Last offseason, the Atlanta Braves signaled that they were rebuilding when they traded Jason Heyward and Jordan Walden to the Cardinals in exchange for Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins. Now, just one year later, there are rumors that the Braves may be open to trading Miller as well. At first glance, this kind of move seems odd. If the Braves thought Miller would be an important piece in their rebuilding effort, why would they trade him one year after acquiring him?
Miller made headlines in 2015 when he posted what was by far the best season of his career.
Miller's success in 2015 came in large part due to a change in approach. He cut back on the use of his four-seam fastball and began throwing his cutter and sinker more than 20 percent of the time each. The ground-ball rate on each of these pitches was over 50 percent in 2015, and the increased usage of these pitches helped Miller post a career high 47.7 percent ground-ball rate on the season, which was a dramatic increase from 2013 and 2014, when his ground-ball rate failed to crack 40 percent.
Miller also managed to outperform his FIP for the third straight year. In his three seasons as a full-time starter, Miller has posted a 3.22 ERA and 3.82 FIP in 562 2/3 innings. That is a fairly large sample size, but there are reasons to believe that this trend may not continue. Pitchers who outperform their FIP typically do so by posting a low BABIP and/or high strand rate. Miller has done both, posting a .274 BABIP and a 76.9 percent strand rate in his career. (League average in 2015 was .296 and 72.9 percent respectively.) Having a low BABIP appears to be more sustainable than having a high strand rate, since pitchers can have some control over the batted ball numbers against them.
To see how often pitchers sustained low BABIPs and high strand rates, I looked at all pitchers who have thrown at least 1000 innings since 2000. Of the 176 pitchers on this list, only two posted a better strand rate than Miller's 76.9 percent: Clayton Kershaw and Johan Santana, two of the most prolific left-handed strikeout artists in recent memory. Indeed, pitchers who get more strikeouts have a better chance of sustaining a high strand rate, since they prevent runners from advancing on balls in play.
It seems plausible that left-handed pitchers have a better chance of posting a high strand rate because it can be easier to hold runners on at first base (unless you're Jon Lester). Shelby Miller is neither left-handed nor particularly skilled at getting strikeouts. His strikeout rate each of the last two seasons has actually been slightly below league average. It seems safe to expect Miller's strand rate to regress going forward.
Miller's low BABIP is slightly less unusual, as there have been seven pitchers since 2000 who have maintained a BABIP lower than Miller's .274 mark (minimum 1000 innings). Almost all of these pitchers have extreme fly ball tendencies; only one of them (Clayton Kershaw) has a ground-ball rate over 40 percent. If Miller hopes to continue his ground ball-oriented approach, it is probably unreasonable to expect his BABIP to stay as low as it has been over the last few years.
In other words, Miller should expect to see some regression moving forward, which means that the Braves have good reason to sell high on him. The Braves have always taken pride in their ability to develop young pitching, and they appeared to work their magic on Miller in 2015. Now they can cash in on their work by trading Miller for more young talent.
In addition, trading Miller might actually make sense given where the Braves are on their competitive timeline. They are only one year into their rebuilding effort, and at this point it seems pretty clear that 2016 will be another transition year. If we follow the same rebuilding timeline of the Cubs and Astros (who actually appeared to be ahead of schedule this year), then we can probably say the same about 2017 as well, since the Cubs and Astros were bad for three full seasons before being competitive again. Shelby Miller is under team control for another three years, and it is quite possible that at least two of those years will be non-competitive. Unless the Braves believe they can sign Miller to an extension, his value to the team is probably highest in his ability to bring back quality young players who better fit the team's competitive window.
It should also be noted that the Braves have been stockpiling good young pitching over the last couple of years, which makes Miller all the more expendable. If the Braves truly believe that they are one of the best teams at developing young pitchers, then it makes sense that they would stockpile pitching prospects, improve their value, and use them as a sort of currency to fill their other needs. Given their lack of quality position players, it appears that the Braves will eventually have to trade some of their good young pitching in order to build a complete and balanced team at the Major League level.
As a rebuilding team, the Braves should theoretically be open to trading anyone on their major league roster for the right return. They continued their rebuilding effort by trading Andrelton Simmons earlier this month, and they could look to do the same with Shelby Miller. With Miller's value as high as it is right now, the Braves may never find a better time to trade him, and they will likely benefit in the long term if they are able to get some good young position players in return.