Can The Braves Fix Shelby Miller?

The title of this post presupposes a few things — that new Brave Shelby Miller is broken; that Shelby Miller can be fixed; that Shelby Miller has not yet been fixed; that some teams are more likely than others to fix certain problems. We’re not going to leave those presuppositions aside, though. Let’s instead tackle them, one by one.

Shelby Miller is broken.
In the first 180+ innings of his career, Miller struck out 23.8% of the batters he faced and walked 7.9% of them. In the next 180+ innings, he struck out 16.6% and walked 9.6%. His ground ball and home run per fly ball rates were unchanged, and his velocity was largely the same. He generally threw 70% fastballs and 20% curveballs before and after those cutoffs, and the pitches themselves weren’t that different looking. But, on results, what was once whole is now broken.

Shelby Miller can be fixed.
This part seems logical, given his first stretch of results, but maybe not. Plenty of pitchers have a short run of success and then fizzle away.

But Miller was a top prospect, and with good reason. With a 94 mph fastball, good command, and a wicked curveball, he had the tools to succeed. And we can still rely on those tools to say that he can be fixed.

This year, only ten starters have averaged a higher fastball velocity than Shelby Miller. A few of them share a flaw with Miller — Wily Peralta, Garrett Richards, Nathan Eovaldi, Zack Wheeler, Chris Archer, Alfredo Simon and Jarred Cosart all have change ups that are below average by whiffs and grounders. This is a collection of pitchers that have been traded for and/or have collectively agreed upon bright futures, and Alfredo Simon.

Since roundhouse curveballs traditionally have reverse platoon splits, and since Miller’s cutter is above-average by whiffs (11%) and grounders (52%), he actually has the arsenal to succeed now. Without improving that change up (which showed less fade and less than an inch more drop than his two-seamer last season and doesn’t look like it’s going to be much good), he has what he needs with the two fastballs, the curve and the cutter.

Shelby Miller has not yet been fixed.
This one is tough because there was evidence that he made strides late last year. He focused on where he was throwing pitches more than what he was throwing, and the high fastball did him wonders. Perhaps it has something to do with how curveballs work — they get swung at less than any other pitch, and so often they’re used for called strikes low in the zone. Certainly, Miller’s not getting whiffs (6%) or grounders (39%) with his curve. So a high fastball could set up more swings low in the zone on curveballs batters thought were fastballs (which went up from 35% to 39% after August first) and more whiffs high in the zone on fastballs batters thought were curveballs (which went up from 8% to 10% after August first).

Those high fastballs started in August and September, and in that short sample, Miller put up a 2.93 ERA (4.00 FIP, 18.9% K, 7.4% BB). Compared to his work before that point (4.20 ERA, 4.76 FIP, 15.2% K, 11% BB), Miller was already making it happen.

The Braves are the team to fix Shelby Miller.
Let’s say that high fastballs were a big part of the resurgence. Are there teams that preach the high fastball more than others? Last year, there certainly were. Here’s the average four-seam fastball height by team for 2014:

Team Ave Height FA
Nationals 2.72
Rays 2.69
Giants 2.69
Angels 2.66
Reds 2.66
Cardinals 2.65
Indians 2.64
Twins 2.64
Blue Jays 2.64
Red Sox 2.60
Athletics 2.59
Tigers 2.58
Braves 2.58
Orioles 2.57
Royals 2.57
Yankees 2.54
Dodgers 2.54
Rockies 2.53
Brewers 2.52
Mets 2.52
Phillies 2.52
Pirates 2.52
Padres 2.52
White Sox 2.51
Mariners 2.51
Rangers 2.51
Cubs 2.49
Astros 2.49
Marlins 2.45
Diamondbacks 2.41

Not surprising to find the Giants, Angels, and Rays near the top of this list based on personnel. Madison Bumgarner espoused the benefits the high fastball, Jake Peavy switched from the two-seamer to the four-seamer this year, Hector Santiago and Jered Weaver throw the high, rising fastball, and both Jake Odorizzi and Alex Cobb talked about the relationship between the high four-seamer and their split-fingers. All three parks might help keep some of the long drives off the high fastballs inside the walls, too.

