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Brad Miller is walking the walk

The Rays second baseman has experienced a surprising increase in his walk rate in 2017.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

If you tried to name off the top of your head baseball's best players at drawing a walk, which names would come to mind? You would probably think of hitters like Joey Votto, Bryce Harper, Paul Goldschmidt, or Mike Trout — some of the most feared names in baseball. One name that definitely wouldn’t be on the tip of your tongue is Brad Miller. However, among batters with a minimum of 150 PA, Miller’s 18.4 percent walk rate trails only Robbie Grossman (18.8 percent).

What makes Miller’s presence on this leaderboard so surprising is his track record. Over the course of his career, he’s taken free passes in 9.1 percent of his plate appearances. What’s led to this doubling of his career average? Yes, I’m aware that “he’s taking more pitches out of the zone” might be a sufficient answer for some. However, let’s take a deeper look at what has led to these results as Miller prepares to return to the Rays lineup following an abdominal strain.

There are a few obvious answers to this question. Miller has cut his swing rate on pitches out of the zone by almost 9 percent this season, and that’s led to a career-low 23.8 percent O-Swing rate. (Yup, there it is.) He’s also been able to drop his first-pitch strike rate to a career-low 57.1 percent. Swinging at fewer pitches out of the zone and getting ahead in the count more often is obviously a recipe for more walks.

While Miller walked nowhere near this often in 2016, his walk rate did see nearly a 3 percent bump from the first to second half a season ago. A look at his monthly walk rate totals from 2016 shows this development.

Miller 2016 walk rate, by month

Month BB%
Month BB%
April 8.5
May 8.5
June 4.8
July 5.2
August 10
Sept/Oct 9.6
First Half 6.4
Second Half 9.3
Data courtesy of FanGraphs

Following a dip in bases on balls in June and July, Miller put together two of the strongest months of his career in terms of drawing walks. To be fair, his 9.3 percent walk rate in the second half was fairly well in line with his career averages. It was actually his rate from the first half of 2016 that was unexpected. Yes, Miller saw positive progression in this area last year, but it still didn’t prepare fans for what they’ve seen from him this season.

Perhaps a look at Miller’s swing rates will be a little more instructive. The first chart details Miller’s swing rates from 2013-2016. The second chart notes his rates from 2017.

Images via Brooks Baseball

There are a few noteworthy changes here. On the whole, Miller seems to be more willing to lay off pitches up and out of the zone. He’s also been swinging at fewer balls down and in. There are smaller shifts throughout his profile, but these two areas account for the biggest adjustments to Miller’s place discipline.

It’s interesting to note that while Miller has been more disciplined at the plate, it hasn’t actually led to more success. His current wRC+ (92) would be the second-lowest total of his career. His batting average currently sits at a career-worst .205, and there isn’t an unusually low BABIP to blame it on (.291).

However, it’s been Miller’s power production that has likely been the biggest disappointment for Rays fans. He was coming off a 30-home run season, and yet he’s managed to hit only two long balls in his first 39 games. His 7.1 percent HR/FB rate is below his career average (10.3 percent), and it’s been fueled by a 7 percent increase in his ground ball rate.

When Miller returns to the Rays lineup, which could be early next week, it will be interesting to see if he keeps up this more disciplined approach. His track record suggests his current walk rate will be lost in the annals of unusual numbers from the first few months of a baseball season. Brad Miller has been drawing walks at an elite level this season; now the question is whether he can get back to average everywhere else.

All stats are current through June 2.

Eric Roseberry is a writer at Beyond the Box Score. He also writes regularly at Baseball Prospectus and Red Reporter. You can follow him on Twitter @ericroseberry.