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Player Profile #104: Shelby Miller | SP | STL

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I find Shelby Miller to be one of the harder pitchers to rank this preseason. On the one hand, he’s an enormously talented, highly touted prospect in an organization known for developing young hurlers, and Miller’s rookie season couldn’t have gone much better. On the other hand, Miller posted sort-of-lucky .280 BABIP and a definitely-lucky 80.1% strand rate, resulting in a 3.67 FIP and 3.73 xFIP.

I’ve heard concerns over Miller’s pitch selection (heck, I’ve even espoused those concerns several times over the years), but in researching Miller, I discovered that we shouldn’t hold the fact that he’s a two-pitch pitcher against him. I’ll detail my research in an upcoming post, but the quick and dirty is this: two-pitch pitchers, defined as throwing only two different pitches at least 10% of the time, who don’t add a third offering during the subsequent season go on to have identical statistical lines (on the average).

Consider this table, which shows how this group of two-pitch pitchers performed from Year to Year n+1. All pitchers in this table featured just two pitches in one year, and it breaks them up into groups based on how many pitches they featured the next year.

#Pitches Sample Age Change Change Change
Year n+1 Size in IP in ERA n K%
2 Pitches* 5 26.4 10.1 0.24 Lower 0.4
3 Pitches 10 27.1 (0.2) (0.11 Higher) 0.1
4 Pitches 5 28.8 (0.1) (0.28 Higher) 0.0
5 Pitches 1** 27.0 45.1 1.28 Lower 3.8

*This group contained five player-seasons, but they came from just two different pitchers (Clayton Kershaw, Ervin Santana).

**Doug Davis was the only pitcher to jump from two offerings to five in one year.

Two-pitch pitchers that remained two-pitch pitchers the next year saw their ERA drop by an average of 24 points while seeing their K% increase slightly. If you want to point out that this group contains a young Kershaw who was only getting better, I’ll totally back that up.

But if your average two-pitch pitcher absolutely must add another pitch to their repertoire, then wouldn’t we expect to see the ERA of pitches who actually did this go down? Instead, pitchers that went from two primary offerings to three saw their ERA rise by an average of 11 points, and pitchers that went from two to four saw their ERA rise by 28 points. The average age of these two groups isn’t overly high either, though this great pitcher aging curve shows there’s a pretty significant different between a 26/27-year-old starter and a 28/29-year-old one.

Regardless, there’s nothing in this data (or any of the other data I looked at today) that tells me Miller must add another pitch, not when the two he has are of such good quality. In terms of Runs Above Average provided by Fangraphs, Miller’s four-seamer rated as the 26th-best in the league among the 74 pitchers who threw it at least one-third of the time (66th percentile), and his curveball rated also rated as the 26th-best among the 73 pitchers who threw it at least 10% of the time (64th percentile). Note: minimum 100 IP required to qualify.

That means that 89.5% of the time last year, Miller threw a pitch that rated in the top-third in baseball. It’s hard not to be successful when you throw good stuff that often.

Miller is young, he’s in a great situation in St. Louis, and all those advanced metrics do is support what our eyes can already see: his fastball and curveball are pretty darn good.

At A Glance

  • Strengths: W, K/9
  • Neutral: IP, L, K, ERA, WHIP, BB/9
  • Weaknesses: None

Players With Similar Fantasy Value

2014 Fantasy Baseball Projection

2014 Projection: 197 IP, 15 W, 0 SV, 185 K, 3.31 ERA, 1.21 WHIP

Overall Rank: 105 | SP Rank: 26

…in the end Miller is a high-ceiling prospect who has enough talent to be valuable even if he disappoints

On the surface, a projected 3.31 ERA seems like we believe Miller will get worse, or at the very least stagnate. That isn’t the case at all.

As I mentioned in the intro, Miller vastly outperformed his FIP and xFIP last year thanks in large part to an unsustainably high 80.1% strand rate. Over the last three years, there have been 67 pitchers who’ve thrown at least 100 innings in a season with a strand rate between 78% and 82%, plus or minus two points of Miller’s 2013 rate. Those 67 pitchers went on to average a 73.6% strand rate the following season. As that rate down, Miller’s ERA will go up. The fact that we projected his 2014 ERA to be much lower than his 2013 FIP/xFIP show how much we expect him to improve.

Last year Miller worked to a 1.21 WHIP, which I’m not sure he can improve much given his average walk rates and already low BABIP. Either his K rate will have to rise drastically, his walk rate will need to drop noticeably, or he’ll need some BABIP luck.

Regarding his strikeouts, we projected Miller for around the same rate, which seems fair to me given that his second half K rate was just 19.1% (7.47 K/9), though that was also a byproduct of his reduced second half velocity.

In our early 2014 mock draft, Miller went 111th overall. Given his projected rank (105th), this seems like a pretty good spot to draft him. I think some people are down on him given his late-summer struggles and his much-publicized postseason absence, but in the end Miller is a high-ceiling prospect who has enough talent to be valuable even if he disappoints.

2015 & Beyond

Miller has the potential to be a great fantasy starter, probably as high as a high-end SP2 if he can get to the 210+ IP mark. His value will be marred by his walk rate, which though good, isn’t elite enough to make him an elite option. I think he could be a better version of Latos, mostly because Latos doesn’t have the strikeout potential that Miller does.

For those in keeper leagues, draft/purchase aggressively.

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