memphis redbird pitching coach dyar miller knows the minor leagues only too well. he spent seven years there before debuting with the baltimore orioles in 1975 as a 29-year-old rookie. miller's numbers in the minors were always great, but so was baltimore's pitching staff; its minor-league pitching staffs, too. so after posting a 12-10 record with a 3.23 era in his first year at double A (1970), the orioles rewarded him with . . . . another year at double A. and then another. he was 27 before a slot finally opened up for him at triple A in 1973); he had a great season (2.75 era, 6.6 hits per 9), but returned the next year, putting up nearly identical numbers (2.70, 6.8 hits per 9).
when he finally did reach the majors in 1975, he joined a baltimore pitching staff full to bursting with very successful major-leaguers. his teammates that season included jim palmer (268 career wins), doyle alexander (194), mike torrez (185), mike cuellar (185), mike flanagan (167), and ross grimsley (124). he led that team in saves with 8, despite arriving at midseason; he pitched another six years in the bigs, retiring with a career 3.23 era (era+ of 113).
in 1986, a few years after he retired, miller spent a year as the pitching coach at louisville, then the cards' triple A affiliate. two of the guys on his staff there, joe magrane and greg mathews, played crucial roles on stl's 1987 pennant winner -- the former led the staff in era, the latter in wins and games started. he moved on to work in the white sox and indians organizations; in his three-plus years at memphis he has coached danny haren, kiko calero, al reyes, randy flores, and brad thompson. oh, and a catcher named molina . . .
on thursday i ran miller's comments about memphis ace anthony reyes, whose sore shoulder has landed him on the dl. today the rest of the conversation -- about adam wainwright, brad thompson, jimmy journell, chris gissell, and danny haren, among others.
VEB: How close is Wainwright? He's thrown a lot of minor-league innings, and it looks like he may be close to being a finished product. Is that impression fair?
MILLER: In my opinion he may be just a little bit ahead of Reyes. He's got more innings, and he knows how to pitch. He's getting tougher, you know, tougher mentally. He's more of a battler out there now. He's making some big strides this year. He's been more consistently down in the zone. His ball is sinking now compared to last year; he was still throwing the four-seamer last year, and now he's getting more groundball outs. His curveball is getting a little better. His changeup is good. He's actually starting to throw a slider and a split now -- might be throwing too many pitches, almost.
VEB: Who calls the pitches during the game? Do you turn that over to your catcher, or are you calling pitches from the dugout?
MILLER: We don't do that in pro ball. In college the coaches call it. I give the lineup to my starter and my catcher and to the bullpen, and we go over it before the game: `This is how we want to pitch this guy. This is his strength; this is his weakness. And also you got to remember the pitcher's strength and weakness. We don't get all these scouting reports down here like they do in the big leagues, so a lot of times we just have to go with the pitcher's strength.
VEB: Both Wainwright and Reyes seem to really be throwing strikes this year. The walk-to-strikeout ratio that has become so popular -- they both have been outstanding, low walks / high strikeouts. Is there anything that you've worked on with them specifically, either Wainwright or Reyes, to focus on that?
MILLER: Well of course everybody wants to get ahead you know; get strike one. That's probably the most important pitch. And we've been pretty good with that. I don't talk too much about walks or balls. I talk about challenging hitters, pitching down in a zone, getting ahead. The only time I waste a pitch is maybe on 0-2, to set up another pitch. But we try to challenge them, and these guys have done a real good job at it. It makes the game move faster when you work ahead; your defense plays better behind you. So we try to go right after the guys. I'll give up a hit before I'll give up a walk.
VEB: Is that something that's talked about top-to-bottom in the organization? Because I know that that's the way the Cardinal pitchers go at it as well, and I think they're leading the lead in the fewest walks allowed. That's been a hallmark. Do you take that cue from the top of the organization?
MILLER: Well I think so. We're a fastball organization -- everything goes around a fastball, and I think we preach about getting ahead with the fastball, throwing the fastball both sides of the plate, challenging guys. That's what we like to do. I've had pitchers before in other organizations who like to go 2-0 so they can throw a changeup, because that's their out pitch. I don't think you can be successful over the long run pitching that way. I want them to get ahead with a fastball, even if they give up a hit. iIf it's down in the zone, it's a single -- and then you still got another chance to throw another fastball and get a double play. That's the way we approach it.
