St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny has taken plenty of criticism in the past week for possibly playing catcher Yadier Molina so much that he eventually succumbed to a knee injury and a trip to the disabled list Tuesday, but Matheny made an equally smart move by resting one of the team’s other top players.
Right-handed rookie starting pitcher Shelby Miller won the fifth spot in the rotation in spring training and pitched brilliantly for much of the first half of the season, but the 22-year-old’s performance began to drop in mid-June.
Miller started the season 7-3 with a 1.91 earned-run average through his first 12 starts, but he went 3-3 in his final seven starts of the first half, giving up three or more runs five times in that stretch.
Matheny indicated in late-June he would keep Miller on his regular schedule despite the rookie’s obvious struggles with command and ability to work deep into games.
Miller’s ERA jumped to 2.92 by the all-star break, but Matheny’s actions spoke louder than his words as he shifted the rotation to have Adam Wainwright work the final game before the all-star break instead of Miller.
That gave Miller an extra two days of rest between his last two starts of the first half and another 12 days off before he made his first start of the second half.
And Miller looked much more similar to the pitcher who started the season by giving up more than two runs just once in his first eight starts. Miller allowed no runs and three hits while walking one hitter and striking out six Philadelphia Phillies on July 23 to kick off his second half of the season.
He struck out six more hitters through 5.2 innings in his next start July 28 in a 5-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves, although Miller gave up just two earned runs, and he struck out eight Cincinnati Reds hitters in five innings Friday while allowing three runs as the Cardinals pounded the Reds 13-3.
Similar to Lance Lynn the year before, Miller hit a wall toward the end of the first half and needed the breaks during the first half of July to rejuvenate him for the pennant chase.
Miller is a pitcher who relies heavily on his fastball, and he doesn’t leave much room for error when that pitch doesn’t have its typical movement and explosiveness.
Miller threw 69 four-seam fastballs, 46 of them strikes, out of his 97-pitch total Friday against the Reds. That means Miller brought the heat 71-percent of the time, which is nearly exactly his average for the season. He will mix in a curveball and change-up in about one-quarter of his pitches, but Miller lives and dies by the fastball at this point in his career.
Of course, Miller also continues to learn at the major-league level and is becoming a smarter pitcher as the season progresses. He has begun to use his off-speed pitches more effectively in recent starts.
To that point, batters have swung and missed on Miller’s off-speed pitches more in his last two starts (eight times) than they did in his previous four starts (six whiffs) combined.
Matheny will have to closely monitor Miller’s workload through the rest of the season to make sure he doesn’t start to fall apart as he did approaching the all-star break because, as Molina sits on the disabled list with a sprained right knee, Miller has shown how much a little extra rest from time to time can help a player throughout the course of the long regular season.