Time To Cut Shelby Miller Some Slack

2014 has been a start of varied returns for Shelby Miller. The 23-year-old righty entered the season fresh off of a very debated—and seemingly premature—end to his rookie season, but set out to prove that it was behind him. However in recent weeks, the regularity of the quality of his returns has turned downwards in an untimely and detrimental fashion during the team’s continual pot hole of a first half. It has begun to create some questionable lines of perception on what Miller’s place is on the team, despite there being nothing that should be of any less concern for the team at this given point.

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It is hard to arrive with high expectations in St. Louis. And there has been no pitcher since Rick Ankiel that arrived with more long-term buzz than Miller did. He was a gift in the draft to be available with the 17th pick, and he immediately set to work justifying why he was such a catch. As always in today’s prospect tracking culture, minor league success equality immediate Major League expectation. As he rose, his presence was demanded in St. Louis as early as 2011 and was at a fever pitch by 2012. Upon arrival, he delivered on promise pushing for a no-hitter in his first Major League start and then offering some quality innings in his first postseason.

Everything was primed for him to make the full-time jump to the Cardinal rotation in 2013, which he did with impressive result, albeit some rollercoaster stretches along the way. The final result was beyond solid: 17 wins, a top 10 ERA in the National League, a near Perfect Game and top three finish in the NL Rookie of the Year race.

However, this tells the high spots, but there were the frustrations of the lower moments as well. There were the constant struggles he had with pitch counts and command, which lead to 13 starts where he could not reach the sixth inning. There were the June and August slumps, where his ERA spiked up over 4.00 for the month.

Basically, there were times where the receipts did not match what the perceived return was, and then when it was compounded by him being mysteriously buried in the postseason bullpen, it created a new perception of Miller has a special case of a different kind: one that did not have the trust of his manager. Despite this conundrum (that even Miller himself confessed he does not completely understand), his place in the 2014 rotation was never in doubt. For everything that he struggled with, his talent and promise are too unique to deny….right?

Well, that was until May of this season, when once again he had a dip consistency. After roaring through the start of his season, including picking up victories in six out of seven of his starts from April 15th through May 17th, it seemed as if everything hit a screeching 180 degree turn and suddenly the perception of Miller had yet again been reversed as well. Where he had previously been the captain of the “Untouchables”: the guys that were completely untradeable and not to be discussed as so, even in the most informal of decision making circles (i.e. the stands at Busch Stadium and Twitter). Here is the former heir apparent to Adam Wainwright as the future of the Cardinal staff, and it was being asked (even by pros such as Bernie Miklasz and Derrick Goold) if he would even survive the return of a completely healthy bevy of options for the starting staff and if he could be potentially a candidate for more seasoning down in Memphis potentially?

Really? How it could it be possible that a pitcher in his sophomore campaign and a winner of 24 major league campaigns in under two professional years is seen this way? Well, the answer to that is simple: there is too much, too soon that has been expected of him and any periodic step outside of the direct path towards the hallowed ranks of Wainwright, Gibson, Carpenter and Dean causes both pause and ruin of hope for what he is expected to represent.

The reality of the situation is two-fold. Are there times where Miller’s struggles with work rate, control and perhaps a too bullheaded approach to working pitch counts in his favor? Absolutely. Should there be a more developed arsenal that features a regularly available compliment pitch to work off of his fastball? Sure, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves, or more importantly, him.

Hanging on these points to the point of dismissing the affirmative parts of his result is an exercise in practiced hysteria. At his age/experience level, he should not be expected to be regularly impressive or completely polished. Understanding Miller’s growing career arch requires spoonful of context to go along with the perception of his outcome.

There are several factors that go into understanding where he is, starting with company that is around him. The combination of the quick rise of Michael Wacha and his more regularly encouraging results, despite joining the system after Miller and seeing his star eclipse his. Wacha pitches with the polish that a college career provides, despite being a talent that is on a similar par as Miller’s and just under a year younger. There is also the far more extreme swings of outcome from Lance Lynn and Jaime Garcia as well. The sweet and/or sour outings that they provide have created a culture of all or nothing in accessing Cardinal pitching.

Miller is not as prone to meltdowns as either of that duo; rather he is subject to the big moment, i.e. the home run. His reliance on his fastball and hit or miss availability of an off-speed pitch to balance against it has been a reason for why he has given up 30 home runs in his first 255 career innings. It is a concerning trend, but it is one that he will likely find a way to work through. He’s simply developed too much as a pitcher—in flashes—to not. Because he is 23-years old and won’t even hit 50 career starts until next month in his young career.

The moral of the story is that baseball by nature is a marathon, as is the careers of its players. While expectation for immediate returns have never been higher, remember this when watching Miller go through the motions (and even stretches of them): when Gibson was 23, he was stuck in the bullpen mostly and had a WHIP of 1.53. When Wainwright was 23, we carried an ERA of 13.50. Dizzy? He won 20 games, but lost 18 too. Carpenter? He gave up 18 home runs in 175 innings, a mark that nearly matches what Shelby did last year.

In the end, good things are worth waiting for and even though nobody likes a waiting room, the payout at the end can definitely be worth the time it takes to get there.

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