Sunday, November 14, 2010

Andrew Miller

A couple days ago, the Red Sox traded relief pitcher Dustin Richardson to the Marlins for one-time prospect Andrew Miller. Only three years ago, Miller was one of the key pieces that brought the Tigers Miguel Cabrera (and Dontrelle Willis). Now he is being dumped for a low-upside lefty reliever. The #6 pick in the 2006 draft, he may have gone first overall if the Royals weren't scared off by his bonus demands.

Miller had an excellent college career at the University of North Carolina. He left school as their all time strikeout leader, and formed the best one-two pitching combination in the country with a fellow flamethrower named Daniel Bard. After being drafted sixth overall, Miller has ranged from mediocre to downright bad in professional ball, bottoming out with a 8.54 ERA between the rotation and bullpen for the Marlins in 2010. So is Miller a guy with a chance to take advantage of his change of scenery? Or is destined to be remembered as one of the great busts of the last decade?

What has gone wrong with Miller? Maybe the best response to that is to ask what HASN'T gone wrong with him. Digging a little deeper though, we find an odd development path. After 3 games in the minors after singing in 2006, Miller was brought up to the Tigers and showed flashes of his brilliant stuff in the bullpen. Following that, there was some sentiment to put him in the rotation to start the 2007 season. The Tigers were wisely patient, making 13 starts at three levels before being called up to the Tigers.

After going to the Marlins in the Cabrera trade, things started to go horribly wrong. Fighting some injury problems, inconsistency, and being bounced around the system, Miller never seemed to develop on any level. His shaky control got worse and worse, his approach to pitching grew more timid, and in 2010 the bottom completely fell out. The approach to pitching is what stands out most to me, and I think it is fair to blame the Marlins. First of all, why has Miller only pitched 17.2 innings in his whole career in AAA? With his results poor and his confidence shot, shouldn't he have been sent to New Orleans and given a solid 100 to 125 innings to work out the kinks? If he failed as a starter, he could have been tried as a reliever. Instead, the Marlins tried to have him work out his problems at the major league level, and the results to that strategy were predictable. Now Miller finds himself out of options, so he cannot be sent to the minors, but with a new team that has had some success developing young pitchers with control issues.

With the Red Sox, the logical assumption is that he is going to be pitching out of the bullpen. With Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz and Daisuke Matsuzaka all under contract, the Red Sox are pretty well set there, but they had one of baseball's worst bullpens in 2010. Can Miller harness his stuff and be an effective reliever?

There is a theory, which I believe has merit, that starting pitchers who have control issues, but keep the ball in the park, will often be more effective in the bullpen. The thinking is that, with a little more juice on the fastball pitching in shorter stints, one is able to increase the strikeouts enough to balance out the walks. So suppose a player has 150 strikeouts and 90 walks in 150 innings. over 50 innings, he may be able to keep the walk rate the same, giving him 30 and increase the K's 15-20%, getting that strikeouts around 60. In close to 300 career innings, Miller has 238 strikeouts, 174 walks, and allowed 28 home runs. So I think that the skills are in place to translate into an effective reliever. However, that hasn't happened so far in the majors - he has a 6.83 ERA in the bullpen, compared with 5.74 as a starter. Another issue is that he has never been more effective against lefthanded hitters than righties, so Terry Francona will need to be cognizant that Miller would be miscast as a one-out situational guy.

So, while it is impossible to tell whether Miller can make the transition, all while moving to the more difficult league, it is a low-risk, high-reward move for the Red Sox, and a chance for Miller to work with Curt Young and Mike Cather, two of the best pitching coaches in the business.