I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb to say that the Cardinals’ offseason of 2019-’20 was not the most exciting on record. Coming off their first postseason appearance since 2015 and their first trip to the NLCS since 2014, el Birdos very much gave the impression of standing up, dusting off their collective hands, and looking around with a satisfied expression that communicated the sentiment, “Yep. That’ll do.”
Now, I should point out that I do not personally feel that way. I think the club had very specific goals in mind for the 2020 season, many of them related to future clarity rather than present contention, and I think that mix of priorities dictated the way the front office approached the offseason. Not saying there aren’t things I would have done differently; just saying that I think there were very clear reasons for the Cards’ offseason moves. (Or lack thereof.)
That being said, I’m not going to lie and claim I found the moves made to be thrilling, exactly. I was excited by the addition of Kwang-hyun Kim, thinking he definitely had major league stuff and could be a solid value for the team, but I 100% wanted Gerrit Cole in a Cardinal uniform. I thought it was an ideal time to make a couple deals and reshape the roster for the next several years, but the team disagreed. Instead, we got a couple marginal moves, and talk of evaluating the players already in the system. Yes, figuring out what we think of Dylan Carlson and Tyler O’Neill and Lane Thomas is very important. No, signing Brad Miller and calling it an offseason is not going to give anyone the warm fuzzies.
Well, here we come to the point of this column today. Brad Miller. As in, former top prospect of the Seattle Mariners Brad Miller, not to mention former disappointing former top prospect of the Seattle Mariners Brad Miller. A second round pick way back in 2011 (a draft which has gone down in history as one of the greatest of all time, I might add, and should maybe go back and write about at some point), Miller came to the Mariners from Clemson University, and was cut from the mold of the big, physical power-hitting shortstops who roamed the earth at the time. Everyone was looking for the next Tulowitzki, or the next Longoria (even though he ended up at third base), and Brad Miller at 6’2” and about 200 pounds fit the bill. He was never a slam dunk to stick at short, but he had plus power potential for a middle infielder, walked more than he struck out all three years of his college career, and in those days was a serious stolen base threat, swiping 46 of 58 bases over his time at Clemson.
Miller beat up on minor league competition, as he never posted an OPS below .850 on his way up to the big leagues. He made his debut in mid 2013, not even two full years after being drafted, and he was...perfectly acceptable. And perfectly acceptable became the watchword of Brad Miller’s career, at least for awhile. He hit at about a league average clip. He played shortstop, though not particularly well. He stole a handful of bases each year, but the aggressive, swashbuckling runner of the Clemson years was really nowhere to be found. In other words, Brad Miller of the Seattle Mariners was a lot like many of the prospects we’ve seen come up for the Cardinals the last several years, in that they look like world-beaters at various points in the minors, then come up and are basically average major league players, leaving fans to wonder what happened to the excitement that was supposed to be coming. We call these guys ‘Piscottys’, in case you’re wondering.
One of the big issues for Miller in Seattle was that the stadium there seemed to almost completely rob him of his home run power. We all understand park adjustments, but I think we all also understand that some parks affect certain players worse than other, and simple park adjustments can’t always tell the full story. So it was with Miller, as Safeco Field kills lefthanded power, and while he always had pop, he didn’t have Aaron Judge pop, where park factors just don’t matter, because the player in question can hit the ball over everything. In his first three years in Seattle, Miller played in 343 games for the M’s, and hit just 29 homers. That’s not the end of the world for a middle infielder, but it most definitely was not the kind of power everyone expected from the big kid with the sweeping swing coming out of college.
Miller was traded to Tampa Bay before the 2016 season, and his first year in Tampa was a bit of a revelation. After hitting 29 dingers in his first nearly 350 games, Miller hit 30 in 152 games for the Rays that year. His isolated slugging numbers in Seattle had been .154, .144, and .144; his ISO in Tampa in 2016 was .239. His plate discipline numbers were not great, and his defense at short was unacceptably awful, leading to just a 2.3 win campaign and the beginning of his use as a utility player, but the kind of power production Miller brought to the table was impossible to ignore. His wRC+ of 111 was not hall of fame caliber, but it was damned good for a player who also looked like he might bring some real versatility to the table.
