Yesterday, Blake wrote about why Brad Miller was a good signing. I concur with that piece. But I’d also like to shed some more light on the career of the batting glove-less Miller, who has had a bit of strange career. He has the stench of the overhyped prospect who turned out fine which was disappointing because he was overhyped, but to be honest, he wasn’t that hyped and he definitely helped fuel the fire with a strong rookie season.
Miller was drafted in the 39th round of the 2008 MLB Draft, but chose instead to attend Clemson. While at Clemson, he was selected to the 2009 and 2010 Collegiate National Team, which picks 22 of the best college players to compete in exhibition games against teams from around the world. In his junior season, he won... a lot of awards. He won the Brooks Wallace award (top SS in college), was named First Team All-American, and won ACC Player of the Year because he led the ACC in both average and OBP. This obviously got him attention, but only so much, because he was drafted 62nd overall by the Seattle Mariners.
After being drafted, Jeff Sullivan had this to say about his scouting report: “Miller is one of them “polished” hitters with a good eye and a line drive swing that’ll hit for singles and doubles instead of majestic home runs. Additionally, he runs well, and even though he’s been fairly error-prone at the collegiate level he seems to have the body and agility to stick at short as long as his hands are up to the task.” He also comp’d him to Cliff Pennington, and while Pennington was more well-regarded at the time, it’s hard for me to find anything between him and Miller in common other than “they both played SS.”
But the most spot on analysis about Miller was that he was polished. Polished is underselling how close to ready he was for the majors already. They signed him in the middle of August of 2011, and sent him to A ball to finish the two weeks left in the minor league season, and he demolished the competition to the tune of a 182 wRC+, mostly driven by average since his ISO was only .113. It instantly put him in the top 10 prospects of the Mariners system, ranking 10th by John Sickels.
He didn’t really slow down his next season either. In 473 PAs at High A, he had a 143 wRC+. Again, if you have to pick a flaw, he’s still pretty reliant on a high BABIP with not all that impressive power, but that’s picking nits. The Mariners understandably promoted him towards the end of the season and he actually hit better in 40 games at AA, with a 151 wRC+, this time with only a .364 BABIP. He had an elite eye (12.9%) and didn’t strike out that much (15.3%). He jumped from 10th to 6th on Sickels’ list and ranked 8th on Fangraphs list.
He began 2013 in AA, but he saw literally no drop off (148 wRC+) that saw him add power and rely less on BABIP than he ever had (.333), so they promoted him to AAA after just 42 games, and most absurdly, he hit the ball better in AAA than he had in AA. He batted .356/.426/.596 with a 168 wRC+ and a .240 ISO. You can almost imagine Mariners fans disappointment when he “only” had a 106 wRC+ in 76 games in the majors for the back half of that season where he also graded out as a +4.5 fielder by UZR.
But of course, UZR isn’t reliable in half a season. It’s not even reliable in a full season. Miller’s career trajectory never looked better than after the 2012 season and before the 2013 one when he settled into merely a pretty good backup instead of the star he look like he might become. The version of him Mariners fans probably imagined is basically what Paul DeJong is now except with not quite as good defense and probably better offense.
Miller’s hitting declined significantly in his first full season in the majors, mostly due to BABIP, but also because he started striking out a lot more than he ever had. With a 15.5 K% in his rookie season, it rose to 23.1% in his second season. But with a .268 BABIP for his 87 wRC+, there was still some hope for his offense. His defense suggested he was more average than the +4.5 Mariners fans might have thought he’d be originally as well.
His 2015 went better. He had a more normal BABIP - .305 - and thus his line returned to above average at 105 wRC+. He played mostly SS and remained average there, but he also played at several other positions and graded out awful at every one of them, which is why his WAR total in 2015 was only 1.3 despite +0.8 at SS in 750 innings. It’s actually kind of impressive how his overall defense ended up negative despite playing most of his time at a defense-first position and playing it average, which just goes to show how awful UZR judged him at every position that wasn’t SS.
Then in the offseason, Miller was part of a trade that was very good for the Rays and very bad for the Mariners. The Rays got: Logan Morrison (4 WAR in 2 seasons, 3.5 of which were in 2017), Danny Farquhar (who pitched 70 not particularly impressive innings before being released), and Miller. The Mariners got Nate Karns (5.15 ERA in lone season with Mariners), CJ Riefenhauser (never pitched in majors for Mariners), and Boog Powell (23 games with Mariners with 51 wRC+). Anyway, not a trade that destroys a franchise, but I’m sure the Mariners regret it.