VEB: I want to talk about Brad Thompson for a second because he has been a real pleasant surprise. I hadn't ever seen him pitch. We all heard about the string of shutout innings that he threw last year -- that was a national story -- but it seemed like he was pitching so-so for you guys in the spring. When I saw him for the first time, it really appeared that his pitches have a lot of movement on them. But I was only watching on TV. Do his pitches really bite?
MILLER: Yeah, he's always had a real good sinker. I actually saw him before he signed when I was in Las Vegas -- he's from Las Vegas. The scout brought him down to the bullpen before the game one day, and I watched him throw. He throws across his body quite a bit, and I told him `You need a lot of work on your mechanics, because you're going to hurt your arm. You're stretching your shoulder quite a bit the way you throw.' The pitching coaches in the lower levels have done a good job with straightening out his mechanics. He still throws across, which allows him to sink the ball more than a lot of people. Has a little deception in there. But he had a hard time throwing his breaking pitch over. Well now he's a little straighter -- not throwing across his body. And he can throw his breaking ball or his slider for strikes, and he's come up with a little changeup. He still has some pretty good movement. But he's worked on it.
VEB: Yeah, and he's been throwing strikes. I think that's the thing that has been nice to see. He's not walking people, he's going after the hitters and still getting them out.
MILLER: He's getting ground balls, you know, and that's what Dunc likes. Duncan told me he likes to see that.
VEB: Are you in pretty regular contact with those two [ie, Duncan and LaRussa]. What is your communication like?
MILLER: Well I talk to them every time I send somebody up there or Duncan sends somebody down here. We usually talk two to three times a month, I'd say; that's about it. But you know we also send e-mail. And we have stayed in pretty good contact over this Reyes incident here.
VEB: Duncan wants to stay right in the loop on that?
MILLER: Yeah, he sure does.
VEB: Before we saw Brad Thompson, one pitcher that didn't do so well in St. Louis was Jimmy Journell. He has had a couple of shots in St. Louis but so far it hasn't worked out for him. What is holding him back do you think? What are you guys working on with him?
MILLER: Well Jimmy is doing outstanding down here now. I think, to be truthful, he had to hit rock bottom before he started coming around. You know what I mean? I've had him three years, and he's started doing some things that I've been trying to get him to do for three years now. When I first saw him - and I don't usually mess with guys until I see them pitch five or six times -- when I saw Jimmy pitch I said, `Jimmy, you elevate the ball. You got a long arm. Your breaking ball's inconsistent. You got to do a few things here mechanically.' He just never has done it. Now he's back down here, and some of the other pitchers just can't believe the change in him. He is throwing the ball with a good downhill plane. He's down in the zone. He's a little rough yet because it's something new he's just doing, but he is really throwing the ball good with some good thought. And I hope he keeps it up. His attitude seems to be better; he's actually got a smile on his face. He's working hard every day and throwing the best I've seen him.
VEB: He did have a couple of good outings for the Cardinals while he was up, though.
MILLER: It was an accident that he had good outings, the way he was throwing. It was an accident. He was throwing wrong. He's been doing that ever since he's been pitching. Finally now he's changing. He needed to make some adjustments, and now he's starting to make them. He's getting outs by design now rather than by accident, you know? He's getting people to hit the ball on the ground, and he's throwing balls by these guys. He's got more deception now. He's actually throwing more of a curveball right now. But I told him the other day we need to get back that slider because it will be better than the way he's throwing. I talk about a merry-go-round and a Ferris wheel. You can't throw like a merry-go-round; it's like a Ferris wheel.
VEB: Keep that arm vertical.
VEB: Carmen Cali -- he had some very limited exposure last fall and then got beat up this spring. How's he throwing?
MILLER: He's throwing good. We're working on some things with him to get him more consistent. He's a kid who will throw good one time and then revert back to some mechanical problems the next time. So he's just not staying consistent with his mechanics now. But when he throws right he's got a good downhill plane. Everything's crisp. But he'll have a tendency to overthrow. The juices get flowing, and his head comes off or the ball and he gets out of whack. So he needs to stay within himself, not overthrow. You can't throw with 100 percent effort all the time, and that's what he does sometimes -- just gets out there and rears back and lets it go, and then everything gets out of whack. But he's doing better. He had a good outing the other day again.
