For four months at the beginning of 2013, Shelby Miller looked, and pitched, as advertised. Throwing a mid-90s fastball with movement, he dominated hitters. Miller was living up to his first round draft status, his top prospect rankings and his untouchable trade status. One year ago today, Shelby Miller had pitched 121 1/3 innings, had a 2.89 ERA to go along with a 3.10 FIP to indicate his ERA was no fluke. He was striking out nearly ten batters per nine innings and walking under three. He was so close to a perfect game. He had more strikeouts and fewer walks than Marlins phenom Jose Fernandez at that time. Miller, not Michael Wacha or Lance Lynn, looked like the guy to follow Adam Wainwright in a short playoff series.
Fast forward a year and Miller has been one of the worst starting pitchers in the majors over that time, posting a 3.89 ERA (not terrible) to go along with a disappointing 4.77 FIP due to striking out barely six hitters per nine innings and walking almost four. His fWAR has been essentially zero, second worst of starters over the past year (Eric Stults is the worst). Of course, to qualify, he actually has to take the ball every fifth day and pitch against major leaguers which is an accomplishment in and of itself. The problem is, ever since being hit by a batted ball a year ago, Shelby Miller has been replacement level.
The problems have been laid out before. Joe took a look at Miller's primary pitch, the four-seam fastball, and found similar velocity, but decreased movement and more hittable pitches. Ben noted Miller's solid ERA early on in the season was buoyed by an unsustainable left-on-base percentage. Miller has shown flashes of being the pitcher that he was at the beginning of the season. When a pitcher has the talent Miller does, it is easy to look for the positives and hope that the old talent has returned. I did just that in April after a solid start in Milwaukee. The results following those starts have not been as encouraging, but his last three starts have again shown signs of hope.
After the All-Star break, Miller was given extra rest when the rotation went down to four pitchers. After his start July 10, 2014, Miller made just a single relief appearances over two weeks. Given how he was handled at the end of last season and into the postseason, Miller had a difficult time being reassured he would go back into the rotation. Miller, who has had trouble with back tightness this season, may have needed the rest. Over at Baseball Prospectus($), Doug Thorburn did a great job of breaking down Miller and his poor command of the fastball. In the piece, he indicated the issues could be related to Miller's back tightness.
Since receiving added rest, Miller's starts have certainly been encouraging, but not to first-half 2013-levels. Prior to his first start after the All-Star break on July 26th, Miller had made eighteen starts. he walked at least one batter in every single one of those starts. He walked at least three batters in 12 of 18 starts. In three starts after the All-Star break, Shelby Miller has walked just one batter, including no walks in the first two starts. His strikeouts are not yet where he would like them to be, with 12 in close to 19 innings, a rate of 5.8 per nine innings. That number is fairly close to his season total, but given that he is seeing fewer batters due to getting his walks down, his K% has actually improved from 15.6 to 18.2% (2013 K% was 23.4). His ERA over those three starts is an excellent 2.41. His FIP is not great at 4.10 due to three homers, but xFIP which uses expected home run rate is a solid 3.62.
As Joe noted toward the beginning of the season, Miller was getting a lot less horizontal movement on his fastball. He has gotten only 3.72 inches of movement on his fastball this season compared to five inches the first half of last season. While he has not yet seen that type of movement in his last three starts, he has gained around half an inch of movement, getting 4.25 inches since the All-Star break.
In Eric's excellent post on prospect development and expectation on reaching the majors from over the weekend, he noted that the Cardinals have been blessed of late with players who have been able to come up and contribute right away. He noted we might have forgotten that the players on the great teams in the 80s as well as recent players like Yadier Molina (at the plate, not behind it) and Kolten Wong struggled to initially make an impact. Shelby Miller is just 23 years old and he is already in both camps. He has experienced great success and struggled mightily, but he is still very young and struggles in the majors are to be expected.
Shelby Miller has not lost the potential that made him a great prospect, and it is too early to forget the results he achieved just one year ago. His strikeouts and movement on his fastball are not back to previous levels. However, if he can continue to keep his walks down, success will likely continue. Miller knows his spot in the rotation and place with Cardinals are tenuous. Attempting to pinpoint an urgent attitude as opposed to physical rest as the reason for any change in results is not likely to yield great results. Shelby Miller, despite his poor performance, still has the potential to be an ace. Encouraging signs do not automatically lead to the preferred destination, but Miller has been there before. That makes it easier to believe that he can get back.