But is this a one-year list based mostly on the players on those teams currently? If we zoom out to a five year sample, do we start to see which teams espouse the low-and-away fastball more than others? Because that was traditionally what the Braves did back in the day, but the times are changing a bit with regard to the high fastball. Here are the team four-seam heights going back to 2010:

Team Ave FA Height
Giants 2.699
Dodgers 2.665
Rays 2.660
Nationals 2.659
Red Sox 2.658
Yankees 2.656
White Sox 2.652
Indians 2.649
Twins 2.648
Reds 2.648
Orioles 2.633
Tigers 2.609
Mets 2.608
Rangers 2.606
Athletics 2.603
Pirates 2.593
Cardinals 2.590
Blue Jays 2.587
Mariners 2.586
Padres 2.583
Angels 2.577
Cubs 2.575
Royals 2.566
Braves 2.566
Phillies 2.565
Diamondbacks 2.560
Astros 2.557
Rockies 2.545
Marlins 2.540
Brewers 2.531

The Giants are still at the top of the table. Perhaps they espouse the high fastball! The Rays are still up there, and it seems like a list of big parks, but then there are also some parks — Boston, New York, Chicago — that defy the trend.

And there go the Braves, down to the bottom. That sounds more like it. But no team is one-size fits all, and if you look at the fastball charts for Alex Wood (left) and Julio Teheran (right) — both good velocity young guys with big curve balls — there are some high fastballs on the map in Atlanta. Perhaps moreso for Teheran than Wood, which is interesting because Teheran’s changeup is less important to him these days (8% thrown career) and it’s not that great a pitch (10% whiffs, 50% groundballs, or just a tick below average). For a frame of reference, check out Kevin Gausman’s heat map — these two pitchers use the high fastball more than average. Teheran’s actually in the top 20 for starters with a 2.79 average fastball height (2.57 is league average).

chart (41)chart (40)

If Miller’s turnaround is going to be about high fastballs, Atlanta can probably help about as well as anyone, despite the past organizational tendencies towards low and away. If his turnaround is going to be more about fastball command than just high fastballs, an 8.5% walk rate in the minors and an 8.7% walk rate in the majors at least suggests that he could have average command — perhaps the second half last year was just a regression towards his true talent command.

To recap, it looks like Shelby Miller was slightly broken, and has the type of stuff that makes every team want to fix him, which suggests he is fixable. He might have already fixed himself, and even if he didn’t the Braves are just as likely as any team to help him fix what may or may not have been broken.

In cases like these, it’s instructive to return to the stuff. He has top-ten fastball velocity for a starter, an above-average cutter, and a curveball that looks legit but hasn’t had elite results yet. Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell has to be very excited about this project.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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9 years ago

The irony is that one factor that can significantly assist a High Fastball pitcher is an elite defensive outfielder who excels at taking away extra base hits. God, I am so damn bitter.

9 years ago
Reply to  Mike

Me too… tooo. I have been a Braves fan for many years and I can’t get over the fact that the Braves refused to even sit down and talk with Jason. I don’t even like this team right now.

Yay Dogs!
9 years ago
Reply to  KJ

Yup. They signed basically every young good player (and even threw in Chris Johnson for shits and giggles) but didn’t approach Heyward, who is many fan’s favorite player. I think many people are on the edge of giving up support for the team.

9 years ago
Reply to  Yay Dogs!

Heyward’s black, that’s apparently a major problem for Braves ownership. They asked the future mediocrity Freeman to name his price, yet wouldn’t even negotiate with Heyward.

Can't Hit A Lick
9 years ago
Reply to  KJ

I like this team a LOT more right now. Change in GM, bringing in top notch scouting again, new hitting coach who wants batters to hit up the middle rather than pull, pull, pull.

Just because JH is black and from Atlanta doesn’t mean we need to throw huge money at him. I am sure the Cards believe they can “fix” Jason and they just might. Love the article about how his batting stance and bat angle has changed so dramatically since his rookie year. BUT, the guy was not what we thought he was or else no way we would ever let him go. I trust in our scouts now and perhaps many came back when they had a front office that would listen. These are the same guys that liked Jason enough to want him drafted. You really think if they believed he could be a .280/30/100 guy they wouldn’t have signed him long-term? Perhaps overpaying for guys who are average at best hitters is a thing of the past!