The Cardinals got a lot of ink this winter when they traded Shelby Miller (and pseudo-prospect Tyrell Jenkins) to the Braves for Jason Heyward (and Jordan Walden’s scandalous delivery). Heyward was justifiably the centerpiece of the deal as far as the coverage of the trade was concerned, but Miller represented a fascinating reclamation project for the new-look Braves. Prior to his full-season debut, Miller was one of the most-hyped prospects in baseball. Baseball Prospectus ranked him 16th, Fangraphs 25th, and 6th by Baseball America and SB Nation’s own John Sickels. His rookie campaign resulted in a third place finish for the National League Rookie of the Year award, a sparkling 122 ERA+ and 2.4 fWAR.
xFIP says that Miller’s 3.06 ERA should have looked a bit more like a 3.73 mark, however. That includes a less-than-stellar 4.33 xFIP in a second half that saw his HR/9 balloon to 1.31 and a 3.67 BB/9 rear its ugly head. 2014 was even worse and saw him compile a minuscule 0.5 fWAR in 183 IP. He only struck out 6.25 batters per nine innings, and worsened the problem by walking 3.59 per nine. Miller’s 4.47 xFIP was an albatross for the former top prospect, which made him an excellent candidate to be targeted as a reclamation project in a trade. That’s precisely what the Braves did.
Atlanta's widely respected pitching coach, Roger McDowell, appears to have gone to work on the young right-hander. One of the main problems that Miller had in 2014 was that he was essentially a two-pitch pitcher due to his poor changeup. His plus fastball was his bread and butter, while also displaying a useful curveball. However it’s very hard to be an effective starting pitcher while throwing only two good pitches, and this made Miller a rather predictable pitcher. 67.82% of Miller’s pitches in 2014 were four-seamers according to Brooks Baseball, while 19.56% were curveballs.
In 2015, Shelby Miller has pitched to a 1.69 ERA in three starts, with peripherals of a 3.20 FIP, 4.06 xFIP and a 4.30 SIERA. The more intricate the peripheral statistics get, the less fond of Miller they are. However, Miller has only tallied 16.0 IP thus far, so we’re working with an extremely small sample size and those marks are improvements from last year. What’s really noticeable is Miller’s pitch selection. Here’s how his selection profiles between 2014 and 2015, according to Brooks.
Miller has all but disposed of his changeup, and it’s possible that the one (one!) changeup that he’s thrown was a misidentified cutter or sinker. Because he’s realized that his changeup isn’t going to cut it, Miller’s taken the Nathan Eovaldi route of "Screw it I’ll just throw cutters." He’s also throwing a lot more sinkers, which gives him three different fastballs with different movement to throws to hitters. He’s also throwing his pitches in different places.
Elevated fastballs are good ways to get outs, and as Eno Sarris pointed out at FanGraphs, the Braves are good at those kinds of things. Miller’s K/9 is still at an all-time low (6.19) while his BB/9 is at an all time high (3.9). He’s certainly not being helped by the fact that he’s been throwing to A.J. Pierzynski (who’s been worth -0.4 pitch framing runs according to Baseball Prospectus) and Christian Bethancourt (-0.7 runs). Once again, it’s only 16 innings that we’re working with here. Yet Shelby Miller’s new plan of attack is certainly something to keep an eye on.
. . .
Nicolas Stellini is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets.