The Fall of Shelby Miller
Three Up, Three Down: The Fall of Shelby Miller
Posted on May 2, 2016 by Nick Selbe
The calendar has turned to May, and teams are starting to separate themselves from the field — both at the front of the pack and bringing up the rear. For individual players, one month’s worth of playing time can be enough for a fast start to seem legitimate and a slow one to become concerning.
As we move ahead with Week 4 of Three Up, Three Down, we’ll begin to take a wider view of player trends. The past week’s performance will still carry significant weight, but as players compile more stats this season — therefore giving us more information to work with — each breakdown will have an increasingly broader perspective.
*Note: The 80-game suspension of Dee Gordon obviously has a significant impact on his fantasy value. Since this space is meant to analyze on-field performances, we’ll keep Gordon out of consideration, though it bears mentioning that owners looking for replacements should target Brett Lawrie, Brandon Phillips or Chase Utley, all available in over 50 percent of leagues.
1B Brandon Belt, San Francisco Giants
Stats April 25 – May 1: 5-for-15, 3 XBH, 7 RBI, 4 R, 9 BB, 4 KPercent owned: 91 percent
Entering this season, Belt had always been a bit underwhelming as a hitter. From 2011 to 2015, he never posted a strikeout rate lower than 21.9 percent, and his 18 home runs last season marked a career best. His batting average on balls in play had always been high — he can thank his 24.3 percent line drive rate for that — but the so-so power numbers and high K-rate made him fairly unattractive as a fantasy option.
One month into the 2016 season, though, and it seems as if Belt has made some adjustments. For starters, his 18.3 percent walk rate is well above his career mark of 10.2 percent, and he’s cut down his K-rate to 15.4 percent. He’s swung at only 21.8 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, according to PITCHf/x data, by far the lowest rate of his career. This improved patience and feel for the zone has turned him into an on-base machine: through 26 games, he’s walked more times than he’s struck out (19 BB, 16 K).
Despite swinging the bat less often, he’s making more contact — more importantly, more solid contact. Belt has made contact at a rate of 85.5 percent when swinging at pitches inside the strike zone — 7 percent higher than last season — and his line drive rate currently sits at 29.4 percent, the highest of his career. Even if he doesn’t turn into a 25-30 home run threat, his improved on-base skills make him a viable top-10 first baseman.
1B Victor Martinez, Detroit Tigers
Stats April 25 – May 1: 14-for-27, 3 HR, 8 XBH, 8 RBI, 8 RPercent owned: 72 percent
Anyone who spent a high draft pick on Martinez last season is most likely weary of his fast start to 2016, and that’s understandable. Fantasy baseball players tend to hold grudges with letdown players, and his 2015 season was an absolute disaster.
Yes, Martinez is 37 years old and coming off a year in which he had a .245/.301/.366 slash line, but let’s not forget the type of hitter he was not too long ago. From 2013-14, Martinez hit .317/.381/.495 with 46 home runs, playing in 310 of a possible 324 games. He spent all of last season dealing with a bum knee after tearing his meniscus in the offseason, appearing in his fewest games since transitioning from a catcher to a full-time designated hitter.
Now, Martinez is starting to look like his old self again. He’s played in all of Detroit’s games this season and has 15 extra-base hits in 80 at-bats. More importantly, he’s hitting .371/.409/.710 against righties so far after hitting a woeful .219/.276/.339 off of them in 2015.
At his age and fresh off of an injury-maligned season, Martinez is far from a sure thing moving forward. But he’s quietly been among the most productive hitters of the past decade, and as long as he’s on the field, he’s a safe bet for a high batting average and lots of RBI opportunities. He should be picked up in any leagues he’s still available in.
SP Rich Hill, Oakland Athletics
Stats April 25 – May 1: 2 GS, 1-1 W-L, 13.0 IP, 2 ER, 6 H, 4 BB, 12 KPercent owned: 64 percent
Hill’s winding career path is among the most fascinating stories in baseball. He pitched 195 competent innings for the Cubs in 2007, then threw a combined 153 innings from 2008 to 2014 for the Cubs, Orioles, Red Sox, Indians, Angels and Yankees, with mostly awful results. After a brief stint with the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League, Hill returned to Boston for four starts last season, hurling 36 strikeouts and five walks in 29 innings.
That strong run earned him a $6 million contract with the A’s, and his first six starts of 2016 have made that look like a bargain. Hill’s two-pitch approach has proven to be borderline untouchable, as his 11.53 K/9 is the fifth-highest strikeout rate in the league.
Hill’s almost exclusive use of his fastball and curveball makes for a simple — yet effective — strategy. We’re now 10 starts into the Rich Hill comeback story, and he’s struck out 10 batters in five of them. At this point, owners should feel more than comfortable hanging on to Hill for the long haul.
SP Shelby Miller, Arizona Diamondbacks
Stats April 25 – May 1: 2 GS, 0-2 W-L, 8.2 IP, 8 ER, 9 H, 8 BB, 9 KPercent owned: 52 percent
When Arizona acquired Miller from Atlanta in December for a huge haul of prospects, the general consensus was that the Braves robbed the Diamondbacks blind. Miller’s first month with his new team has done nothing to dissuade that opinion.
Each of Miller’s first six starts has been a disaster. He allowed 10 runs — including five home runs — in his first two starts combined, then failed to make it out of the fourth inning in three of his next four starts. He’s walked 19 batters in 23.1 innings, allowing nearly two baserunners per frame.
Miller is almost certainly not this bad, so better days are on the horizon. Of course, it’s pretty easy to be better than what he’s been so far, which is the worst starter in the Majors. Miller has a three-year track record of being solidly above average, and trading him now, when his value is at its lowest, would be pointless. The best advice would be to ride out the storm for a little while longer and hope for some — literally any — positive signs in the weeks to come.
OF Justin Upton, Detroit Tigers
Stats April 25 – May 1: 9-for-29, 1 HR, 5 RBI, 5 R, 0 BB, 9 KPercent owned: 94 percent
Upton actually put together a solid week, but if we widen the scope to the entire first month of the season, we can see just how abysmal his performance at the plate has been. In 103 plate appearances, Upton has 39 strikeouts and just three walks, with only six extra-base hits (four doubles and two home runs).
Owners should take some comfort in Upton’s underlying stats: his line drive rate of 27.9 percent is the highest of his career, meaning he’s still making good contact when he’s not striking out. The 37.9 percent K-rate is obscenely high, but it shouldn’t outweigh his past seven years as a full-time player, in which he struck out just 23.5 percent of the time and had a 10.2 percent walk rate. Perhaps this past week will serve as a springboard for a return to form.
1B Prince Fielder, Texas Rangers
Stats April 25 – May 1: 6-for-20, 0 HR, 3 RBI, 4 R, 1 BB, 2 KPercent owned: 95 percent
Fielder looked like a prime bust candidate before the season started, and one month of games has done nothing to prove otherwise. His strong 2015 numbers were propped up by a .323 BABIP, which masked his declining power and on-base skills. In 103 plate appearances, he’s managed an awful .207/.262/.304 slash line with only five extra-base hits.
Though the writing was on the wall for Fielder’s zapped power throughout last season, he still managed to hit righties well, posting a .343/.416/.507 slash line with 14 home runs. This year, he has failed miserably regardless of whether a righty or lefty is on the mound.
Fielder’s home run to fly ball rate of 7.1 percent is further evidence of his lack of power, and his current hard-hit rate of 23.7 percent is by far the lowest of his career. Though we’re only one month into a long season, better days are likely not ahead for the aging slugger. Owners would be wise to cut their losses now, before digging themselves into too big a hole to climb out of.