VEB: Tell me a little bit about Chris Gissell. I know he's he's having a great year -- it seems as if he's right up there with Reyes and Wainwright in terms of how his numbers look -- but he's older, been in a few organizations. What kind of pitcher is he? I don't know much about him at all.
MILLER: Well, he was a high school draft, I think by the Cubs. This is his 9th year I think. And he's still relatively young -- 26, 27. He's a fastball, slider, curve, changeup guy. You know, he really pitches like I like to teach -- pitches off his fastball. He locates his fastball, moves it up and down, in and away. He could pitch a whole game just with his fastball, he's so good with that. In fact, I'm trying to get him to use more breaking stuff. He pitched last night -- struck out nine guys in six innings. I think he had a two-hitter or a three-hitter going in six, and then Pickering hit a two-run homer off him. So he gave up three runs in six innings and he got the win last night for us.
VEB: What is his best path do you think to getting into the big leagues? With the starting rotation the Cardinals have and then the two blue-chip rotation candidates on your staff, that might not be his fastest route. Does he need to go with a different organization or maybe find a different role in order to get up to the big leagues?
MILLER: He'll probably go up I mean as a bullpen guy eventually probably. You know, long man, middle guy, something. But I'm not so sure he couldn't start for someone. It may have to be another organization. But if someone got hurt up there [St. Louis] and he had to pitch for awhile, he'd fill in.
VEB: That's one of the exciting things from a fan's perspective. There's so much depth. If you get an injury or somebody starts going bad, you know there are no shortage of options in AAA, and I think that makes everybody feel real good.
MILLER: Yeah, I was talking about that the other day with the coaches in Round Rock. And another thing is that these guys have been in the big leagues. That's a big thing. When you go to the big leagues it's a different scenario, you know? The minor leagues can help train you, but you still got to learn to pitch in the big leagues. don't care who you are. Every now and then you'll see a guy that goes up there and has instant success, but very seldom.
VEB: And is that just the difference in the quality of the hitters, or is it the overall atmosphere?
MILLER: It's the environment up there. When you're a seven- or eight-year-old kid, your lifetime dream is pitching in the big leagues. When you finally get there, you're in awe. The hitters are a lot better, the crowds are bigger, there's more pressure - you do it now or else you're gone. It's all based on winning. In the minor leagues it's based on development, you know? We could lose a game and then say, `Gissell or Johnson looked good, so hey these guys really got better today. We lost a game? Ah, big deal.' In the big leagues, if you lose or you don't perform, you're out of there. We talk about that with our players. There's no comparison between the minor leagues and the big leagues. You even see good numbers down here, but they could fool ya. They could fool ya. That's why I look at other things, like the flight of the ball and how the ball crosses home plate.
VEB: That's why Brad Thompson has been such a nice surprise. They needed someone to settle things down in the bullpen and he's really stepped in there.
MILLER: Well, you can protect guys too, you know. We do that down here when a guy is struggling. Put them in against weaker teams; put them on the seventh and eighth, ninth guy in the order. Put them with a big lead or when you're behind. You can protect guys.
VEB: And I think they've done that with Brad to some extent. They have definitely picked their spots with him. But he still has done pretty well, and he has pitched in some situations where he faced the heart of the order.
MILLER: He has. He pitched three innings in his first outing, which is good. But again, there was a nice big lead for him. See, even when they get to the big leagues you got to still spend time with them and develop them. It may take them two or three years to get their feet on the ground. Just look at Danny Haren. He's starting to kick it in a little bit.
VEB: Yeah he's pitching a lot better. He won again last night I saw.
MILLER: Exactly. Exactly. And I love that kid. He - for me, if I put him up against Wainwright and Reyes, he's the best.
VEB: And is that based on how he throws? His mental makeup? His readiness for the big leagues?
MILLER: Overall. Overall. He's going to be pretty good when he learns how to pitch at the big league level. And I think he starting to learn now. He's starting to turn the corner.
VEB: Yeah, he has pitched well a number of times in a row.
MILLER: That's right. It's hard to expect these young kids to come up there and perform right away, especially on a pennant-contending team. I expect that when Reyes goes up and Wainwright goes up, they might have a good outing here or there, but they're going to struggle a little bit. It's all a learning process. They're going to struggle while they learn what they have got to do to compete at that level.