If you wanted a microcosm of the 2016 season, it was the utter implosion of Shelby Miller after becoming a Diamondback. From an All-Star in 2015, his mechanics became so bad, he was literally scraping his knuckles on the ground with his follow through, which required a DL stint. That didn’t fix things, and he ended up being optioned to the minor-leagues at the All-Star break, having gone 2-9 with a 7.14 ERA. That was the worst first-half ERA of any NL pitcher (min 14 starts) since Hideo Nomo in 2004.
Things didn’t exactly improve greatly on his return. Before his penultimate start on Sep 23, Miller’s ERA was 6.90. If Shelby had sustained that over his final two outings, it would have been the second highest ERA by an NL pitcher with 20+ starts in a season since 1930, trailing only Scott Elarton’s 7.06 in 2001. Fortunately, Miller had saved the best for last, allowing no runs in either of those starts, and it’s largely this which leaves me kindling a small, tentative flicker of hope for the 2017 season. For I’m hoping it was the first 18 games which were the aberration, and not the last two.
This may seem like spitting into the statistical wind. But for his career, Miller has been a good pitcher, especially considering his youth. Despite the horror which was last season, his career ERA+ is still 105, which is comparable to, say, the 109 figure posted by Johnnie Cueto through his age-25 season. Through his next three campaigns, Cueto then went 44-20 with a 2.54 ERA. Now, obviously, I’m not projecting that for Miller - Cueto had shown steady improvement over his career, for one thing. But just as two good starts do not negate the 18 bad ones which preceded them, so those 18 do not negate the 96 prior to Miller’s arrival here, over which he had a 3.22 ERA.
Most of the same reasons previously discussed for a Greinke bounceback also apply to Miller: less pressure, better catching and improved defense. Indeed, in some cases even more so. For the gap between Miller’s ERA and his FIP (Fielding Independent ERA) was the third-worst among the 142 pitchers in the majors last year to throw 100+ innings. He “deserved” an ERA of 4.87, slightly better than Robbie Ray’s actual ERA of 4.90 (though Ray was ranked #6 on the same list, and also “deserved” an ERA well over a run better than he got). That may be the result of some bad luck, but it’s also the result of too few balls in play becoming outs.
That’s an area at which the D-backs were worst in the league last year; DER is Defensive Efficiency Ratio - for every ball hit into the field of play, how likely is the defense to convert that into an out? The D-backs rate in 2016 was 66.7%: part of that is due to the capacious outfield of Chase Field, but if you compare it to our numbers over the past few seasons, you can see the problem. 2015 = 69.3%; 2014 = 67.7%; 2013 = 69.9%. However, some of this may also be the volume of hard-hit balls, because no team in the majors allowed more of those than the Diamondbacks in 2016. Patrick Corbin, Ray and Archie Bradley were all ahead of Miller in the top 15.
But the main reason for hope if that the Miller who returned from the minor leagues on the last day of August, was overall significantly better. While there were still bumps in the road, over those final six starts, he had a 3.98 ERA - and that came despite a BABIP that remained on the high side, at .351. He also didn’t have a game where he walked more batters than he struck out, something that happened in five of Miller’s fourteen starts before being sent down. It peaked with consecutive scoreless outings in those last two appearances; even if one was rain-shortened, there was only one other time last year we got that from any starter (Zack Greinke’s on June 2 + 7).
There would likely be a significant psychological boost all round if Miller’s 2017 is more like the end of 2016 than the beginning - not least for us fans. The trade was likely the biggest deceased equine for the team since the Upton deal. It certainly wasn’t long before I was heartily dreading every Miller start, mostly for the smug/snarky reactions on social media. Hopefully, they’ll have at least somewhat moved onto the next Worst Trade Ever this year, and the general lower level of scrutiny overall might help Miller too. But it really comes down to him fixing the mechanical issues, and at least, the last couple of outings gave hope: it’s certainly better to finish strong than start strong, at least for purposes of optimism...
A silver lining is, for control purposes, the season effectively didn’t count. Because of the time Miller spent in the minors, he ended the season shy of four years service, at 3 years, 166 days. This means the Diamondbacks effectively get a mulligan on 2017, with Miller still being under team control for three more seasons, as he was when we dealt for him - except, now, that runs through the end of 2019. It’s almost as if 2016 never happened - I’m sure that’s a sentiment which both fans and Miller himself can easily get behind!