I was reading this MILB.com piece about Shelby Miller and the 12 home runs he's given up already at AAA Memphis, and for a split-second I found myself having some pretty heavy flashbacks to my stint in the Anthony Reyes Wars. Trigger warning:
"We preach pitch-to-contact, so we're not so much concerned about strikeouts and him getting swings and misses," [Memphis manager Pop] Warner said. "We want him to put it in a good spot, keep it down and get ground balls, keep his pitch count down so he can go deep into games."
The weird thing isn't hearing this again—it's hearing it again and not being all that bothered by it. What's happened to me?
Here's how I'm squaring it with myself, at least: Anthony Reyes, as a Memphis Redbird, got plenty of contact. His first season there he struck out 9.5 batters per nine innings and walked just 2.4; his next, in 2006, he struck out 8.8 batters and walked 1.2. Reyes in the Pacific Coast League was basically Chris Carpenter, combining a high strikeout rate with a Duncanite's walk rate. He gave hitters every opportunity to make contact, and that they usually didn't had nothing to do with his Major League struggles.
Miller is different. His strikeout rate is still great, though the 70 hits he's allowed in 57 innings mask its decline a little, but since reaching the high minors his walk rate has inched up. He's 21, and pitching in the Pacific Coast League; he has plenty to still learn about pitching, and if Pop Warner and company can keep him out of three-ball counts, more power to them. Miller himself seems to think he has something more to learn, which should please traditionalists still worried about his makeup—
"My fastball doesn't really get swung and missed at as much as it was in the lower levels," Miller said. "It's more fouled off. I can throw four of them in a row and it gets fouled off. Eventually the pitch count is going to rise up and I'm going to throw five innings instead of six or seven."
I do have one problem, though—just as happened with Jaime Garcia last season, his walk rate and his fastball getting fouled off aren't the main things keeping Shelby Miller out of the sixth inning.
Go back even further into sabermetric history, past the Anthony Reyes Wars—it's his BAbip.
Right now it sits at .356, against a PCL average of .329. (Last year it was .336. The PCL is a scary place.) In the Texas League his BAbip was .308, against a league average of .316. You cannot go very deep into games, whatever your strikeout rate, if every hitter who doesn't strike out has Ty Cobb's chance of reaching base. Combined with his walk rate, the baserunners (and pitches) are going to pile up until this normalizes. Article of faith: I believe Shelby Miller to be less hittable than the average PCL pitcher.
What's worse, Miller's allowing a .160 batting average—and a .640 slugging percentage—on the balls that aren't in play. Almost 12 percent of the fly balls and line drives he's allowed have left PCL ballparks.
I don't doubt that something's wrong with his approach, and I trust Pop Warner and company to fix it because the Cardinals have finally begun developing minor league pitchers—minor league pitchers who often have repertoires more elastic than the sinkers-only approach that turned Reyes's MLB career, which was probably derailed by injury anyway, into such a circus.
But Miller's biggest problem right now is that he pitches in the Pacific Coast League, and he's been unlucky about adjusting to the park and league effects that turn that particular AAA circuit into a series of Coors Fields.