Rays fans were certainly excited, calling him the “next, best hope at shortstop.” He delivered on the offensive front. He had a career best wRC+ with 30 HRs driving a 111 wRC+. Only needed a .277 BABIP too. Defensively, he had such a bad season that he has barely played SS since. Now you can’t trust UZR in a single sample, but I think all the evidence we need is that he’s played 36 innings total at SS since 2016 and not a single one of them came for the Rays. I’ll stop leaving you in suspense, and just say that he had a -16.7 UZR/150. DRS was less of a fan than UZR was before 2016, but they agreed with them on 2016 with -14 DRS. So he’s not a shortstop was the lesson.
So the Rays did the obvious thing and moved him to 2B. But his defense wasn’t any better there and was arguably worse given the positional adjustment. Plus his offense collapsed. The lower BABIPs started to appear less like luck and just who he was. He also saw his Ks rise and his power evaporate, leading to a 84 wRC+ in 2017. And as mentioned above, his defense at 2B by UZR/150 was -13.5, although by DRS it was only -4.
The Rays then moved him to 1B, and after 48 games with a 107 wRC+, DFA’d him and later traded him to the Brewers. Just before he had 5 years of service time, the Brewers optioned him to the minor leagues. I’m guessing someone in the big club got injured and the Brewers had nobody better to call up, so they called up Miller. With only a 75 wRC+ in 27 games, I’m also guessing whoever got hurt the first time got healthy and Miller couldn’t be sent down once he crossed 5 years of service time, so they released him in July. He stayed team-less for the rest of the year.
Spring training of 2019, the Dodgers signed him, but released him towards the end of the camp. As luck would have it, the Indians were in a bind and signed him to replace the injured Jason Kipnis, so he made the MLB roster. In a limited sample, he did alright too with a 93 wRC+ in 13 games. But mid-April, Kipnis got healthy, so they DFA’d him... and Miller wasn’t shy about voicing his displeasure: “Obviously they don’t want the best guys up here.” Yeah I don’t know if you remember those headlines, but I totally forgot he was that guy.
Well if you’re going to talk shit, you better back it up, and Miller did. He was left unsigned less than a week when the Yankees took a shot. In 41 games for the Yankees AAA squad, he had a 148 wRC+ with 10 HRs and a .294/.399/.596 line. The Yankees had no room for him to play, so when the Phillies came calling, offering just cash for him, they accepted.
For the Phillies club as mostly a bench player, he batted .263/.331/.610, with 12 HRs in just 130 PAs, with most of his plate appearances in a pinch-hitting role. Granted nearly all of that offensive production came when he was starting - as a pinch-hitter, he had an 84 wRC+, which actually isn’t that bad when you factor in that there’s a real PH penalty to batting lines. Amazingly, Miller’s time with the Phillies put his service time at 6.004 days which essentially means had the Phillies waited five more days to trade for him, he’d still be in the Phillies organization.
At first, I thought his defensive struggles were overblown - typically guys who play as many different positions as Miller does, have super small samples and their numbers can’t really be trusted. But, uh, yeah I don’t think this guy is going to win any defensive awards. For whatever it’s worth, Statcast doesn’t hate him defensively, which gives me hope he’s not unplayable on the field. He was merely -3 outs above average at 2B in 2016 with the Rays and in a limited sample, he was 0 runs above average in the OF last year. (Statcast has no data prior to 2016)
But he wasn’t signed for his defense. He was signed because the Cardinals’ one hole, depth-wise, is the infield. Oh sure, they have plenty of 3B prospects, but not much in the way of middle infield prospects. And as noted in this article, Miller isn’t much of a middle infielder but the other options aren’t really either. And he shouldn’t be expected to play much defense anyway. I mean would you rather have a defensive specialist with no bat like Edmundo Sosa backing up fielders who may very well be superior to Sosa defensively or would you rather have a lefty bat that can hit righties? (Realistically, the other choice is the no bat, no glove Munoz though so that’s a much easier question)
And that’s the real reason the Cardinals signed him. The Cards bench had a severe lack of options that could hit right-handed pitching: I would expect below average hitting lines from Lane Thomas, Rangel Ravelo, Matt Wieters, Yairo Munoz, and even Tommy Edman against specifically right-handed pitching. The projections would agree with me on that. And Miller has a career 110 wRC+ against RHP. Just don’t let him face lefties, and he should be exactly what the Cardinals paid for.