Imagine a hypothetical situation where you pick up a newspaper. In 2013 that might be a bit far-fetched, perhaps it would easier for you to pick up a tablet of some kind. Either way, imagine you are holding an object that provides you with news. Now imagine you open up the sports section. If you are the type of person who regularly reads or has somehow come across Beyond the Box Score you are probably no stranger to the sports section. Conceptually, you are probably still with me here.
Let's say you cast your eyes over to baseball and check out the schedule. Today your favorite team is going up against the Cardinals. That's not the worst news, St. Louis has not been as good as expected this year, but it's no easy matchup. When you look at the probable pitchers it looks something like this:
St. Louis Cardinals: Shelby Miller (5-2 3.22) vs. Hypothetical Team A: Joe McAverageson (3-3 3.82)
At this point you might be a bit bummed. The team you have dedicated yourself to since childhood, Hypothetical Team A, is rolling out Joe McAverageson again and they are going up against a young stud in Shelby Miller. The top three things that most people know about Miller are probably as follows.
1) Shelby Miller throws hard.
This is indisputably true. Miller has averaged 93.6 mph on his fastball during his career and exactly that velocity so far in 2014.
2) Shelby Miller is young
Also very much a fact. Miller is only 23. That's young.
3) Shelby Miller is really good.
This is where we run into a little bit of trouble. There have been times when Miller has been really good, but it's a bit unclear how good the young hurler is right now.
While the conventional stats paint the picture of a guy who is a reliable top of the rotation option in 2014, if we dig a little deeper his numbers are actually quite alarming.
Miller has the lowest WAR total in the league and the worst FIP, making his ability to prevent runs rather confusing. A great deal of it can easily be attributed to luck. His BABIP and LOB% are both almost certainly unsustainable for instance. As is the fact he seems to have inherited Allen Craig's clutch superpower.
|Situation||AVG against||OBP against||SLG against||FIP||xFIP|
Once again, this reeks of luck, especially given that "High Leverage" samples are the smallest and least reliable. Miller, by most of the metrics available to us, has been awful this year, the only ways he's excelled are ways that are unlikely to continue. Furthermore, this is a guy who was phased out by the Cardinals during the playoffs last season due to the fact he pitched poorly down the stretch and appeared worn out. Here are his splits from 2013:
|1st Half 2013||9.63||2.49||0.86||.289||79.3%||2.92||3.07||3.34|
|2nd Half 2013||7.47||3.67||1.31||.269||81.%||3.28||4.59||4.33|
Miller was electric in the first half and average at best in the second, according to fielding independent measures. His ERA hardly changed though. Once again, the young right-hander appears to have the baseball gods on his side.
It seems pretty clear that Shelby Miller's performance is on a downward trajectory, despite his sterling run prevention numbers. Everything we know about pitching suggests he is going to crash and burn in the near future.
However, we don't know everything about pitching. Miller has an ERA (2.99) well below his FIP (3.99) so far in his MLB career. He has an unusually high career LOB% (82.9%) and a very low BABIP against (.274). His career wOBA against in "High Leverage" situations is .190.
Every number listed above could once again be attributed to luck, after all Miller has only pitched 231.2 in the big leagues. In fact, random variation is the most likely explanation for all of this. That being said "most likely" is not a synonym for "certainly". There is an element of mystery here.
Since the middle of last year there is a strong argument to be made that Shelby Miller has been a very bad pitcher. However, a pitcher's job is to prevent runs from scoring, and in that regard he has done an excellent job. This conflict will resolve itself at some point in the near future, chances are it will do so in the way that most sabermetricians would expect.
For now though Miller just keeps humming along. The Cardinals starter has been good at everything in pitching that is chalked up to luck. How lucky can he be, and for how long? At what point is it no longer considered luck?
That point is far off in the horizon, and it is very unlikely that we will get there. Miller probably isn't a weak-contact inducing superstar, he probably isn't the king of clutch, and he probably can't keep runs from scoring through will, and what I would assume is high level sorcery, alone.
But he is probably worth keeping an eye on.
All stats courtesy of FanGraphs.
Nick Ashbourne is an Editor for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @Nick_Ashbourne.