Top of the Order: Mason Miller Makes The A’s (Sometimes) Worth Watching

Robert Edwards-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to Top of the Order, where every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I’ll be starting your baseball day with some news, notes, and thoughts about the game we love.

You don’t need me to tell you that the A’s aren’t a good team, nor a particularly entertaining one. Esteury Ruiz, arguably the club’s most fun position player, is down in Triple-A looking to build on his spring training success and become a more consistent everyday player than he was last year, when he led the majors with 67 steals but also had a wRC+ of just 86 and was, as far as DRS is concerned, horrible in the outfield (-20). That leaves the A’s without many players worth tuning in for, with the roster littered with post-prime veterans, waiver claims, and former prospects who’ve lost their shine. But Mason Miller’s career is just getting going, and it’s delightful to watch.

The flame-throwing righty burst onto the major league scene last year with a 3.38 ERA in four starts, including seven no-hit innings against the Mariners in a May outing that was just the third of his career. But a minor UCL sprain kept him out until September, when he was used in two or three inning spurts, topping out at 54 pitches. That perhaps foreshadowed how he’d be used this season, with David Forst saying at the Winter Meetings that he’d likely work out of the bullpen in an effort to limit his innings (and injuries). In the very early going, the move has not only kept Miller healthy, but allowed him to turn on another gear. He’s now pitching with absolute dominance as a reliever instead of teasing it as a starter.

After setting the Nationals down in order on Sunday — all on strikes — Miller lowered his season ERA to 2.25 across eight innings, with both earned runs coming in his first outing. Since that rough first performance, Miller has struck out 14 of the 26 batters he’s faced, with just two walks and three hits allowed. He’s been nearly unhittable in his last three outings, striking out seven of nine opponents without allowing a baserunner, topping out at 104 mph with his fastball and featuring a hellacious slider.

In watching Miller — and I’m sure to turn on the A’s game whenever he pitches — I’m struck not just by the stuff, but by how well he commands it. His fastball can be blazingly hard, like the one thrown at 104, but often settles in around triple digits or just below. To be clear, that velo is still incredibly difficult to hit, but it isn’t especially unusual for a hitter to see either. But Miller generally keeps his fastball out of the middle of the plate, spotting it at the hitter’s belt or to his glove side, and his slider follows suit; it’s placed almost surgically on the glove-side corner while occasionally being used as a get-me-over pitch down the middle:

Whether Miller can survive the Year of the Blown Out Elbow remains to be seen — that very small UCL tear didn’t just go away — but as long as he’s healthy, I’ll be watching, poor team around him be darned.

The Dodgers Need More Starting Pitching (Again)

Bobby Miller going down with shoulder inflammation is the latest blow to a Dodgers pitching staff that currently has more starters on the IL than in its rotation: Los Angeles is currently rocking a four-man rotation of Tyler Glasnow, Gavin Stone, James Paxton, and Yoshinobu Yamamoto, with Miller, Walker Buehler, Clayton Kershaw, Dustin May, and Tony Gonsolin all on the injured list. Buehler should be back soon (even though his latest rehab start was cut short after he got hit on the pitching hand with a line drive) but the others are all facing extended absences, with Gonsolin not returning this year and May unlikely to.

There’s nothing much wrong with the Dodgers’ existing group — Glasnow looks especially good, while Yamamoto has shown tantalizing potential that he realized in his second and third starts before backsliding a little bit in his fourth — but four starters doesn’t a rotation make. Buehler’s return should help matters, but pitchers coming back from Tommy John, even one as far out from the procedure as he is, are often rusty, and his ability to go six-plus innings from the outset remains in doubt.

When Miller made for a healthy quintet, the Dodgers planned on working in bullpen games every so often to limit innings across a rotation that lacks a single pitcher who has qualified for an ERA title until Buehler and Kershaw are back. Those Ryan Yarbrough-led games are still going to happen, but with no further reinforcements coming until Kershaw is back around the All-Star break, bullpen games might be less a matter of load management and more of a necessity, one that may take place more often than planned. That’s not to say the Dodgers should go and swing a big trade right now, but their front-of-game situation definitely has thinner margins for success.

