Brad Miller Becomes a Slugging Corner Infielder

Eight hitters with enough plate appearances to qualify in 2016 have recorded an isolated-power figure (ISO) between .255 and .264. These eleven players populate the leaderboard from #20 up to #13, which for the most part is populated by a proverbial who’s who of power hitters. Daniel Murphy might surprise you, but the other seven are very much the players you would expect to see.

MLB ISO Ranks, 2016
Rank Name ISO
13 Brian Dozier 0.264
14 Nelson Cruz 0.261
15 Daniel Murphy 0.260
16 Yoenis Cespedes 0.259
17 Khris Davis 0.259
18 Mike Napoli 0.258
19 Chris Carter 0.257
20 Evan Longoria 0.255

You might not have expected to find that Evan Longoria has found his power again or that Yoenis Cespedes is following up on his 2015 breakout, but this is a list of power hitters. Now, of course, it’s clear I’m setting a trap. That’s how this works. I’m going to show you a bit of data that looks right and then I’m going to show you adjacent data that is supposed to be shocking. That bit of data concerns the player with the 12th-highest ISO in 2016, who’s delivered more extra bases per at-bat than Cespedes, Cruz, Davis, et al. That player is Rays shortstop Brad Miller.

Miller was traded from Seattle to Tampa Bay this offseason in the Nate Karns trade after three uninspiring seasons with the Mariners. It’s not that Miller was a poor player, it’s just that he never quite found a way to produce at the plate the way he had in the minors. Across four levels and 999 plate appearances in the minors, Miller posted a 151 wRC+. From 2013 to 2015, Miller came to the plate more than 1,200 times in the majors and delivered a 99 wRC+. A 99 wRC+ for a shortstop is perfectly fine, but Miller wasn’t exactly a great defender for the Mariners, either.

By Ultimate Zone Rating, Miller graded out as an average shortstop. Defensive Runs Saved pegged him as below average. When the Mariners tried him in the outfield, both systems thought he was terrible. Miller wasn’t a net negative as a complete player, but given that his defense never impressed scouts and his bat wasn’t living up to his minor-league track record, you understand why a change of scenery made sense.

Miller, for whatever reason, has excelled since leaving Seattle. He’s hit 25 home runs this year after walloping three in his last two games and is just five away from having more home runs in 2016 than he had in his career before this year. Brad Miller has turned himself into a power hitter. At least for now.

Brad Miller
Year G PA HR BB% K% ISO BABIP wRC+ Def WAR
2013-2015 343 1243 29 8.4 % 20.0 % 0.147 0.291 99 -6.1 4.3
2016 111 435 25 7.1 % 22.5 % 0.265 0.290 128 -8.7 2.2

Miller has sacrificed a few walks and the tiniest amount of BABIP for a huge increase in isolated power. Instead of hovering around league average like he had during his career, Miller is now among the top 10% of hitters when it comes to ISO.

As you might imagine, Miller is enjoying one of the largest year-to-year increases in ISO, coming in fourth behind Jake Lamb, Brandon Moss, and Yasmany Tomas.

MLB ISO Differences, 2015 to 2016
Name 2015 ISO 2016 ISO DIFF
Jake Lamb 0.123 0.281 0.158
Brandon Moss 0.181 0.313 0.132
Yasmany Tomas 0.128 0.251 0.123
Brad Miller 0.144 0.265 0.121
Jonathan Lucroy 0.127 0.223 0.096
Marcell Ozuna 0.124 0.217 0.093
Daniel Murphy 0.168 0.260 0.092
Evan Longoria 0.166 0.255 0.089
Gregory Polanco 0.125 0.213 0.088
Yasmani Grandal 0.169 0.255 0.086
Min. 300 plate appearances in both seasons.

As a minor leaguer, Miller recorded a .181 ISO, so it’s not like his ability to hit for extra bases is coming from nowhere, but I would wager that most people in the game, after 1,243 PA of a .147 ISO, would have taken the under on Miller topping that .181 mark going forward. In 2016, he hasn’t just beaten it, he’s left it in the dust.

How did Brad Miller find his power after three years without it? If you look at the most basic numbers, like batted-ball type and direction, there’s no clear shift in approach. It’s not like he’s become pull happy or has become an extreme fly-ball guy. On the surface level, 2016 Miller looks a lot like 2013-2015 Miller.

While the type and direction of hit batted balls haven’t changed much, he is hitting the ball much harder according to Statcast.

Brad Miller, Exit Velocity Changes
Type 2015 2016
Ground balls 87.6 92.1
Line drives 95.9 94.8
Fly balls 91.0 93.9
Overall 90.1 91.9
SOURCE: MLB Advanced Media

Launch angle is also very important, as 95 mph is much less useful at a 45 degree angle than it is at 27 degrees. If we look at all batted balls tracked by Statcast for Miller, he’s increased the rate of batted balls hit at 95+ mph between 25-35 degrees from 3.0% of batted balls in 2015 to 6.2% in 2016. We’re not dealing with a massive sample or anything, but this is good evidence that Miller seems to be making more frequent homer-friendly contact in 2016. In other words, this isn’t simply better outcomes on the same inputs.

As Jason Collette notes, Miller’s increased his leg kick during the season, which you can imagine is related to the power spike. As you can see, the power has been on the increase throughout the year.

Screenshot 2016-08-18 at 12.29.52 PM

But there’s also a countervailing force you probably wouldn’t notice if you were just comparing him season-to-season. After an early season increase, Miller’s contact rate has been on the decline:

Screenshot 2016-08-18 at 12.32.21 PM

There’s nothing wrong with trading contact for power. It’s working quite well for Miller at the moment. The only question is where he finds equilibrium and if the power will remain once the league adjusts. It’s perfectly reasonable to think Miller can keep a version of this up and it’s also reasonable to suspect he’s exploitable if he’s selling out for this much power. We just need to watch him play like this for longer before we can say one way or the other.

The remaining issue, however, is that while Miller had been essentially left alone to play short, his old friend UZR has come around to the DRS’ way of thinking about his defense. In 783 innings at short this year he’s recorded a -14 DRS and -11.8 UZR. Over the last couple of weeks, the Rays have moved him to first base, in favor of Tim Beckham and Matt Duffy. We’ll see what the Rays do going forward on that front, but at least his power this year is giving them the option to keep him in the lineup despite his glove. And his new position more closely aligns with his offensive performance this year anyway.

It’s easy to forget that Miller is only 26 and has three years left of team control. He’s always been a bit of a square peg in a world of round holes, but perhaps moving to a corner and emphasizing a power approach will be the thing that brings him stability. He’s hitting for plenty of power right now, and if he can maintain something close to that level, it will be easier to find him a place in the lineup than it was for Seattle this offseason.

We hoped you liked reading Brad Miller Becomes a Slugging Corner Infielder by Neil Weinberg!

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Neil Weinberg is the Site Educator at FanGraphs and can be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44.

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The title of this post should be “Chris Taylor and Ketel Marte, future Tampa Bay Rays”.