Shelby Miller: Pseudo-Prospect

As a part of whatever their plan is, the Braves have reportedly made Shelby Miller available, and they’re taking calls from almost everyone. Miller has three more years of team control, so it’s not like he’d be just a short-term addition, but the Braves would probably like to exchange that for four or five or six years of control of somebody else. It’s nice to have three years of a good player, but it’s less nice when at least the first one will do little to get the team away from the basement. The goal isn’t the year ahead. The goal is survival, so that better years may come.

Even just on the surface, it’s no mystery why Miller has more than a dozen suitors. He’s a cost-controlled, 25-year-old starting pitcher who just eclipsed 200 innings. He played for a miserable team, explaining how he paired a lousy record with a sub-3.5 ERA. Miller still throws plenty hard, and he gained back a few strikeouts, while limiting quality contact. Miller, as is, is appealing. But I think here we could be looking at a brighter future than usual. You typically want to project a player based on what he’s already done. I think there’s a chance Miller’s on the verge of a breakthrough, making him simultaneously a veteran and a sort of prospect. The teams most interested in Shelby Miller might be looking to buy his promise.

Given: Miller is young. His fastball averages 94, and he’s started 95 games the last three years. He has a background as a hyped prospect, so Miller has always drawn attention, and he’s always had potential. Yet it wasn’t far back that Miller looked like a two-pitch pitcher. It’s not that two-pitch pitchers can’t be successful, but Miller didn’t offer much in the way of variety, so it was on him to find some way to reach the next level despite that. He could, say, try to improve his changeup, or he could just focus on nailing pinpoint command. A few years ago, 90% of his pitches were four-seamers or curveballs. Two years back, that number was 88%.

What’s fascinating, then, is what’s in the table below. Before this most recent season, Miller still mostly looked like a two-pitch pitcher. Keep that in mind.

Shelby Miller Pitch Usage
Year Four-seam Sinker Cutter Curve Change
2012 67% 0% 0% 25% 8%
2013 71% 0% 4% 19% 6%
2014 68% 4% 6% 20% 2%
2015 44% 23% 21% 10% 2%
SOURCE: Brooks Baseball

Where not long ago Miller had two reliable pitches, now he has four. It was a quiet development, as Miller took every turn for a go-nowhere ballclub, but Miller added a sinker and a cutter to his four-seamer and curveball, and he used those pitches against righties and lefties alike. He used them often, and he used them with confidence, and though his final numbers for the year were more good than great, this arsenal ought to have more potential than the old one. Batters are less able to predict what’ll be on the way, and Miller pairs his velocity with an ability to pound the zone. So he’s a strike-thrower, now with four weapons.

Yeah, the sinker showed up the year before, and the cutter had also made some previous appearances, but last year is when they took off. Thanks in part to the sinker, Miller posted a career-high groundball rate. Thanks in part to the cutter, Miller posted a career-high strike rate against lefties. And, about that cutter — here’s a link to our pitch-value leaderboard. The best cutter last year, among starting pitchers, belonged to Jake Arrieta. The second-best cutter belonged to Corey Kluber. The third-best belonged to Shelby Miller. Out of nowhere, the pitch didn’t just fold itself in to Miller’s mix; it became maybe the best thing he throws. You can see how it helped him against lefties, and you can see how maybe it helped him avoid solid contact. The cutter did what it was supposed to do. It’s something that now Miller just has.

You see little signs elsewhere. Three years ago, Miller generated three-quarters of his strikeouts with four-seamers. Two years ago, he was up at 78%. This past year, he finished at 59%. The cutter, of course, helped, and this is important, since Miller’s hyped curveball hasn’t been the devastating weapon some thought it could turn into. It could still get there yet. But in the meantime, Miller has made progress in spite of that.

So you have a hard- and strike-throwing pitcher, who now has twice as many pitches as he used to. That hints at a high ceiling, but it could also help Miller to just get out of Atlanta. The repertoire gives Miller potential, but his 2015 numbers might’ve also been a bit misleading. Miller was mostly caught by A.J. Pierzynski, and Pierzynski isn’t known for his ability to receive. For every pitcher in baseball, I calculated the difference between his actual strikes and his expected strikes, based on out-of-zone swings and pitches in the PITCHf/x strike zone. It’s an estimate, but here are the bottom 15:

Bottom 15 Pitchers, Strikes – Expected Strikes
Pitcher Team Strikes – expStrikes
Shelby Miller Braves -59
Collin McHugh Astros -59
Chris Bassitt Athletics -51
Jordan Zimmermann Nationals -50
Rubby de la Rosa Diamondbacks -44
Max Scherzer Nationals -44
Michael Lorenzen Reds -42
Ervin Santana Twins -41
Edinson Volquez Royals -39
Robbie Ross Red Sox -38
Matthew Wisler Braves -35
Mike Foltynewicz Braves -32
Chris Tillman Orioles -31
Alfredo Simon Tigers -31
Anibal Sanchez Tigers -31

Usually I just go to 10, but I wanted to show a few other Braves. It’s not all necessarily about the catchers, but the catchers are a big part of it, and Miller lost more potential strikes by this measure than anyone else, save for Collin McHugh, who he tied. So Miller’s step forward last year might’ve been even greater than you’d think, because of a hidden, subtle penalty. Give Miller a better catcher, and he could throw more strikes, meaning he’d be ahead more often, meaning he’d end up with more strikeouts and fewer walks. It all follows. Given that Miller finished with his sparking ERA, you don’t want to just say Pierzynski cost him success or anything, but Pierzynski was restrictive, and Miller could presumably benefit from a stronger receiver.

I really don’t want to make too much of this, because it’s not the sort of thing you can just expect, but there are some parallels between Miller and Jake Arrieta, right as he was preparing to break out. Arrieta has turned into one of the top five or so starting pitchers in the game, and no team would figure Miller’s in line to follow, but you could see him on a similar general path, where last year might’ve been kind of like Arrieta’s 2013. Miller has shown the signs, and now it’s time to put it all together. His repertoire has become similar to Arrieta’s. Arrieta throws his slider/cutter hybrid a bit faster, but Miller showed a velocity uptick in the second half. Maybe he won’t become a seven-win pitcher, but he could become a five-win pitcher. He seems to have what he needs.

Could be I’m far too optimistic. Steamer projects Shelby Miller for a 4.09 ERA, and Steamer is probably smarter than I am. Yet the Braves won’t treat Miller like that level of pitcher, and neither will the suitors. If a team trades for Miller, it’ll likely be a team that loves what he could do, as opposed to what he’s already done. And what he could do is phenomenal. There’s not much left that he needs.

We hoped you liked reading Shelby Miller: Pseudo-Prospect by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Does it make sense that the Braves value him more highly than Simmons? Based on that return, I imagine every GM would call to see if ATL would but on another AA arm that is “too good to refuse”.