Four starts into his Diamondbacks' career, Shelby Miller has yet to reach a total of 15 innings, possesses an 8.59 ERA and has walked more batters (11) than he has struck out (10). Safe to say. he hasn't been the pitcher the team expected, when they sent a #1 overall draft pick (Dansby Swanson), a 5 bWAR player (Ender Inciarte) and another 1st-round choice (Aaron Blair) to Atlanta in exchange for Miller. What has been the problem?
What really stands out is the almost complete disappearance of Miller's sinking two-seam fastball. Last season, with the Braves, he threw it more than one-third of the time, slightly more than his four-seamer; the remainder was mostly the cutter, at 21%, with a sprinkling of curveballs (10%) and change-ups (2%). Speaking in the middle of March, Miller seemed to indicate it would continue to be an important weapon. "I knew it could help me get deeper into games and be a more efficient pitcher... The sinker allows me to give a hitter a different look... [It's] a pitch for double-play situations and early in the count when you’re trying to get ground balls. my motto is, ‘Try to get guys out with three pitches or less.’"
But this year? The sinker has...well, sunk, being used less than 5% of the time. The bulk of the load has been transferred to the four-seam fastball, which he has thrown for over 62% of Miller's pitches: The change-up has also increased (75), while the cutter and curve are also down, though nowhere near as dramatically as the two-seamer's evaporation, at 18% and 6%. Put another way: in 2015, the two-seam sinker was Miller's most-used pitch. This year, it has been his least-used, thrown only 14 times. Given this was the pitch which, in 2015, Shelby said was "going to take me to the next level," you have to wonder if its absence is tied to his struggles.
There are two problems here. Poor location and hard contact. His basic strike percentage has dropped from 66% to 57% as a whole, and his first-pitch number is worse still, at an even 50%, so he's as likely as not to be behind in the count. Yesterday was worse still - only 23 strikes in 55 pitches thrown, and a first-pitch strike to 5 of 12 batters. Part of the reason for this, is Miller is having a harder time getting batters to swing at pitches out of the zone. In 2015, 28.6% of his pitches there got the batter to take a hack, but this year, that has dropped by one-third, to 18.8%; they're also missing less often there, the contact percentage outside the zone increasing from 64.3% to 82.8%.
Being behind in the count is never a good thing for any pitcher. Last year in the NL, batters had a .947 OPS when they were ahead, compared to .707 in even counts, and just .509 when the pitcher was ahead. Miller's wildness means that hitters can wait him out, and Shelby's abandonment of the sinker means there's close to a two-in-three chance they'll be getting a fastball. The result? A line-drive percentage of 37%, compared to 22% last season - and that goes up to 42.3% off that fastball. Combine that with the hellacious walk-rate, and it's frankly a miracle the Diamondbacks have a 2-2 record in Miller starts.
Injury or mechanics?
In his previous start, at Petco, Miller scraped the back of his pitching hand on the mound, while following through on his delivery, causing gashes on both the knuckles of his index finger. He said this was something he had never done in his time with the Braves or Cardinals - but it appears also to have happened during Thursday's start in San Francisco. Miller looked more than once at his hand between pitches, and if you look at this GIF [from Mike Avila of CBSSports.com], you can see what seems to be a puff of dust coming off the mound as his hand hits the dirt:
However, Miller said after the game that he did not hit his hand again - or, at least, that was not the cause of his struggles, and that he was just "off mechanically." That's putting it mildly, considering his third inning yesterday went 8-pitch walk, 4-pitch walk, 7-pitch walk, 4-pitch walk. After the previous outing, Chip Hale said, "He’s staying more upright. It’s just something he’s been working on and he was doing a really good job of that in his pen." But Nick Piecoro tossed this out: "Makes you wonder how much Shelby Miller was thinking about not doing it again and how much that might have hurt his command." Another Tweet from Nick, after Miller's early departure from yesterday's game also provoked some chatter:
Here's Shelby Miller's follow through on a pitch from last May compared to one from today. pic.twitter.com/hWGzoIJeoW— Nick Piecoro (@nickpiecoro) April 21, 2016
Even a tyro like myself when it comes to pitching mechanics can tell the difference between the two images, and Miller seemed to agree: "On days like that, you're out there battling yourself. Not just today, but in the past, I've been kind of battling my mechanics a little bit. I'm more so just trying to get back to where I was maybe last year. I've got a lot of video to watch. I've got to figure something out, for sure... It's been rough. It's tough to go out there and perform like that. I'm definitely upset about it. I'm definitely not pitching up to the capabilities of what I'm capable of doing." All D-backs fans hope he does sort it out. Not least because otherwise, we'll have three years of smug superiority from Atlanta to endure.