Over the past few seasons one of the most talked about stories is St. Louis Cardinals’ front office and their knack for drafting and developing prospects. Chief among those was breakout rookie Shelby Miller, who had found himself as a four-time top 50 prospect according to Baseball America before his debut. Shelby was amazing in the first half, posting a 3.07 FIP and 26.4% strikeout rate, pushing himself near the top of rookie of the year discussions (that pesky Jose Fernandez kept getting in his way, however). Immediately this was chalked up to the wonderful organization that is the Cardinals, and Miller’s outstanding polish and ability to fool hitters long into his outings.
But things weren’t so wonderful for Miller after, finding himself struggling from July onwards, posting an atrocious 4.52 FIP before mercifully being shut down by the St. Louis brass.
Hopes were high again for Miller in 2014, with many hoping he could regain the success he had to start his career. Right out of the gate he disappointed, pitching to a 6.16 FIP through the end of April, and a season total FIP of 4.75 to date. So what went wrong?
Shelby Miller stole scouts’ attention in the minors with a lethal fastball/curveball combo, with an improving changeup to boot. Yet once he got to the Show, Miller ditched the offspeed offerings for his heater, and almost nothing else. Since 2013, no one has thrown the four seam fastball a higher portion of the time than Miller’s 71.9%. There’s a good rule of thumb in baseball, that if you don’t mix in your other offerings hitters will time your fastball and take advantage of you. His experience is basically that, as he hasn’t been able to keep hitters off balanced enough, if at all, to fully take control.
Part of the blame is to be laid on the success his fastball had. Last year he got a 9.9% swinging strike rate on it, which is almost the same that an average curveball gets. He got his opponents to swing at it often and miss bats, but it stalled the progress on his other pitches because he never needed them before hand. When he was making his name into one of the most promising pitchers in the game, all he was using was his fastball. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, right?
The problem with this process is that he was broken. Miller’s strategy failed heavily in the second half, and by avoiding any adjustments to his repertoire in 2014 his results started to worsen. His swinging strike rate has fallen down to 7.5% on the pitch. Opponents only chase 20.6% of all his pitches, one of the lowest marks in the league.
Patterns become predictable after a long enough stretch, and there was little variance to Miller’s pitch usage. His plan was simple; pound the zone with elevated fastballs, use the offspeed low to get whiffs.
This process clearly isn’t working anymore, and he’s running out of other options. His curveball has lost effectiveness due to so little use, and hitters are whacking at it to the tune of a 170 wRC+. He still doesn’t trust his changeup enough to throw is in double-digit territory, averaging only 4% per game. He’s only got one tool and the tool can’t fix his current issues.
Projections don’t see much hope for Miller because they buy into his lack of strikeouts. He dropped his rate from 23.4% in all of 2013 to just 16.5% this year, well below league average. There’s no more deception to his pitches, and even though the movement fooled hitters earlier, they’ve learned to gage its trajectory. His troubles with getting hitters to chase are hurting him almost as hard, as his walk rate has shot up from 7.9% to 11.5%. It’s not that he’s hitting the zone less (his Zone% has dropped only 0.9%) just that hitters are picking him up. There’s no arguing that’s a dangerous spot to be in as a pitcher
So what can Shelby Miller do? His only useful pitch is a four seam fastball, but he can’t use it well because he has nothing else to ward hitters off from sitting on it. The Cardinals have some of the best pitching rotation depth in the league, even with their current injuries, and if Miller can’t improve soon he may find himself working bullpen duty before too long.
One of the first things we may see him do is take a page out of teammate Adam Wainwright‘s book. Waino was once a fireballer coming in hot out of the minors, but saw his four seamer usage shift to sinker, then adding the cutter as well. The cutter and sinker are both used by him over 50% of the time now, with the cutter getting 11.2% swinging strikes and the sinker getting 45.5% grounders.
The difference between Wainwright’s change and a potential one for Miller is that Wainwright had secondary pitches to fall back on. He already possessed one of the most demonic curveballs you’ll ever see, and he showed a propensity to learn a second fastball offering quickly. Both helped make up for his lack of changeup, but what really stood out about Wainwright was how well his three pitch mix worked, even if two of those pitches were both different types of fastballs.
It looks like Miller may also need to follow in the Tony Cingrani route to get back to his potential. He needs time to develop potential secondary fastball offerings, and more importantly getting his curveball back to the 65/80 grades scouts gave it. A trip back down to Triple-A to work on these would be the least amount of pressure for him, and would most likely be the best move in the long run. There still remains unreal amounts of potential from Shelby Miller’s right arm, and despite his sophomore slump, there’s good reason to believe he can still get there.