It’s almost as if at some point in 2012, someone attended one of Shelby Miller’s Triple-A outings and yelled, “Hey Shelby, get it together!”
Well, Miller has gotten it together, following up on an excellent 13.2-inning debut in 2012 with 31 starts, 173.1 innings and a 3.06 ERA in 2013. He finished third in National League Rookie of the Year voting and 21st in starting pitcher fantasy value, and only an embarrassment of pitching riches precluded the St. Louis Cardinals from using him in the playoffs.
Long a top prospect, Miller resembles a model starting pitcher, pounding the zone and letting himself work ahead in the count way more often than an average pitcher. The one knock might be how much Miller works up in the zone (36.4 percent of pitches), but his variation in pitch location has allowed him to coax more in-zone swinging strikes than almost anyone else.
In short, there’s plenty to like about Miller moving forward. With rumors now dying down that the Cardinals could move him, it’s also pretty safe to evaluate him within the construct of the Cardinals, something that should be beneficial for the ever-unpredictable win column.
In terms of rate stats, even with excellent control, the peripheral stats are less positive about Miller. His FIP (3.67) and xFIP (3.73) point to regression, as Miller had an 80.1 percent strand rate and a .280 BABIP. It’s certainly possible those are skills he possesses, and even if he doesn’t, he misses enough bats to provide value in the 3.50 ERA range.
You’d certainly like to see more ground balls (38.4 percent), a product of him not pounding low in the zone consistently. He was above the 40-percent mark in August and September, the same months that saw his strikeout rate make a precipitous decline.
Is that a trade-off? Let’s look at how his three pitches changed in terms of efficacy in the last few months of the season (note: I excluded his cutter in the early months, as BrooksBaseball, where all of this data is from, indicates he used it less than one percent of the time).
You can see that Miller scaled back his fourseam usage and curveball usage in favor of a few more changeups and cutters. Moving to a four-pitch mix is probably the preferable move in the long term, especially given the amount of ground balls he was able to induce with the cutter. We’re dealing with small samples, however, and the cutter also coaxed fewer whiffs than his other offerings.
If you look at the velocity and movement on his four pitches, it’s encouraging that he’s now flashing four distinctly different offerings.
However, that reliance on the heater is by far the highest for any starter (next would be Jordan Zimmermann at just 62.1 percent), and even after he scaled back the fourseam usage, he was using it more than any other starter.
With the late-season decline in strikeouts, perhaps this is a case of batters figuring out the fastball and cluing in that Miller is going to challenge early and often.
Again, cutting the season into months leaves us with a small sample, but batters slugged .500 against Miller’s fastball over the final two months of the season while missing on it less often. That helps explain the poor August ERA (4.55) and the poor September strikeout rate (12 percent), but it’s also perhaps a positive, considering Miller may now have the confidence in four different pitches. Previously, he went heavy on the gas with the curveball as an out-pitch to hitters on either side of the plate, a successful strategy but one that leaves him somewhat predictable. Suffering a few lumps to improve the overall repertoire, if that was the case, is probably a long-term positive.
The issue then, as with many, is how to value Miller entering 2014. He finished 21st in starter value in just 173.1 innings, and his rates spread to 200 innings would have had him approaching the top-15. But the ERA probably won’t threaten a sub-3.00 mark again and the WHIP isn’t quite elite, plus at just 23, other players will almost surely tack on a “young player/prospect” premium, as they’re wont to do.
It’s unwise to price in significant improvement in any case and Miller, as good as he is and as “prototypical” as his approach to strike-throwing may be, there’s no exception. He has more upside than, say, a Julio Teheran, but also perhaps a lower floor given the potential for home run issues. At present, I’d have him just outside the top-20.