Shelby Miller came into Monday night’s start with a 5.65 ERA/5.45 FIP in AAA this year. MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo rated him as the 20th best prospect in all of baseball coming into the year. When there is that kind of hype around a prospect followed by this type of performance, panic ensues. So, wanting to get a look at Miller, I watched his start against the Round Rock Express (the Rangers AAA) on Monday night.
Miller started the game by getting ahead of Julio Borbon 0-2 with a couple fastballs (he was throwing about 94 MPH throughout) that caught a lot of the plate. 2 pitches later, he got a weak grounder to 1st on a low inside pitch.
To the next hitter, Miller’s fastball had a lot of movement but tailed way off the plate. He then got a whiff on a high fastball that was relatively straight. After another one tailed off the plate, he threw another high one and it turned into a PCL home run by Luis Hernandez (his 7th). This was the 20th home run allowed by Shelby this season, but it really shouldn’t have been a homer as it carried out
He then flashed his curve and got a weak fly-ball but his centerfielder couldn’t get to it. More than anything, Miller was just unlucky at this point in the game. He blew some fastballs by slugger Brad Nelson (who has some serious bat speed issues) for a strikeout. He broke the bat of the next hitter for what I thought was a pretty impressive inning.
He started the next inning by jamming Matt Kata (which he fouled off) before missing with a breaking ball. A bloop then fell in for a lead-off single. He got the strikeout of the lefty looking. Miller then got the next hitter to hit into a double play. Through 2 innings, he looked pretty good, working away from lefties and getting some relatively weak contact. He was throwing a lot of strikes (with all his pitches) and not getting behind.
The at-bat to start the 3rd was stellar. He started with a change-up for a strike, followed by a curve for a strike and then a high fastball that swung at and missed. His change-up tails from left to right, usually drifting just off the plate or staying right on the corner. It is not a pitch he keeps down, but it didn’t hurt him. Julio Borbon was the next hitter and hit the hardest ball (at least on a line) at that point for a double. After a ground-out, Miller started throwing his curveball to Ryan Spilbourghs (who has an OPS of .003 higher than the PCL average since joining the Rangers organization). Miller blew the fastball by him before getting him to weakly pop-out.
I was really impressed with Miller’s ability to throw strikes early in the count with his curveball. He did it again to start the 4th against Brad Nelson and then blew a fastball by him. His fastball is already a plus looking pitch, but when he sets it up with his curve it is almost unfair with the speed differential and the movement. If you don’t swing at it, it’s still a strike. He got 2 weak grounders (one for an infield hit) and blew fastballs by Solarte before he hit a line drive up the middle for a single. It wasn’t a terrible pitch, it was just a lefty getting around on the righty’s fastball. Another line drive hit up the middle on a fastball was Miller’s 2nd run allowed. At this point, he probably should have thrown a few more changes. His curveball started staying a little too high and he fell into a full count to the next hitter. Another breaking ball left high was hit to RF for a fly-out to end the inning.
The 5th started with a deadly change-fastball combo to Julio Borbon for a strikeout before a pretty hard line drive was out 2 to center-field. He made Spilbourghs look bad on fastballs and eventually got him to weakly pop out to center. The 6th started with a rare low fastball getting him a strikeout looking of Brad Nelson (who must think that Shelby Miller is Cy Young reincarnated). He got ahead 0-2 to Joey Butler and threw another low fastball to get another looking strikeout. It showed just how advanced he is as a young pitcher for him to be able to reinvent himself during the game as he faced hitters for the 3rd time. A ground-ball made the 6th a 3 up 3 down inning. The Redbirds brought him out for the 7th, where he got a ground-out, a fly-ball hit, and then a weak fly-out on a breaking ball. With 2 outs, Miller got ahead of Borbon quickly with fastballs that were fouled back. Borbon made it a long at-bat, fouling off pitches and taking balls. Miller then threw a high curve and Borbon whiffed on it. The curve will probably not be successful at the next level when left up that high, but it didn’t get him in any trouble on Monday.
One of Miller’s problems have been that too many of his fly-balls have turned into homers, just as we saw in the first inning of his outing. In 2011 in A+ and AA, his HR/FB % was 3.8. This year, it is 16.7% a shocking difference. In fact, that could account for nearly all the difference in ERA and FIP. This is why his SIERA is a much better 3.96, which is better than PCL average.
The Park Factor for the Memphis Redbirds’ stadium is 97, meaning it is slightly pitcher friendly by PCL standards. Miller’s HR/FB % is the worst on the team if you set the minimum at 50 batters faced. However, 2 hitters on the team with quite a bit of at-bats (Matthew Adams and Mark Hamilton) have HR/FB of over 20%. Memphis had 2 homers and another ball hit to the warning track in the first 4 innings of the game.
Sometimes, as discussed in the Ryan Wheeler article, the PCL can be crazy. From what I saw, there isn’t much wrong with Shelby Miller. He had good control (his walk rate has been slightly up this year and it is high, but it has always been kind of high. He is actually throwing more strikes than league average) and he missed bats (he gets more strikeouts and strikeouts swinging than league average). He is 21 years old and while this year has not gone very well in many ways, he is still a good pitcher and a very good prospect.