can be fixed with some mechanical tweaks or other non-invasive procedures, but this version of Shelby Miller isn’t very good, and unless he flips a switch sometime soon, they’re going to have to start looking for alternatives.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

62 Responses to “Shelby Miller Looks Broken”

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  1. indyralph says:

    Two additional things worth noting: 1) Miller missed time during the spring in 2013 due to shoulder soreness – so it wouldn’t be a completely new thing. 2) There was a stretch at the start of 2012 where AAA hitters were teeing off. At the time there would concerns about his mechanics and pitch mix that, presumably, once corrected led to a 2nd half resurgence. Fingers crossed this is a symptom of the latter.

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  2. Tom Cranker says:

    Miller must not have been reading his copy of “The Cardinals Way” this winter.

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  3. Emcee Peepants says:

    Could some of this be mental? Fatigue showing up in August (only 136.1 IP the previous year), losing some confidence as his performance declined, the mishandling of him in the playoffs doing more damage, then coming into this season pressing a little? Just a thought, since his velocities are only down a little and not really in the dangerrrr zoooone.

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    • jim says:

      you might be on to something, mr. peepants

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      • Stan Gable says:

        This comment brought on a little Brothers Dostoyevsky callback for yours truly. Anyone else?

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    • Mike Matheny says:

      How the heck was he ‘mishandled’ in the playoffs?? What kind of idiot would’ve put him into any kind of situation where it much mattered?

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      • Iron says:

        In fairness ‘mishandled’ probably isn’t the right word, since the goal of winning the world series takes precedence over building Miller’s confidence. However, Mr. Peepants’ point remains if you mentally substitute the word ‘handling’.

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      • Tom Cranker says:

        If you’re right that he was so bad at the end of the season that he shouldn’t have been pitching in any meaningful situation, then the “mishandling” was that he was even on the postseason roster in the first place instead of someone who could have helped.

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        • Iron says:

          Perhaps he was bad enough that he wasn’t as useful as any other pitcher who made the postseason roster, but was still more useful than any left off. Or the difference between him and the first guy left off was so small as to not justify taking him off for team chemistry reasons.

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        • Emcee Peepants says:

          Yeah, by “mishandling” I mean more how his being on the roster but not being used coupled with the info given to the media impacted him mentally. With how he was pitching at the end of the year, not using him in high leverage situations was understandable.

          I could postulate that they carried him in the postseason so that they would not harm his confidence by the disappointment of being left off, but inadvertently had the opposite effect by carrying him and not using him.

          Regardless, it seems like he was mishandled in some way. (Why are we not doing “phrasing” any more?!)

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        • BMarkham says:

          Exactly. He was mismanaged one way or the other. Either he should have been pitching or he should have been off the roster. As a Cardinals fan I don’t have much to be upset about, but their use of Miller in the playoffs deserves an explanation.

          Also if anyone remembers Mujica was getting the same treatment in the playoffs. On the roster but only used in one or two incredibly low leverage situations. The Cardinals essentially carried a 23 man roster through the whole playoffs.

          As for Miller, command has always been an issue. Some might not think that by looking at the stats, as most of 2013 he had a low enough walk rate. But when you watch him start you’re not sure where the ball’s going to go. A lot of pitches end up, as the author said, either over the heart of the plate or so outside the batter is unlikely to chase. Among Cardinals fans there were a decent amount of debate over Miller vs. Wacha. I think Wacha is easily more likely to be successful because of his command. The lack of a strong secondary pitch is also a concern. His pitch count gets up fast usually from hitters taking his off speed pitches and fouling off fast balls.

          He’s got a great looking fastball, but until he commands it well and can at least keep hitters off balance with a strong secondary option he’s going to have issues. It’s hard to believe after watching him carve up lineup after lineup the first half of last year, but it seems like a case of the league catching up to him.

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        • Belloc says:

          Whom should the Cardinals have added to their postseason roster? Jake Westbrook?

          They chose to go with 12 pitchers including Carlos Martinez, who hadn’t shown much in the 28 innings he pitched in the regular season. They didn’t have another viable arm to use.

          I suppose they could have added another positional player and gone with 11 pitchers. But would Adron Chambers have made a difference in the World Series?

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    • Sterling Archer says:





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  4. Jaykenlang says:

    So……shall I drop him fantasy?

