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Shelby Miller earned a playoff start

With Adam Wainwright likely needed the final day of the season, the Cardinals might need a pitcher for a division title game or a Wild Card matchup who is not Wainwright or Lance Lynn. Shelby Miller's recent outings for the Cardinals have shown that he is the best option the Cardinals have after Wainwright and Lynn.

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

With three games to go, the Cardinals' playoff status is up in the air. They have clinched at least a spot in the Wild Card game to be played next Wednesday. Their magic number to win the division is down to three after the Pirates loss Wednesday, and with a combination of two Cardinals wins and Pirates losses the Cardinals would win a share of the division title and the one-game playoff against Pittsburgh on Monday that goes with it. There are very few scenarios that do not involve the Cardinals needing a third pitcher for the division title game/Wild Card game/Division Series, and given the information we have now, Shelby Miller has earned that designation.

There are a few scenarios where a non-Adam Wainwright/Lance Lynn Cardinals starter would not be needed for the Cardinals. If the Cardinals lose their next two games, and the Pirates have already won four straight by the time the Cardinals's first pitch at three o'clock Sunday afternoon, the Cardinals could choose to hold Adam Wainwright back on Sunday so he could pitch on Wednesday in the Wild Card game. If they were to lose that game, then the season would be over and the Cardinals would not need another pitcher. Surprisingly, that is the only scenario outside of pitching Lance Lynn on short rest where the Cardinals would not need another starter. Despite a rough outing from Miller on Tuesday against the Cubs, Miller should be the choice for the Cardinals' third starter.

Shelby Miller has pitched well in September, posting better numbers this month than he has all season and posting his best month since May 2013 in his rookie season.

September 2014 IP K/9 (K%) BB/9 (BB%) ERA FIP xFIP
Shelby Miller 30 1/3 7.7 (22.4%) 1.5 (4.3%) 1.48 2.76 3.33

His strikeout numbers after fanning eight against the Cubs come close to his performance his rookie season (23.2%) and his walks are nearly halved (7.9%). One month is not a ton of data go off of, but just as Miller pitched his way out of the playoff rotation in 2013, he appears to have pitched his way back on this season. Miller has switched up his pitch repertoire in September and received very good results. Here is his pitch selection in April through August compared to his pitch selection in September.

Shelby Miller Fourseam Sinker Curveball Cutter Change
April-August 69.40% 2.50% 17.90% 6.90% 2.70%
September 60.40% 8.60% 28.20% 2.30% 0.20%

Shelby Miller has always been a big fourseam fastball user, and that has not changed. For the first time in his major league career, Miller has begun to incorporate a sinking fastball, but that has not been the only change he made. His curveball use has gone up while his cutter has almost been non-existent this month. Before this month, Shelby Miller threw 70% fastballs and roughly ten percent cutters and changes. in September, he eased off his fastball ten percent, essentially switching over to his curveball, and then taking the cutters and changes and moving them to sinkers. The results have clearly been good for Miller. His strikeouts are up. His walks and homers are down, and what would have been unthinkable just a few months ago, Miller getting a key start in the postseason, is now very close to reality.

Miller's last start, where he could not go five innings, giving up three runs on two homers and two walks despite striking out eight, was not the best outing to head to the playoffs off of, but it is the freshest in our minds. When Miller was pumping his fourseam fastball past Cubs hitters, it seemed to me that he was relying on it almost exclusively. I was not the only one who noticed. In a good piece touching on multiple subjects for the Post-Dispatch, Bernie Miklasz called on the Cardinals to be smarter in several different avenues.

Shelby Miller, reverting to the macho-man mode, determined to pump those four-seam fastballs by a power-packed Cubs lineup that goes hunting for fastballs.

In Derrick Goold's game story, Mike Matheny noticed much of the same.

"I think we saw a different style from him," Cards manager Mike Matheny said. "He reverted back to where we're seeing those high four-seam (fastballs) and to his credit it was working at the beginning. Striking out three of the first four guys he saw with fastballs at the top of the zone. It seemed like he had that late life. That's also a dangerous way to pitch, as we saw."

Derrick Goold later noted that Miller was not throwing very many curves, instead relying on his cutter. The data from Brooks Baseball backs Goold up. For comparison's sake, here are the pitches from last night's start compared with his first four starts of the month.

Shelby Miller Fourseam Sinker Curveball Cutter Change
9/3-9/18 60.50% 6.30% 32% 0.60% 0.30%
9/23 60% 17.70% 12.90% 9.40% 0%

While the focus after Tuesday night was on his use of the fourseam fastball, he used it just as much as he had all month. Miller did give up that homer to Wellington Castillo on the fourseam fastball, but that was also the first homer he had given up all month, and the pitch was actually a pretty good one for him on the night. Out of the twelve plate appearances that ended on a fourseamer, Miller got six strikeouts, and in addition to the home run, gave up just a single and a walk. His fourseam fastball usage was not the issue, it was his secondary pitches.

Entering his game against the Cubs, Shelby Miller had thrown just two cutters all month. He upped that to eight against the Cubs, utilizing both the sinker and cutter at the expense of his curveball. Miller's increased use of the cutter and sinker were not very beneficial. The other home run as well as two strikeouts came on a cutter, a pitch he threw eight times. The sinker is not typically a swing and miss pitch, but out of 15 sinkers, not a single hitter whiffed. He threw just three of the fifteen pitches for called strikes and the two balls that were put in play were both singles. The sinker can be a solid alternative for Miller, a third offering to show something different. Against the Cubs he made it his number two pitch, and the results were not great.

Miller's great run came on the back of increased use of his curveball, but he did not use it as much against the Cubs. He might not have a great feel for it. He had only one called strike and three swings out of 11 curves. He gave up one walk on the pitch in addition to two foul balls and one that went in play for an out. Miller has been at his best this month when he uses his curveball. He went away from the pitch against the Cubs. While two walks are not ideal, against eight strikeouts in under five innings, he showed his fastball alone can still be an effective weapon, but that he needs a second or third pitch to have a great start.

John Lackey has been solid in his last two outings, going 14 1/3 innings, striking out 13 and walking four. His fastball is back in the 91-92 miles per hour range. The velocity is still below the 93-94 miles per hour he was throwing earlier in the summer, but it is a slight increase from a few starts ago. Unless Michael Wacha blows people away on Saturday, Lackey has likely earned himself a spot in the playoff rotation. The four walks he had against the free-swinging Cubs are a concern, and given the body of work over the last month, the next elimination game that Adam Wainwright or Lance Lynn cannot pitch should go to Shelby Miller.

The playoffs are not a time to think about next year, keep veterans happy, or show loyalty to good citizens. Shelby Miller does not deserve a start because of what he went through during the last postseason or the ways he has worked to improve himself over the course of a difficult season. His willingness to try a sinker, to throw a curveball more, to learn from veterans are all good signs for a developing, still just 23-year old pitcher. He does not deserve to start for any of those reasons. He deserves to start because he has earned it on the mound, and he gives the Cardinals the best chance to win.