Shelby Miller Headlines the Cardinals' September Callups

March 12, 2012; Melbourne, FL, USA; St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Shelby Miller (71) throws a pitch during spring training game against the Washington Nationals at Space Coast Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Barr-US PRESSWIRE

The St. Louis Cardinals have announced their September callups for the 2012 stretch run. The list includes the predictable names of shortstop Ryan Jackson, righthanded reliever Victor Marte, and lefthanded outfielder Adron Chambers. The headline-making name included in the group of callups from Memphis is former first-round draft pick Shelby Miller.

The Cardinals selected Miller with the nineteenth overall pick in the 2009 MLB amateur draft. At the time, the Texan was pitching for Brownwood High School with a fastball that reached 97 MPH. He was a part of a Texas A&M recruiting class that included 2012 Cardinals first-rounder Michael Wacha. The signing of Miller was not considered a sure thing at the time. In a column lost to the constant reorganization of stltoday.com, Bernie Miklasz quoted Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt.

"This year, we felt we had a chance to get one of the top pitchers at No. 19, and if the first round evolved the right way, we were committed to taking one," DeWitt said. "You dream of a certain pitcher and it doesn't normally happen, but in this case, it did. We understand that this will be a difficult signing, but he's motivated and we're motivated."

The Cardinals signed the chairman's dreamboat to a $4 million bonus and the righthanded fireballer was dispatched to the Quad Cities, where he saw limited playing time. In the 2010 Baseball Prospectus, Miller is given an assessment which seems to reflect the general opinion about the righthander at the time:

With low- to mid-90s heat that touches 97 mph and clean mechanics, he's starting from a good place, but he has a lot of polish to add to his off-speed stuff.

Prior to the 2010 season, Baseball America ranked Miller the fiftieth prospect in baseball and the Cardinals again sent him to Davenport, where he pitched well for the River Bandits, notching 140 strikeouts with just 33 walks over 104.1 innings.

Level

GS

IP

SO%

BB%

SwStr%

GB%

LOB%

ERA

FIP

TRA

Low A

24

24

31.9%

7.5%

--

--

66.3%

3.71

2.42

2.77


Sadly, azruavatar and I missed seeing Miller pitch during our trip to the Quad Cities at the end of the 2010 season. The River Bandits held Miller back to pitch in their playoff series. It was a wise decision. In the series' opening game, Miller eviscerated Kane County, putting up an impressive box score line of 7 IP, 2 H, 1 BB, 13 SO, and 0 R. In a Birdland post, Derrick Goold of the Post-Dispatch shared the tweets of Kevin Goldstein (formerly of Baseball Prospectus and recent hire of the Houston Astros), who was at the game and called Miller's start "the most dominating performance I've seen all year." After the game, Miller gave a quote to the Quad City Times that is particularly interesting in the wake of his Triple-A travails and triumphs:

"I was really hyped up about this game," Miller said. "I thought a lot coming into it about how good I can be when I put my mind to it, and I put it all together. I told J-Rod (manager Johnny Rodriguez) I was going to get him a shutout, and I did."

Miller won the Cardinals organization Pitcher of the Year award. In the 2011 Baseball Prospectus, which came out during the 2010-11 Hot Stove, the assessment of Miller was quite flattering:

The Cardinals' top prospect and one of the better minor-league pitchers around, Miller is a Texas high-schooler who dominated the Midwest League last year. He has effortless gas that reaches the upper 90s, the kind of fastball that by itself can overpower hitters, along with a curveball and an occasional change. The curve could become a true power offering with tight break, giving Miller definite front-of-the-rotation stuff, and a surprisingly low walk rate for a young power pitcher making his full-season debut bodes well for his future development. He'll move up to High-A this year, though it would be groovy in a Chaucerian sort of way if the Cardinals' rotation could concurrently feature a Carpenter, a Miller, and a Wainwright.

(I love that final sentence so much.)

Entering the 2011 season, Baseball America ranked Miller the No. 13 prospect in all of baseball. The Cardinals started Miller in Palm Beach and, after nine dominant starts, aggressively promoted him to Double-A Springfield. Miller didn't miss a beat as he moved up the organizational ladder and built on his excellent 2010 with an equally impressive 2011, which netted him his second consecutive organization Pitcher of the Year award.

Level

GS

IP

SO%

BB%

SwStr%

GB%

LOB%

ERA

FIP

TRA

High A

9

53.0

37.0%

9.1%

--

34.5%*

70.5%

2.89

1.82

1.92

AA

16

86.2

25.1%

9.3%

48.2%*

42.4%*

76.3%

2.70

2.73

3.42


*For GB% and SwStr%, I used MinorLeagueCentral.com. My eyes popped at the number of swinging strikes Miller induced. Feel free to correct my calculations or shed light on the site’s methods in the comments.

Miller entered spring training this year ranked by Baseball America as baseball's No. 8 prospect. His rise had been so fast and smooth that some wondered whether he would be able to make the Cardinals roster out of spring training. The pre-camp optimism was quickly dashed.

Jenifer Langosch of MLB.com reported that Miller arrived at camp with a more svelte physique due to an offseason workout regimen designed to cut weight and body fat, a development that left the Cardinals organization nonplussed. Manager Mike Matheny specifically contrasted negatively Miller's thinner body composition to that of Jake Westbrook, who reportedly dropped twenty pounds during the offseason. Whereas Westbrook was encouraged to drop weight, Miller's thinner physique caused durability concerns. Langosch quotes Matheny in the article:

"He had a couple strong seasons and then comes in [with his] body fat way down. There's a balance there," Matheny said. "You have to be careful not to put yourself in a position where you're losing muscle mass during the season. If you're a starting pitcher and you're going to grind through the season, you better have some things stored up.

