Friday, June 10, 2011

Progress Report: Andrew Miller

One of the intriguing subplots for the Red Sox organization this season has been their attempt to revitalize the career of former top prospect Andrew Miller. I wrote about this when they originally acquired Miller back in December (The Dunne Deal: Andrew Miller), but to summarize, Miller had never been developed properly. Because of his excellent stuff, he'd pitched only 17.2 career innings in AAA, despite never having anything resembling success in the majors. The biggest problem has been a lack of control - 5.3 walks per nine innings for his major league career, bottoming out in 2010 with 7.2 per 9. The Tigers and Marlins have both had some success developing pitchers, but for whatever reason, they believed they could work out his problems in the major leagues. Neither could, and the Marlins dumped him this offseason for low-upside lefthander Dustin Richardson.

In December, the Red Sox nontendered Miller in order to sign him to a minor league contract. With Miller out of options, they figured this would be the only way to get him the time at AAA he needed. Miller and his agent were on board, and Miller went into the season knowing that he'd be starting with Pawtucket. Included in the minor league deal is an opt-out clause, stating that Miller could leave the Red Sox on June 15th if he isn't called up to the majors.

The timing couldn't be better for him, as Miller's development seems to have recently taken a turn for the better. Through his first nine starts, Miller had only a 2.90 ERA in 40.1 innings, allowing only one home run and striking out 35. The problem, as they had been in the past for Miller, was the walks. 32 in 40.1 innings, a rate of 7.14 per nine innings. This continued high walk rate likely was one reason Miller was passed over when Daisuke Matsuzaka and John Lackey were placed on the disabled list in mid-May. Miller not being on the 40-man roster was a consideration as well - they would have needed to remove someone from the 40 man to call on him. Still, looking at his other excellent numbers, a drop in his walk rate would have at least made the Red Sox seriously consider going to him.

In his last three outings, Miller at least appears to have made notable strides in that department. He's continued to not allow home runs (0 in 20 IP), he's continued to strike people out (16 Ks), and, most importantly, he's walked only two batters.

Take a look, in chart form:

First 9 starts2.9040.3251713132351.4130.27.17.8
Last 3 starts 1.8020.0124402160.7000.00.97.2

Much of the credit for his recent improvement has gone to Pawtucket pitching coach Rich Saveur's suggestion of having him begin warming up earlier, and throwing a full simulated inning out of the bullpen before entering the game. Saveur gave the same suggestion to Clay Buchholz when he was struggling in AAA in 2009, and, despite occassional blips, Buchholz has maintained above average control ever since. Of course, three starts isn't enough is declare real development. Two of the teams Miller faced, Indianapolis and Norfolk, are in the bottom three in the International League in walks, and the third, Durham, recently seems to have taken to swinging at everything. In Sunday's game, Kevin Millwood pitched into the 7th inning with only 64 pitches. Still, it's an important development, considering he's only five days away from being able to exercise his opt-out. Miller is saying all of the right things about not thinking about the situation, but one has to assume that every team in baseball is - it's pretty rare to be able to acquire a pitcher of Miller's talent as a free agent in mid-season. So while the Red Sox would certainly love to keep him in the minors at least another four to six weeks to ensure his continued development, their hand may be forced.

If Miller is called upon, what would his role be? Tim Wakefield is hardly entrenched as the 5th starter, so that is an option. There is a line of thought that says pitchers with high walk rates but good strikeout numbers who keep the ball in the park make excellent relievers, but Miller has terrible career numbers out of the bullpen - the extended time to warm up Miller appears to need to get his control in order is likely one reason, as well as the fact that he shows little platoon split, a rarity for a 6'7" lefthander.

With Wakefield only four wins away from 200 for his career, casting him aside for a project like Miller would be a tough decision for the Red Sox. Also interesting is the juxtaposition of Miller and Wakefield. Miller was the top draft pick with electric stuff, who would throw harder than anyone on the major league staff other than his former UNC rotation-mate Daniel Bard, but has to this point failed to have any success at the major league level because of his lack of control. Wakefield is at the other end of the spectrum, only making it to the major leagues after flaming out as a first baseman an learning the knuckleball, now the softest throwing pitcher in the major leagues, with close to 200 wins despite having only three seasons where he struck out more than 7 batters per nine innings. Throw in one more striking correlation - it was 16 years ago when the Red Sox signed Wakefield to a minor league contract after he'd bottomed out with Pittsburgh, reworked his mechanics, and called him up in late May when injuries struck. Wakefield responded by starting his Red Sox career 14-1, and he's been in Boston ever since, throwing at least 140 innings every year.

The best thing for the Red Sox might be to guarantee Miller's $1.2M major league contract if he is willing to agree to waive his opt-out clause. It's impossible to see the Red Sox NOT needing another starter at some point this year, but calling upon him now would force them to drop someone from the 40 man roster, as well as unseat the popular Wakefield from the rotation before Miller is ready to do so. (Note: I have no idea if such a deal is allowed by the MLBPA - if that's in violation of his contract or other union rules, let me know). I'm not so much worried about the sentimentality of replacing Wakefield as I am the performance - Wakefield has a 4.89 ERA as a starter, and while that's below average for an AL starting pitcher, he's not likely to perform significantly worse than that. Given his durability and the Red Sox offense, that has value. Miller, on the other hand, could turn into a disaster if he isn't ready, and the Red Sox energy trying to develop him the last three months will have been for naught. Another point - Miller's stated goal is to become a starter - it would make little sense for him and his agent to force the Red Sox to call him up as a reliever and again stunt his development.

In the next five days we should have more information - Clay Buchholz's back or John Lackey's arm could flare up again, necessitating a roster move. Miller could walk 8 guys in three innings on Monday against Charlotte. Lots can change in a week, so it will be interesting to see how this plays out.


Anonymous said...

This this is the best article i've read about Miller. I've Wondered how significant it could be for the Red Sox if they got him on the right track.

The Dunne Deal said...

Thank you for your kind words! It'll be interesting to see how things go with him back in the majors. 3 walks in 5.2 tonight isn't great, though I think if he can keep his K/9 in the low 4's he does enough other things to be successful.