How I’ve Missed Good Jesse Winker

There are lots of archetypes of baseball players I love watching, but high up on that list is Lefty Who Can Just Hit. That archetype can come in many forms, from low-power artists like Luis Arraez to players with pop and gorgeous swings like Juan Soto. In 2021, Jesse Winker was very much a Lefty Who Can Just Hit, when he was an All-Star and put up a 148 wRC+ in 110 games. But a trade from Cincinnati to Seattle took him off that course; he posted a disappointing 108 wRC+, not nearly high enough for a player with his lack of defensive or baserunning utility. And things got worse in 2023 in Milwaukee, where he had a 65 wRC+ in just 61 games, barreling a mere five balls all year and hitting just a single home run.

That led Winker to a minor league deal with the Nationals. He played his way onto the team in spring training and now looks to be the Winker of old. Small samples, of course, but a 173 wRC+ in 56 plate appearances is nothing to sneeze at, and he’s striking out just as much as he’s walking. This early on, the counting stats are most notable to me: Winker has already equaled last year’s measly homer total and is just two behind his 2023 self in barrels. If he keeps performing like this, he probably won’t be a National all year, and will instead find himself plugged right into the middle of a contender’s lineup.

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1 month ago

With a competent owner, the A’s could actually be a good team, tbh. Add two ML-caliber starters, and their pitching staff becomes good (they’re already 10th in expected Runs Allowed per game), especially if you put Joe Boyle in the pen for now (get him to trust his stuff and throw it for strikes). Michael Wacha and Seth Lugo like the Royals and they’re better. They have enough hitters that they could be decent already (injuries and inconsistency have hurt them, but also because they have no margin for error), but add a Michael A. Taylor/Kevin Keirmaier in Center or a decent corner bat like Lourdes Gurriel Jr. or Teoscar Hernandez in a corner and suddenly their lineup becomes solid.

Just more reasons to hate Fisher.

1 month ago
Reply to  EonADS

I agree to hate Fisher for obvious reasons. However I think you understate how far A’s are from being truly good. Blackburn is a perfectly fine middle of rotation guy, stripling is a back of rotation guy. Three starts shouldn’t change that, Boyle still needs to prove he can throw enough strikes. Offensively they very much lack talent.

Mason Miller is the next edwin diaz however and that is legit fun

1 month ago
Reply to  matt

I’m not saying they’d be some elite team, but “above .500” isn’t that high of a bar. It truly isn’t. They’re not in the East. Maybe I’m understating their troubles, but I feel like you’re overstating them.

Yes, Blackburn is solid. Stripling is fine. Wood isn’t far removed from being a solid #4. Sears has lots of upside. Add in two competent starters and it’s a decent rotation. They don’t need to be world-beaters to be able to get five innings and then turn it over to their better relievers. The Royals made back-to-back World Series off that kind of strategy.

Boyle needs to go to the pen, as I already stated. You have him over one of the complete non-factors like Jiminez or Spence, and he’s likely a decent or at least average reliever this year. Ditto Medina when he comes back. Erceg and Muller are both good. McFarland and Adams are decent enough veterans, McFarland especially. That plus Mason Miller is a good bullpen, straight-up.

Add in one or two competent bats, and they look like a solid team. Gelof, Rooker, Noda, JD Davis, Langeliers, and Bleday are already a decent offensive core on paper. Plus the potential of Ruiz returning. It’s not like they have no upside.

Last edited 1 month ago by EonADS
1 month ago
Reply to  EonADS

82 wins is not a “good team”, which is what you originally said.

1 month ago
Reply to  WellIDoubtThat

Really sparsing here. 81 is average. 82 is above average. Above average is good! Read the man’s main point that if the owner cared more the team has upside to be competitive.

1 month ago
Reply to  WellIDoubtThat

Good does not mean “playoff contention”. Nitpicking my word choice and literally nothing else is extremely lazy and boring.