"Sometimes working hard isn't always working smart. I don't know exactly what Shelby did, but he certainly had a different body. It's just one of those things that a young player has to figure out what is best for him."

Langosch also quoted farm director John Vuch on the development:

"Shelby reported to Spring Training in very good physical condition, having lost weight and with low body fat, but that was not necessarily a goalt that he was given heading into the offseason," farm director John Vuch said. "Now that he's back with our strength and conditioning staff, they're making sure the plan he's following is geared toward ensuring he's getting in peak shape for baseball purposes. Once he's back in his normal baseball condition, durability shouldn't be a concern, and our medical staff feels that he should be where he needs to be by the time the season opens."

Miller's Triple-A career got off to a rough start with a debut that lasted just three innings but rebounded with an excellent third start that featured nine strikeouts over five innings and a blemish consisting of four walks. In an MLB.com "Scout's View" feature published on April 20, 2012, an anonymous scout was quoted about the young righty.

"You have to think with him, 'If he was in the Draft this year, where would he go?'" the scout said, pointing out Miller would be a college junior if he hadn't signed with the Cardinals. "He's going through the growing pains of being in Triple-A at a young age. His stuff is still good, his breaking ball is as good as I've seen it. He's still a top- to mid-rotation-type arm."

For whatever reason, Miller's results did not match those of his previous minor-league stops. In the hitter-friendly Pacific Coach League, where the league-average hitting line in 2012 was .278/.345/.430/.775 and the league-average ERA was 4.70, Miller saw a sky-high BABIP and home run rate dog him. The reports on Miller's stuff soured. Some stated that his velocity was down; others that his breaking ball wasn't sharp. The Cardinals dispatched pitching coordinator Brent Strom to Memphis to work with Miller on his mechanics. Goold reported in the Post-Dispatch on the adjustment, which came about by comparing video of Miller's starts during his time in the lower levels of the system. In the June 18, 2012, article, Goold writes:

The correction resulted in more consistent velocity on Saturday, something that has improved steadily this season. Miller pitched between 92 mph and 94 mph and topped at 96 mph.

Along with the video lessons and mechanical adjustment, Goold also reported that Cardinals imposed a "no shake" rule on Miller. The young righthander was forbidden from shaking off the pitch called by his catcher, who was more often than not Bryan Anderson. You may recall that Anderson has been dogged throughout his time with the Cardinals organization for poorly handling pitchers. Whether this is a testament to Anderson's improvement or Miller's struggles, the Cardinals placed their top-tier pitching prospect in the hands of Anderson.

Miller's ERA shot up to 6.17 on July 7. Joe Strauss of the Post-Dispatch has reported that clubs were more interested in acquiring Joe Kelly or Trevor Rosenthal, both of whom were promoted to St. Louis over Miller during the season, at the non-waiver trade deadline. Around the time of the deadline, Jayson Stark of ESPN gave column space to an anonymous MLB executive who said Miller had gained weight and lost velocity. Miller's stock was at what will likely be an all-time low.

Whether it was the mechanical adjustment, the "no shake" rule, the regression of an unsustainably high home rate and BABIP, or some combination thereof, Miller gradually turned his season around. On July 20, Miller had a five-inning start against Oklahoma City in which he struck out four, walked three, and gave up no runs. The three walks would be the last he would issue until August 16. From July 25 through his final start on August 26, Miller totaled 48.4 innings, 57 strikeouts, and a mere four walks. After surrendering 53 earned runs in his first 88.3 IP of the season, Miller allowed just 18 over his final 48.4; his ERA fell to 4.74 after his final start, the lowest it had been since May 26.

Even with the solid end to the season, Miller's HR/9 is still 1.53 compared to the PCL average of 0.9. That being said, his 10.54 K/9 is exceptional and his 3.29 BB/9 is a bit below the PCL average of 3.40. Miller's season-ending 4.74 ERA is a bit higher than the 4.70 PCL average. That Miller's TRA of 4.36 is good for a TRA+ of 119 suggests a bit of bad luck.

Level

GS

IP

SO%

BB%

SwStr%

GB%

LOB%

ERA

FIP

TRA

AAA

27

136.2

26.7%

8.4%

46.27%

32.9%

73.2%

4.74

4.48

4.36

Miller's turnaround to close out the year has prompted talk of how he has matured. With a dateline Memphis, Joe Strauss wrote up the turnaround for the Post-Dispatch. The article describes Miller as rubbing veterans the wrong way during spring training and quotes Memphis manager Pop Warner (who was also Miller's manager in Springfield last season) on Miller's emotional maturation during the course of the trying season. "He's a better teammate now," Warner says succinctly.

Miller is also quoted at length in the Strauss article and is often critical of himself and his mental approach early in the year. Even so, Miller notes that the early season struggles have given him a perspective and greater enjoyment of his recent success. At one point, Strauss quotes Miller on the nearing season's end.

"What upsets me now is I'm pitching and I have only two games left."

With Tuesday's September callup to St. Louis, Miller's 2012 season has been extended indefinitely. After a trying 2012 season with Memphis, it will be intriguing to see what the young pitcher does with it.

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