What Is It About Aaron Miles?
During a recent Cardinals game, my ears burned with curiosity when one of the broadcasters offhandedly remarked that Cardinals utility infielder Aaron Miles has played better for Tony LaRussa than for any other manager. I am well aware that TV commentators chatter away about crazy ideas to fill air time, but could there be any truth to that luring Miles trivia?
Cardinal fans have witnessed the lovefest between manager Tony LaRussa and Aaron Miles for several years. The return of Miles to the Cardinals club earlier this season only solidified that notion. Tony obviously believes Miles possesses some special tools and Miles appears to give all he’s got to prove Tony right. The jury however, is still out on the value of #12 this year, but the intriguing loyalty between manager and player leads me to wonder if Tony once again sees something most of us are missing.
What is it about Aaron Miles?
Fans may be divided on their appreciation of the scrappy platooning infielder, but it is obvious that LaRussa values Miles’ contribution to the club. Aaron Miles is likewise quick to point out how very happy he is to be playing for the Cardinals and that he is not only willing, but enthusiastically willing to do whatever Tony asks of him. As a result, Miles gets a lot of opportunity. Miles has spent time this season at second base, third base, and shortstop as well as pitching an inning during a runaway loss to Houston in August. In the process, Miles has batted .312 in 101 plate appearances during 2010, scoring 10 times with 7 RBIs.
I myself have not ever felt a particular fondness for Aaron Miles. In his defense, he has personally done nothing to earn my ambivalence. Miles is more a victim of circumstance. When Miles is in the lineup, one of my favorite starters is injured or getting a day off. So seeing Miles in the game could more appropriately be considered a disappointment by attrition rather than by his actual presence.
Factions in Cardinal Nation however are vocally divided on the Aaron Miles issue. Miles’ supporters credit his attitude and versatility along with his willingness to welcome the role of bench player. Critics of the Miles experiment question his defensive range as well as the Cardinals’ recent focus in acquiring older veteran players to fill the roster in lieu of the talented crop of AAA players who are then relegated to the farm system by the burgeoning depth chart in the big league club.
If attitude alone could win the World Series, I would wholeheartedly agree that Aaron Miles might be an MVP candidate, but is he making a difference to the club, beyond that go-get-‘em willingness to plug in and play anytime and anywhere?
Miles is certainly an interesting player. He has logged MLB innings in every position except 1st base and catcher, including pitching 4 innings of relief during 4 different games over three seasons in 2007, 2008 and 2010.
How did Miles, this man-of-all-trades type ballplayer end up here, with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2010? Here’s his roadmap:
Miles’ Path to 2010
Way back in June of 1995, the scrappy little ballplayer began his hard-fought baseball career drafted in the 19th round of the amateur draft by the Houston Astros. Aaron Miles then spent 9 long years in the minor leagues (6 with Houston and 3 with the Chicago White Sox) before making it to the Majors.
In September 2003 Aaron Miles took his first big league at-bat with the White Sox. He played in only eight MLB games that season, predominantly as a pinch-hitter, and ended his short year with a respectable batting average of .333.
In December of 2003 the White Sox traded Miles to the Colorado Rockies where he played 2 seasons at second base. His 2004 season stats were .293/.329/.368 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging) and his 2005 numbers fell slightly to .281/.306/.355.
In 2006 Aaron Miles came to the St. Louis Cardinals, spent most of his time playing second base and shortstop, and accumulated a .263/.324/.347 record. This would be the 2nd consecutive season that Aaron Miles’ numbers would decline. (Side note: This decline did come in Miles’ first season playing for Tony La Russa. So the TV announcer trivia that sparked this Aaron Miles research just took a nosedive in validity.)
However, in the 2006 postseason Miles had hearty success pinch hitting in the NLDS and NLCS, contributing 3 hits in 5 plate appearances, though none of those hits resulted in a run or RBI. Then, as a member of that Cardinals 2006 Championship team, Miles played 2 complete World Series games at second base, batting only .167 in his 7 plate appearances, but scoring 2 runs.
In 2007 Miles returned with the Cardinals playing shortstop and 2nd base and his numbers improved a bit to .290/.328/.348.
For the 2008 season, Miles’ numbers got even better at .317/.355/.398.
Miles was granted free agency in December 2008 and signed with the Chicago Cubs. There his numbers faltered drastically from April through June (.203/.240/.260) when Miles was placed on the Disabled List for an elbow injury. Miles returned in August and posted horrible numbers of .118/.167/.176 from that point until the season’s end.
Miles bounced around a few places during that offseason. In December 2009 the Cubs traded him to Oakland who then traded him to Cincinnati in February 2010. Miles was released by the Reds April 14th and picked up by the Cardinals on April 27th where he was assigned to the AA Springfield Cardinals before joining the big club in June.
What Has He Done for us Lately?
So the question remains, what does Tony La Russa see in Aaron Miles? We can look at his clutch hitting, his pinch hitting or his split stats, but the proof of Tony’s faith in Aaron Miles may be nothing more than managerial intuition.
Since returning to the field in a Cardinals uniform on June 1st 2010, Miles has a solid .312 batting average, a mediocre .333 on-base percentage and a slight .355 slugging percentage. Only Albert Pujols, Jon Jay and newcomer Pedro Feliz (*small sample size alert) are hitting for a higher Cardinal batting average so far this season. Timely hitting has been a rally cry for the Miles camp, but with a struggling, inconsistent Cardinals offense this year, timely hitting may not translate to additional ticks on the scoreboard.
Does Aaron Miles bring some “heart” to this team? Personality and spirit may be among those immeasurable benefits to the team. We may wonder, but face it – we will never truly know how Miles’ teammates value his role in the clubhouse. Afterall, I expect the boys are too busy playing baseball to worry about a popularity contest.
Rethinking his Role:
However, considering the makeup of the 2010 Cardinals, it may be easier to appreciate Aaron Miles in the big picture. In the difficult role of infield sub and pinch hitter, Miles’ batting average has been remarkably consistent for the last two months. That fill-in position may not earn legions of fans, especially when the hits are not memorable homeruns or extra base knocks, but Miles’ pleasant willingness to check his ego at the door and step in to help the team in a secondary role may be the very reason why he has earned the respect and admiration of the Cardinals manager.
Baseball is a sport with statistics for every single event that occurs on the field, but admittedly not all qualities can be crunched into a number. So, while some of us may fail to see the utter fascination with Aaron Miles, we must admit he should hardly be characterized a disappointment.
And even though that game announcer sent me off on a tangent only to find that his ‘facts’ were instead fictional fodder, my trip through the Aaron Miles history may have done some good. Afterall, the way I see it now -if Miles can keep plugging along at this season’s pace with the magic of Tony’s blessing and the miracle of a resurging team offense – Cardinal Nation may quit complaining and start cheering Aaron Miles for his extraordinary effort in the not-so-glorious role of scrappy super-sub.