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  5. Dave says:

    I’m gonna say this is probably Yadier’s fault. The Cards really oughta move him over to 1b or something

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  6. Carlos Martinez says:

    Send him to AAA and put me in the rotation while I’m still stretched out!

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    • Ivan Grushenko says:

      Yes they should send Miller to AAA to work on his secondary offerings. BTW Carlos, how are your secondary offerings? Are they any better than Shelby’s?

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  7. SucramRenrut says:

    If a pitcher with mainly a 2 pitch repertoire can’t throw the off-speed pitch for a strike consistently batters learn to take those pitches and sit fastball. This will lead to more walks and contact as the batters will only swing at grooved or hanging off-speed.

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  8. LONNIE says:

    The Cards need to get Carlos Martinez in the rotation ASAP. They don’t make many mistakes but wasting him in the 8th inning isn’t the good move. Trade Lance Lynn to a team that values his “winning” ways.

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  9. Captain Obvious says:

    Isn’t this the kind of thing that happens with young hitters and pitchers, especially in their second full season? In fact, it happens so frequently, that someone should come up with a clever alliterative term for it.

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  10. Bob says:

    “For those of you who prefer tables to graphs,” – is probably available.

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  11. Garrett's Mom says:

    Mr. Cameron,

    Maybe Shelby just needs a little encouragement. Would it possible to write him a letter?

    Garrett’s Mom

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  12. Phantom Stranger says:

    Tipping his secondary pitches? Maybe some scouting department picked up on it.

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    • Iron says:

      Probably not, unless all scouting departments picked up on it, in which case the Cardinals, Dave Duncan or no, would certainly have picked up on it.

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  13. nakadoma says:

    While I share Dave’s concerns he did much better in his second start at least he struck someone out. He definitely needs to adjust. but his 2nd start was a lot better and got some Ks. If he goose eggs next couple we can see but its kind of premature to go here yet. Young pitchers tend to especially volatile. But it wouldn’t be a surprise to learn he has problems. its also a sign of adjustments by the batters. not chasing as much which will faciliate adjustments on Shelby’s part.

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  14. Jim Garman says:

    Yatllaty( You adjust to league league adjusts to you) Looks catchy ,doesn’t sound like much. Needs work. As does Mr. Miller.

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  15. MarkMillz says:

    Yeah Miller sucks and the Cardinals should designate him for assignment

    This explains why we have NL executives lobbying for 7 inning games now, we are truly in the microwave era. Long fine are the days a young pitcher can go through a rough patch. God forbid they struggle in their second season and need to
    make adjustments and learn to pitch better, it should go to straight panic mode and the Cardinals should be “very concerned”. Whatever.

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  16. boomer says:

    Just for an example, Greg Maddux was not stellar his first couple of seasons with the Cubs. His ball moved all over the place with great movement, but until he got that under lock and key – he was mediocre at best, although you could tell that greatness was within reach.

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  17. Bronnt says:

    You know, I realize that you’re Dave Cameron and I’m just some random commenter, but I really think it’s problematic to use xFIP to describe a single start. While it’s a rate stat, it’s a rate stat that measures expected trends over large sample sizes; it’s like pointing out someone’s wRC+ for a single game. Why not just point out the components of it?

    If you say he pitched 5.1 innings, 6 hits, 3 homers, 3 walks, and 2 Ks, that’s much easier for me to conceptualize than what a 6.16 xFIP start looks like. I got the information and I don’t ask myself what it MEANS to have a 6.16 xFIP start and then go pull up his game log.

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  18. Matt says:

    Why are we surprised by this. Every young pitcher goes through an adjustment period, even those who come out white hot at first. He may have been fatigued, but I think the book is also out on him…and his third offering isn’t that consistent yet, nor was it during his Apr-Aug run last year.

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  19. Utah Dave says:

    I believe that part of what Dave is pointing out is that this isn’t just about his 2 starts so far in 2014. This carries back to the last part of 2013’s season, too. If he continues to struggle it makes for an interesting problem. The Cards seem to have an abundance of arms to put in Miller’s place. But what happens to Miller if you take him out of the rotation? Does he go to AAA? Does he sit in the bullpen and wait for low leverage situations in St. Louis? How does it get fixed?

