The St. Louis Cardinals knew rookie right-handed starting pitcher Shelby Miller had talent since they drafted him No. 19 overall in the 2009 draft, but others in baseball questioned if the Houston-native’s maturity level would allow him to succeed at the sport’s highest level.
Miller projected he would be the in big leagues within two years of being drafted. Well, it took an extra year, but Miller has made the most of his first opportunity with the Cardinals and has set a pace that could earn him the highest honor a rookie can receive.
Miller gave up just one hit and struck out 13 Colorado Rockies in a complete game Friday to move his record to 5-2 and drop his earned-run average to a rotation-best 1.58.
His five wins are tied for second-most among Major League Baseball pitchers, and his ERA is four among all starters who have pitched more than two games so far in 2013.
Those are the sort of numbers that made the Cardinals draft Miller so high and made fans yearn for the team to call him up nearly anytime another starting pitcher had a couple of bad games. However, Miller didn’t look much like a Rookie of the Year-caliber pitcher when the Cardinals had holes to fill in their starting rotation at this point last season.
Projected starters Chris Carpenter and Kyle McClellan suffered long-term injuries in spring training last year. That left a potential spot for Miller to make good on his two-years-to-the-show claim, but Lance Lynn and Joe Kelly filled those positions instead.
Meanwhile, Miller was in the midst of a season with the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds that produced an 11-10 record with a 4.74 ERA, not nearly numbers that would inspire a call-up to the major leagues.
However, Miller won six of his seven final starts in 2012 with the Redbirds and pitched six games in relief with a 1.32 ERA as the Cardinals made their late-season run toward the playoffs.
He’s been even better in 2013 as part of starting rotation that has had one of the best starts to a season in franchise history, posting a 2.15 ERA in April. In fact, the entire Cardinals starting rotation would likely receive an invite to the All-Star Game if it was played in May instead of July.
Granted, the season is still young, and Miller will eventually have to face teams for a second time as the season progresses, but he has set a foundation for what could be one of the best rookie seasons for a Cardinals starting pitcher in more than a decade.
Remember, Adam Wainwright pitched too many games as a reliever in 2006 to be considered a rookie although he went 14-12 with a 3.70 ERA in 2007 as a full-time starter.
Before Wainwright, the Cardinals hadn’t had a dominant rookie pitcher since Rick Ankiel burst into the big leagues to be Rookie of the Year runner-up in 2000 with 194 strikeouts and a 3.50 ERA in 30 starts. Unfortunately, his dominance didn’t last very long as he lost control of his pitches with five wild pitches in a playoff game against the Atlanta Braves later that season and eventually switched positions to become an outfielder.
Matt Morris finished second in Rookie of the Year voting in 1997, going 12-9 with a 3.19 ERA in 33 starts, but he suffered a major elbow injury midway through the next season and didn’t make a full return to the starting rotation until 2001.
Miller probably won’t maintain his sub-2.00 ERA throughout the season, but his first seven starts have set him up for a chance to go down as one of the best rookie pitchers in the history of the St. Louis Cardinals.
That could also be the first trophy on what could be a very full mantel by the end of his career.
If that’s the case, the Cardinals could be in the beginning stages of another decade full of good pitching, and that usually means many seasons with winning records.