Written by: Danny Hacker
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Shelby Miller is just 30 years old. He is just as old as Trevor Bauer and younger than Jacob deGrom. Let that sink in with you a minute. Shelby Miller was the 19th Overall Pick in the 2009 Draft and ascended to becoming one of the best pitching prospects in all of baseball before his debut. He debuted with the Cardinals and had two very promising seasons before being traded to the Atlanta Braves along with Tyrell Jenkins in exchange for Jason Heyward and Jordan Walden. After his career best season in 2015, he was infamously traded to the D’backs along with Gabe Speier in exchange for Dansby Swanson, Ender Inciarte and Aaron Blair. Since then it has been nothing short of a mess; he regressed in 2016, missed 95% of 2017 and 2018 due to Tommy John Surgery, Non Tendered by the D’backs, returned in 2019 for his first season Post-TJS on a few different minor league deals and then opted out due to COVID-19 in 2020.
All of that leads to the Cubs signing Miller to a non-roster deal with a Spring Training Invite. The Cubs currently have at least three holes in their starting rotation after Yu Darvish got traded to the Padres and both Jose Quintana (Angels) and Jon Lester (Nationals) signed elsewhere so there is a chance for Miller to crack the Opening Day rotation as the number five starter despite the Cubs signing Jake Arrieta, Trevor Williams and acquiring Zack Davies.
Looking at Shelby Miller’s pitch mix over the course of his career displays an interesting notion; it really has never been consistent.
Miller’s Fastball usage has had a rollercoaster ride. In 2013, Miller used the Fastball 71.6% of the time then dropped to 58.6% usage in 2014. In 2015 (his career year) the usage was 33.3% followed by a major spike once getting to Arizona to 50.9% of the time. In a very limited 2017, he cut the usage to 18.5% and it rose drastically again in a very limited 2018 and all of 2019 (58.8% and 68.6%).
You’d think with all the crazy usage, his velocity would show some trends of that, maybe as to why, but that’s wrong. Miller’s fastball velocity has been pretty dead on consistent ever since 2012; 93.4, 94.3, 94.1, 94.8, 93.5, 93.9, 94.5 and 94.3. There has been no drastic spike or loss (especially pre-TJS) and once Savant started measuring Spin Rate in 2015, it’s been a consistent 2,200-2,300 RPM pitch. It also has had very good horizontal and vertical movement qualities since the stat had been started to be measured by Savant in 2015 (it was elite in 2019 with 1.3 more inches of Vertical Movement than the Average and 2.5 more inches of Horizontal Movement than the average). So why the decline in usage? It’s not because the fastball was a bad pitch but rather because of something else.
That something else is his sinker. Miller’s sinker usage has been inversely proportional to the fastball usage since his career started and you can see that below
Looking at 2015 (Miller’s best season as a pro), his pitch mix was the following: Sinker (33.8%), Fastball (33.3%), Cutter (20.9%), Curveball (9.8%) and Changeup (2.3%). That was his peak sinker usage (albeit he did throw 39.6% in a very limited 2017 before TJS) but other than that, it has again been reduced to a major after thought. The Sinker/Cutter usage fueled a 47.7% ground-ball rate which is a career high over a full season (Miller did have a 49.0% ground-ball rate in a very limited 2018). The duo in 2015 also gave him a career low fly-ball rate of 34.1% and a career low line drive rate of 18.2%. By using the sinker to generate a difference vs his fastball, Miller was able to keep the ball on the ground and stay out of trouble.
Miller started tinkering and working on a new slider when with the Brewers and in today’s Spring Training game vs the Brewers, he showed it off and it looked really good. See the tweet below for the video of it. The pitch is reported to be around 2,600 RPM and it has quite a bit of snap to it. He has said the pitch will be a major part of the arsenal moving forward so it will be noteworthy to see the usage of it in a more stretched out start in addition to the rest of his pitches
Another thing to note about Miller post-2015 is that in 2016, his ABABIP (Allowed Batting Average on Balls In Play) was .340, indicating that there was some potential bad luck against him. Further, what if I further told you that Miller showed signs of returning to form the following season? Those signs are a .288 ABABIP, a 0.41 HR/9, a 4.04 ERA/3.57 FIP, 8.1 K/9 and a 86.1 AEV (Allowed Exit Velocity) which were all more common to Miller’s career trends to that point than 2016 was. The factor in that? Miller’s 39.6% sinker usage(!!). However it was short lived as Miller underwent surgery and missed the rest of ‘17 and most of ‘18 until they brought him back and he left again with more elbow soreness (he was cleared shortly after). Simply put, he was on his way back
Miller has never been a pristine control/command guy posting BB% in the 8-9% range pretty consistently over his full seasons which means he doesn’t necessarily have to have it to be successful in 2021 but It would definitely help. Miller has been working for the last few seasons working out kinks in his mechanics (in 2016-2017, he would get so low his hand would physically hit the mound quite a bit when he would throw) and a video posted to twitter from last summer seen below shows that he has improved on that. That, in turn, could show dividends in that area as he works to get back.
In a recent bullpen session pre-Spring Training, Miller was posting a 2,577 RPM Fastball at 91.5 mph with almost 21” of Vertical Break and 7” of Horizontal Break. The VB would be a career record by almost 7” and the HB is about 3” less than what it was in recent years. The velocity is not concerning being a few ticks down (he, like any other pitcher, is just starting to ramp up for the season) but It’s worth noting that he could very much break 2,600 RPM with 2-3 more mph as he gets back to where he once was. This improved fastball and its qualities can play up really well if he mixed his pitches more effectively like he once did in 2015.
All in all, the issue here lies with Miller’s confidence in his pitch mix and executing them. He became way too predictable and as a result, hitters were timing everything. There were reports all throughout 2016 onwards that Miller was struggling mentally due to the pressure of the trade and as a result lost a lot of confidence in his pitches and himself. Now in 2021, Miller posted to twitter, saying he’s healthy and ready to get on with the season. Most people, understandably, shrug off this signing and say “Oh Boy” but there’s still some untapped upside here. I hope he can return to the pitcher he once was but even if he doesn’t reach that high, which is the more realistic outcome, he still can be a very effective pitcher by using more of his pitch mix effectively instead of just relying solely on his fastball and curveball predictably. If the Cubs can help him find that confidence, Shelby Miller won’t be a laughing stock but rather a starter who will be greatly helping the Cubs in the middle of a playoff race or will be a trade deadline acquisition for a playoff team looking for an effective starter.
P.S: This is one of my favorite stats of all time. Enjoy and it’s still true to this day
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