That’s when the rug was pulled out from under him again, as his 2017 season in Tampa did not go well at all. He had multiple nagging injuries, including a toe injury and a strained groin, and struggled to ever really get in a groove. He was limited to 110 games, and he showed little of the pop from ‘16, posting an ISO of just .136. His overall wRC+ collapsed to 84, and he was basically a replacement-level player for the Rays.
In 2018, he partially rebounded with the Rays, was dealt to the Brewers, and struggled in Milwaukee. In 2019, Miller spent time in the Dodgers, Yankee, Indians, and Phillies organisations. He only played with Cleveland and Philly, opting out of his Dodger contract late in spring training when informed he would not make the team, and was traded from the Yankees after only appearing in their minor league system. He was pretty bad with Cleveland early in the season, then was awesome for the Phillies after they acquired him in June.
Which, finally, brings us to the present day.
After his 4-for-6 night last night, Miller is currently batting .317/.450/.619. That is an absurd 1.069 OPS and an equally absurd 183 wRC+. Of course, we’re only talking about 80 plate appearances, so it’s pretty easy to just marvel at what he’s done, but it’s obviously just a hot streak, right?
Well...just hang on a second.
Here’s the thing about Miller: he is currently posting a crazy ISO of .302. Obviously not a sustainable number, and just an outlier. Except, in 2019 Miller came to the plate a total of 170 times and do you know what his ISO was? It was .305. So we actually have 250 PAs stretched over two seasons of Brad Miller slugging like Giancarlo Stanton. And actually, that .305 number from 2019 is kind of interesting, in that it includes his early season struggles with Cleveland. His ISO in just his Philadelphia stint (130 plate appearances), was .347. That is a ridiculous number.
Let’s go over to Statcast and see what the data says, shall we? Statcast numbers are not predictive, mind you, but they are very descriptive and can tell us whether what we’ve seen so far is an illusion or not, which is at least a little predictive, just in a back door sort of way. Miller is currently batting .317 and slugging .619. His expected batting average and slugging percentage are .332 and .645, which yes, means that holy shit Brad Miller might actually be getting slightly unlucky this season on contact.
So what is driving all this? Well, Miller’s barrel rate this season is 16.3%, the highest of his career by a significant margin. His hard hit rate is 51%, also the best of his career and in the top 9% of the league. (His barrel rate is top 7%, by the way.) His raw exit velocity isn’t necessarily anything to write home about in terms of overall average, but all the metrics describing how consistent his contact has been are in his favour. In other words, Brad Miller has simply hit a whole bunch of balls this year right on the sweet part of the bat, and with basically the ideal combination of velocity and launch angle to do damage pretty much every time. Brad Miller has absolutely been as good a hitter in 2020 as his numbers paint him to be. Oh, and also, there’s one other thing. Maybe the most important thing.
Right now, Miller is running an 18.8% strikeout rate. That’s the second lowest rate of his career, and the lowest since his partial season debut way back in 2013. Hitting the ball really hard while missing it less often than you normally do is a great way to have a career year. But also, Miller’s current walk rate is...18.8%. That would be the highest of his career by a huge margin (although he did post a 15.5% rate back in 2017, so it isn’t as if he’s never tried the super patient route before), and would represent an improvement in terms of ratio from years past that is, honestly, hard to believe in. The stabilisation point for walk rate is about 120 plate appearances, so we’re still well short of the point when we have to start thinking at least good portion of this improvement is real, but for strikeout rate that number is just 60 PAs, so it’s possible we could be seeing a real change in Miller’s ability to make contact. We still regress those numbers, obviously, but maybe not all the way.
