Shelby Miller Is Still Evolving

Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Shelby Miller was already evolving when I talked to him for FanGraphs prior to the 2016 season. As addressed in that interview, the right-hander had markedly altered his pitch usage in 2015, a season in which he logged a 3.02 ERA over 205 1/3 innings in his lone campaign with the Atlanta Braves. Little could he have imagined how many more changes were coming.

Originally drafted 19th overall by the Cardinals out of a Texas high school, Miller spent parts of three seasons with St. Louis, placing third in the NL Rookie of the Year voting in 2013, before he was the main return for Atlanta in the Jason Heyward trade in November of 2014. When we spoke for that earlier post, he was ramping up for his first season with the Arizona Diamondbacks, who a few months earlier had acquired him in the Dansby Swanson trade.

Now, eight organizations later (11 total for those keeping score at home), Miller is 33 and recording high-leverage outs with the Detroit Tigers, who in December signed him to a one-year, $3.25 million deal with a club option for 2025. And not only have his repertoire and usage continued to evolve over the years — last season with the Los Angeles Dodgers was especially notable — but they’re currently in flux. The mix that Miller has employed this season over five relief outings comprising seven scoreless innings may not be what you see the next time he takes the mound. More on that in a moment.

When I caught up with Miller during spring training, the first thing I wanted to know was how being with so many teams has impacted him as a pitcher.

“When you bounce around a little bit, you work with a lot of coaches and they all might have different ideas on what works best for you,” said Miller, whose journey has included a spate of injuries. “For example, I’ve always had a great fastball, but L.A. was kind of honing in on what I could pair with that to make it even better. We added a splitter last year, which was a huge pitch for me. But yeah, I think it’s just hearing what everybody has to say and always finding ways to try to get better. Of course, you’ve obviously got to be comfortable with what they’re running by you.”

The new splitter fit Miller like a pair of plush slippers. Opposing hitters batted just .136 with a .250 slug against the offering last year, factoring heavily into his 1.71 ERA and a 25.8% strikeout rate over 42 relief innings. A mostly clean bill of health didn’t hurt, but the splitter he featured 26.2% of the time certainly played a major role in what was his best season in nearly a decade.

He’d toyed with a splitter previously. That was with Atlanta in 2015, but as has also been the case with the changeup he has thrown occasionally over the years, he couldn’t develop a good feel for it. That changed after he signed with the Dodgers in December 2022. Miller reported to spring camp early and, with the help of assistant pitching coach Connor McGuiness, began working on a splitter with a different grip than he’d used previously. Miller described it as being similar to the one thrown by his Tigers teammate Kenta Maeda, with a goal of getting “one-seam action, that one-seam shift effect, dive and run.”

The Dodgers rank among the game’s most advanced and data-driven organizations, so it’s fitting that they were the team that helped him take his game to a new level.

“When I was coming up through the Cardinals system it was all just visual,” Miller said. “It was, ‘Man, that’s a good-looking pitch; that’s going to work.’ We were kind of doing it that way, then the game began evolving in terms of figuring out how you’re going to get swings-and-misses and soft contact early in counts. It’s all about trying to put that perfect puzzle together, and that’s always evolving. Who knows what comes next? But I do know that I like the fastball-splitter-slider combo right now.”

The slider has been part of his repertoire evolution, and it is at the crux of his current pitch-mix flux.

“I had a cutter from 2014 to 2018, and I probably threw it in Texas a little bit in 2019 as well,” Miller explained. “I’ve added a new slider this year that is kind of cutter-y. It’s more like a bullet slider, a gyro slider that’s harder. I don’t really like throwing the big sweeping slider to lefties. Like I said, I’m always finding new ways and seeing what works.”

In our spring training conversation, Miller told me that the gyro slider isn’t a replacement for the sweeper; rather, it’s an additional offering that gives him a four-pitch repertoire. However, that hadn’t turned out to be the case across his first four outings. At that point, he’d thrown 74 pitches in the regular season: 54 four-seamers, 12 splitters, eight gyros‚ and zero sweepers.

So what happened? Why had he at least temporarily abandoned his sweeper?

“You see a lot more of them around the league, so hitters are getting used to that pitch,” Miller said when I asked him about it on Monday at PNC Park, where the Tigers were playing the Pirates. “I’m also working on the newer slider, the gyro, although it hasn’t been as effective as I want. I think it’s getting a little closer, but I’m definitely struggling with it a touch.

“The sweeper is a pitch I’m more comfortable with, because I’ve thrown it the past two or three years, so it’s not as though I’m not going to bring it back. I was actually just throwing it in catch play and it was really, really good. In terms of how I want to profile, the bullet makes more sense, it’s just not a good pitch right now. This is something I’ve got to get figured out. I’m probably pretty close to throwing sweepers again.”

Miller proceeded to take the mound the following day and needed just seven pitches in a quick one-two-three inning. None of them were splitters or gyro sliders. Instead, he threw six fastballs and one sweeper. (It’s worth noting here that Baseball Savant tracks Miller’s gyros as cutters and his sweepers as sliders.)

When Miller said in Pittsburgh that his ideal pitch mix going forward would include a decent dose of those gyro sliders because “the bullet makes more sense,” I thought back to something he told me in spring training that spells out the reasoning.

“I think the biggest thing that makes pitchers good — this from talking to hitters throughout my career — is finding pitches that fit your throws the best, fit your arm slot best,” Miller said. “I can go out and throw a big 12-6 curveball with a higher arm slot, or a better changeup if I drop down, but which pitches mold your delivery the best? Connor McGuiness, with the Dodgers last year, was like, ‘I think you can throw a split out of your fastball slot, and the pitches can tunnel identically.’ That’s what you want, your pitches coming out of the same area, the same tunnel.

“Training with guys in the offseason… and you’ll usually see this with young guys who are chasing the numbers on TrackMan. They want to have the biggest slider. They want to have the best whatever on paper, on the computer, and it looks amazing, but it might not fit what you’re trying to do. A hitter might be like, ‘Oh, that looks different; here comes a changeup,’ because you dropped down a little. So, what as a pitcher makes you really good? First off, you have to be consistent with your delivery. You want to throw consistent shapes, and obviously you’ve got to be in the strike zone.”

“The numbers can be pretty, but take me for an example. My splitter, on paper, might not be the prettiest — it’s like six [inches of vertical movement] with whatever run — but my fastball is so high, vert-wise, that makes my splitter really good, even though it’s probably no more than league average.”

Deep into an up-and-down career, Miller is performing well in Detroit. Again, he’s yet to allow a run in seven innings. As for the fact that he’s toeing the rubber for yet another team, that’s not something he could have imagined when he signed his first professional contract.

“I thought I was going to be in St. Louis forever,” Miller said. “The journey has been different. A lot of them have been very short stints, but L.A. last year was a treat. I loved all the guys over there. My D-backs days were a lot of fun, even though I was hurt a lot. St. Louis early. Other than that, I didn’t really even have time to settle in with organizations. So, this will be a big one. Hopefully we go out and take care of business and I spend a little bit more time in Detroit than just one year.”

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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3 months ago

Another excellent look into the mind of a major leaguer. Love these pieces