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The Bard's Take: How Much Longer for Shelby Miller?

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How long does Arizona allow Shelby Miller to struggle?

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

It is very true that there are many who thought the Shelby Miller trade this winter was a poor one for the Diamondbacks. However, despite Miller's horrific start to the season it is still too early to declare the case closed on the matter. Ender Inciarte has only played in three games this season, compiling 10 at-bats. Aaron Blair forced his way onto the Atlanta rotation, but has had only two starts, one so-so, and one solid, quality start against the Chicago Cubs. Dansby Swanson had a nice AA debut, but the key there is, he's still in AA. Not all, but most concerns regarding the Shelby Miller trade were tied to the loss of total future value. Only a handful of pundits feared immediate regret due to performance issues.

Enter Shelby Miller 2016, and suddenly those pundits are looking a bit smarter. It is still too early by far to call this season a loss in terms of player performance in the trade, but Shelby Miller has dug himself an impressive hole, one deep enough that there is genuine concern about whether or not he can weather the pressures of climbing back out of it. For the Diamondbacks, a team in it to win it this season, this creates a whole new dilemma.

Looking at the reverse leaderboard for pitchers in fWAR, I was somewhat surprised to find Patrick Corbin (-0.2 fWAR) was listed as the second-worst starting pitcher in baseball thus far. It sure doesn't feel like it, despite Corbin's struggles. Maybe that's because, despite his poor overall results, Corbin has pitched into the sixth inning in all six of his starts, completing a full six innings or more in four of them. In other words, he's mostly kept his team in the game, even when it wasn't pretty. That's when I realized I was forgetting something, I was looking at qualified starters. If one drops the threshold for innings pitched all the way down to 20, then one gets a different list, with four new names added to it. At the very top of that list is Shelby Miller and his (-0.5 fWAR). One of the pitchers between Miller and Corbin, Bud Norris, has already been pulled from the rotation -€” by the woeful Atlanta Braves who are going nowhere this season. Suddenly, the list felt about right, and it was easy to see why. In six starts on the season, Shelby Miller has a total of 23 1/3 innings pitched, with only 19 2/3 -€” in the entire month of April. By way of comparison, another awful pitcher, Jon Niese, has also had six starts and has a full 10 more innings pitched.

Clearly, the mechanical issues with Miller, causing him to have three outings where he didn't make it through four innings are sinking his value -€” right? He's had six outings and completed five or more innings in half of them. Sadly, Miller's three "long" outings represent his worst two outings by way of game score and three of his worst four by the same metric. In other words, even when he is managing to avoid the quick hook, Miller has been just plain awful.

It might be that part which is the most concerning thus far. After all, super-short outings from the result of funky mechanical issues tend to go away. If they don't, the pitcher tends to get yanked out of the rotation, even those pitchers with the longest of leashes. Yet so far, there has been no indication that a Shelby Miller able to go six innings is any better than the one getting pulled out of the game in the third inning. The only difference seems to be how big of an impact on the bullpen there is going to be. With the way the Diamondbacks have been racking of frequent flyer miles by making use of the option system to keep a fresh staff of 13 pitchers, this concern over innings pitched is somewhat mitigated. Sure, the Diamondbacks once again lead all of baseball in bullpen innings thrown, but the innings have been spread out enough as to not be alarming -€” yet. Should things keep up at this rate through the break, then that will be an entirely different matter.

Shelby Miller will not be missing his next start. Tony La Russa and the front office are sticking with their guns and running him out to pitch again on Saturday in Atlanta, the place where he enjoyed his career-best peripherals despite a horrible win/loss record, courtesy of the terribad Braves team. The hope seems to be that a return to the home of his best peripheral season will help get Miller right between the ears and start the process of turning things around. This is not the worst idea. Of course, the night before Miller takes the mound, Aaron Blair will be starting for the Braves. If he has another good outing, that is going to do nothing to help relieve any pressure on Miller. If anything, it is going to increase it quite a bit, whether it should or not. When the trade went down, I and others predicted that there could well be less than 1.0 WAR difference between Miller and Blair on the season, which was part of our problem with the trade. I'm pretty sure all of us expected Miller to still have a better WAR though. As it stands, when Blair toes the rubber for his third start of the season on Friday, there will indeed be less than 1.0 WAR separating him from Miller, with Blair ahead by 0.7. Obviously small sample size is in play here, but that is the sort of hole that Miller has dug himself into to begin this season. It simply doesn't help things that Blair's second outing, he threw a game that would have him tied with Greinke for the fourth best game score of the season thus far. It is putting Shelby Miller under an even higher power microscope, and if reports and comments are to be believed, Miller is not adjusting well to the pressure.

What if Miller does not go out and perform well on Saturday? If he takes a dive before the team has completed 4 innings, does that change his outlook? What if he once again goes 5 or more, but has terrible results, much like his two worst outings of the year? As a team that is in it to win it, the Diamondbacks can only suffer through so many such performances before a change is finally necessary lest the deficit in the standings becomes too great. The team missed a golden opportunity to legitimately put Miller on the DL two starts ago. Doing so would have allowed the team to make sure he gets his mechanics straightened out sooner rather than later, and perhaps even saved the bullpen some unnecessary hardship.

This front office has shown a great reluctance to pull pitchers from the rotation, despite performance. One only need look at how long they stuck with Jeremy Hellickson last season, or the fact that Rubby De La Rosa was a shoe-in before the season started. Some have started to speculate how many games the Diamondbacks can lose before Hale is on the hot seat. It has also been intimated that removing Miller from the rotation may not be in Hale's control. If this is the case, every Diamondback loss started by Miller should be a free pass for Hale at this point. Is Miller a better pitcher than Aaron Blair, or Braden Shipley? My gut still tells me that he probably is. That doesn't mean that the team has to wait an entire season for that fact to manifest itself. If Shelby Miller has anything other than a Milleresque performance circa 2015, the team truly needs to look at what options they have for removing Miller from the rotation until he can get right again. This would likely mean optioning him unless he develops another injury that allows use of the DL.

Regardless, Miller's leash needs to be reaching its limit.