Looking under the hood a bit, we find that Miller is swinging at far fewer pitches this year than he ever has before. He’s swinging less outside the zone, but he is also swinging much, much less inside the zone, seeming to let some strikes go by in search of the pitch he actually wants to hit. This approach feels a lot like what Paul Goldschmidt is doing, and fits in nicely with the philosophy of hitting coach Jeff Albert, though as always assigning too much credit to a hitting coach and his magic beans can feel a lot like throwing a dart and then drawing a bullseye around it if we’re not careful. He is absolutely killing fastballs and cutters, while seeing a career-low rate of both. Pitchers are throwing him fewer strikes and less hard stuff, and Miller seems content to hunt for those few hard pitches in the zone he gets, and just let pitchers put him on if they don’t give him what they want. This is, essentially, the approach Jose Bautista adopted after getting to Toronto, and the one that carried him from quad-A utility player in his 20s to perennial MVP candidate in his 30s.
So, there are two questions we have to ask ourselves here. Actually three questions, but the first two are really linked. First off, are the improvements in Miller’s game real? Hot streaks are easy enough to come by, even over a fairly extended period of time, and even when it looks so clearly like something is different. Still, we have changes in approach, we have data that tells us he isn’t getting lucky, and if anything has actually hit better than his numbers would suggest. So yes, I think these improvements are legitimate. Now, the second part of that question: are they sustainable? And here’s where we get into tougher territory. Miller has hit the hell out of the ball here in 2020, and he’s done so while cutting down his undesirable non-contact outcomes as well. But those things aren’t guaranteed to be permanent improvements, and pitchers will likely make some adjustments to the way they attack him at some point, although considering the approach he’s taking right now the only real change it would seem pitchers could make would be to be way more aggressive, and I wonder if that would actually work, or only lead to even more hard contact.
I think my answer to that question is that at least half of the improvement we’ve seen with Miller over the last two seasons is sustainable. He’s not going to hit like an MVP, I don’t believe, but this is a player who always had significant physical upside and seems to have turned a corner over the past eighteen months in terms of getting to that upside and turning it into production. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think Brad Miller is going to be a very, very good hitter over the next few years until age starts to catch up with him.
Finally, the really most important question: if you’re the Cardinals, what do you do about Brad Miller? This is a guy who has been your best hitter — best player period, actually — on a rate basis this season, and he brings a lot of defensive flexibility to the table along with that very impressive bat. The sum of his season is probably going to end up being no more than 200 plate appearances, and what kind of decision can you possibly make about a player in 200 PAs if you weren’t sure what he was from the previous ~2500? Even if we pull in his 130 at-bats in Philadelphia in 2019 and add it to his 2020 track record, we will probably be looking at about half a season’s worth of playing time in which he has been an all-star level player, after being a middling utility infielder for the previous six years.
And yet, we have seen this story before. Not often, of course, but at least enough times to know how the script goes. I invoked Jose Bautista a bit ago, and he is the patron saint of this sort of mid-career breakout. Josh Donaldson was another, under the same regime. We can complete the Blue Jay trifecta with Edwin Encarnacion, who was a marginally better than league average hitter (with dreadful first base defense), in Cincinnati before exploding into a ~150 wRC+ slugging machine after a couple years in Toronto.
Honestly, I don’t have a good answer to the question of what you do with Brad Miller. Right now, he looks like an even better version of Jedd Gyorko, who served a very valuable role with the Cardinals for a couple years after they acquired him from San Diego. And despite the Cards’ desire to sort through the pieces they have in the minors and figure out their team going forward, Miller is just 30 years old, and should have a couple more seasons of being at near peak physical form before he really starts to hit a decline phase. If you could get three or four more years of this Brad Miller, even if he regresses to about the halfway point between who he has been in 2020 and who he was while he wandered in the wilderness of Seattle and, well, half the other organisations in baseball, then I almost think you have to do it if you’re serious about contending in the short to medium term.