    I have to admit that I am not a Lance Lynn fan, but I must yield to Olethros’ point. The numbers do not support my opinion.

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    • MarkMillz says:

      Miller is a big part of their future, I’d give him a lot of leeway. I don’t think moving him to Triple A is an option they’re even thinking about at the moment. I’d assume they think he’s just going through the usual adjustment struggles and he’ll only figure it out facing major league hitters.

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  20. BananaMonster says:

    Is their a chance he is tipping his pitches? I know the Cards pointed that out last year to John Axford and he turned around very quickly.

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  21. Jay says:

    So the way I see it this is the evidence we have:
    1. Poor results over 6 starts last year and 2 starts this year.
    2. A decrease in whiffs corresponding to the bad starts.
    3. Poor curveball location in 2 starts this year.
    4. A vague rumor about shoulder fatigue.

    Tellingly, here is the evidence we do NOT have:
    1. A troubling decrease in velocity.
    2. Any signs of concern from an organization with more pitching than they know what to do with.
    3. A sample size larger than 6 weeks.

    There might be something here, but I think it’s more likely a simple slump from a good-not-great pitcher in his early 20s. It’s important to remember that, for as much publicity as it got, Miller’s disappearance in the playoffs had a lot more to do with Joe Kelly and Michael Wacha than it did Shelby Miller. Kelly had been the Cardinals hottest pitcher in September, and when it came time to set the playoff rotation the final decision came down to Miller or Wacha. They didn’t announce Wacha until the day before he started, IIRC, and in the end it came down to the fact that the Pirates were the best team in the league at hitting fastballs (Miller’s specialty) and the worst team in the league at hitting changes (Wacha’s specialty). After that the Cards just rode the hot hand.

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    • Jason B says:

      It’s odd that a simple slump would take place with a 6-month break in the middle though, no? (Not saying that it’s impossible, just seems unusual that April would see a continuation of trends that date back to Aug-Sept of the previous season.)

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      • Jay says:

        Counterpoint: It is not at all odd for any pitcher to start a season with 2 bad starts, regardless of how he finished the previous year. Plenty of aces get lit up on opening day. If Miguel Cabrera went 2-25 to end a season then started the next season 0-10 are people going to be concerned that his slump carried over? Shelby is not equivalent to Cabrera. I understand there might be some concerns that he isn’t as good as we all thought. I share some of those concerns. But this isn’t evidence of him being “broken”.

        There’s no evidence of any physical problems with Shelby. There were a lot of articles guessing that he might be hurt because he didn’t appear in the postseason (like I said, for all the ink spilled over that controversy, it was really quite simple. Shelby was slumping. Kelly and Wacha were hot. End of story). Nothing of substance. He hasn’t lost any velocity or movement.

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  22. Sean says:

    He looks less broken tonight.

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  23. Light Treason says:

    So broken.

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  24. LexLuger says:

    His second start wasn’t that bad either, so technically he’s only had 1 bad start this season. Not to sound like a broken record…

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  25. nakadoma says:

    watching the Brewers. While its true to be a concern over command it also could be Miller reacting to adjustments. If you look at video like a lot of rookies the book is out on Miller. 2 pitch pitcher who you need to sit on his fastball and not give him anything out of the zone. Batters have been refusing to swing at anything close. His O-swing was ridiculously low. this combined with early command struggles hurt him. Its a concern for his whiff rate but his swinging strike rate seems to be getting there. In his 3rd start Miller got ahead of the count and had a first strike percent a lot higher than his other starts much more commensurate with the league. He was locating his fastball. I do agree development of a better 3rd pitch would be good for him but improving his command and going after hitters who are just waiting for pitches will probably help. The brewers were obviously just trying to take him and force him into mistakes and it started to bite them because Miller was getting ahead. We will see what adjustments are made. Fastball looked crisp and he was hitting his locations as well as the inside. he still needs to learn to locate down in the zone better but he definitely looked like he had better stuff and command last night. Hopefully it continues.

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  26. Louie Zamperini says:

    Since this article was written, Miller has logged 73 IP over 12 games, with 59 H (7.3/9 IP), 24 ER (2.96 ERA), 32 BB (3.9/9 IP), and 53 K (6.5/9 IP). Definitely needs to work on the walks, but he looks like a pretty serviceable major league starter.

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