Can You Trust Shelby Miller?

Shelby Miller looked broken after his first two starts of the year. Though it’s tough to overreact to just two starts, Miller did come with some concerns entering the season. After struggling down the stretch in 2013, and disappearing in the playoffs, Miller saw his fantasy draft stock take a tumble in late-March. After two straight tough games to open the year, it looked like those concerns were legitimate. But things took a turn in the right direction the last two times he’s taken the mound. Miller has given up one run over his last two outings with 14 strikeouts. While it’s just two starts, there’s some evidence that Miller might be alright moving forward.

A couple of things stood out with Miller’s approach lately. First, his fastball velocity has taken a step forward in his last two games. Miller’s fastball averaged 93.7 mph during his first start, and 93.4 mph in his second. The third time out, his average fastball was 94.8 mph, and it jumped to 95.1 mph against the Nationals. Watching highlights of the Brewers start, it’s apparent how much Miller leaned on the pitch as a weapon against Milwaukee. He did the same against Washington.

The other interesting thing that has emerged after his last two starts deals with pitch selection. Miller hasn’t focused as much on throwing his cutter the last two times out. The data is actually somewhat incomplete, though, as there appeared to be an issue with the PITCHf/x system during his third outing. As a result, there’s no data from his first two innings, and most of the third inning, from that game. Still, his cutter percentage seems to be down. Through the first two games of the season, he used the pitch 9.52% of the time. That’s fallen to 3.95% the last two times out.

Miller’s cutter usage is significant, considering he didn’t really start throwing the pitch until last August. From August through the rest of the year, Miller threw the cutter 11.04% of the time. Coincidentally, that was about the time Miller started to see his numbers take a nose dive. The pitch produced a 0.3 pitch value last year, so there’s probably not a major connection between the two areas. While I want to find some type of connection here, I just can’t do it.

What the declining cutter usage does show, however, is that Miller is getting back to utilizing just two pitches. Over the last two starts, he’s seen a 14% rise in his fastball usage. Every other pitch, including his curve, has seen its usage drop. It’s certainly possible that the Cardinals made a mechanical tweak, which has allowed Miller to regain some velocity. It’s also possible that Yadier Molina wants him to get back to what he does best, which is throwing two pitches really well.

There are, of course, still some reasons for concern. Miller’s walk rate has been a big problem, even in both of his “good” starts. While he’s getting back to what made him successful last year, that’s a fairly significant issue. The walks probably make a Miller too much of a risk to start in mixed leagues at this point. Put him on the bench, and see if things improve over the next couple outings. If he cuts down on the walks and the velocity holds, get him in there. If the walks are still present, try to pawn him off on an owner who buys into his recent performances.



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Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.


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jdbolick
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Shelby’s zone percentage is actually up over last season, although the first strike percentage is down. Rather than a loss of command, it looks like the increased walk rate is primarily due to hitters no longer offering at balls. Miller’s 20.3% O-Swing% is second worst among starting pitchers so far this season. When I saw Cingrani at the top of that list I wondered if heavy fastball reliance might bring that about, but Weaver and Leake are next and wouldn’t fit with that narrative at all.

Anyway, the point is that Miller hasn’t lost his control, hitters are just swinging less at the ones outside the zone right now. There’s no particular reason to think that won’t rebound back to his previous levels, and with the velocity now being back on target, I’m pretty reassured about his 2014 value.

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