Tightening Brad Miller’s Leash

Title: Tightening Brad Miller’s Leash
Date: April 22, 2014
Original Source: Rotographs
Synopsis: This article looked at a cold start from Brad Miller, suggesting owners lower expectations based on some worrisome underlying indicators.

Brad Miller is no longer taking walks or getting hits. That’s obviously a problem, because it means he’s killing your team in average, failing to drive in runs and not getting on base to score runs or steal bases. Entering the seasons as the Fangraphs consensus number nine at shortstop and not ranked by a single person as outside of the top-10, Miller has instead repaid owners with the 24th-best performance at the position, providing net positive value only in home runs (he has three).

The .187-7R-7RBI-3HR-0SB line is obviously troubling. The realities underneath it – specifically, his suddenly-anemic walk rate and sky-high strikeout rate – are even more troubling, though hopefully they represent a short-term issue.

It’s difficult to figure out how a player with a strong plate discipline profile suddenly just abandons it. Miller didn’t have a walk rate below 11 percent at any level he played at for more than 100 plate appearances, and his strikeout rate in the minors peaked at 17.1 percent. Even as a rookie in 2013, those numbers were a respectable 7.2 percent and 15.5 percent, respectively.

Through 79 plate appearances in 2014, though, Miller has walked just twice – a walk rate of 2.5 percent – and struck out 23 times – a strikeout rate of 29.1 percent. He had profiled as a Matt Wieters or Kendrys Morales in terms of discipline but has instead become a J.P. Arencibia.

While it’s early still, small samples are all we have. Strikeout rate begins to stabilize for the entire league sample after about 60 plate appearances and walk rate at 120, so we’re far enough along that there’s reason to be concerned. Primarily, Miller has begun swinging at everything outside of the zone, swinging in the zone less, and making contact far less regardless of where the pitch is located.

Brad Miller O-Swing O-Contact Z-Swing Z-Contact SwStr%
2013 31.20% 65% 66.80% 90.70% 8.60%
2014 37.60% 55.30% 62.90% 86.40% 13.10%

Adding to the issue is that Miller suddenly can’t hit a fastball or a slider, which combine to make up nearly half of the pitches he faces. He’s whiffing more against change-ups and curves, too.

Brad Miller FB Whiff/Swing FB % SL Whiff/Swing SL % CH Whiff/Swing CH % CU Whiff/Swing CU%
2013 16.80% 35.90% 31.50% 11.70% 32% 7.40% 17% 11.40%
2014 24.20% 33.80% 48.20% 11.90% 36.40% 10.10% 34.80% 16.20%

Last season, pitchers were able to tempt Miller with pitches low (anywhere, but specifically low and away) and high over the plate, coaxing 62 whiffs on 163 swings on pitches in those areas (48.1 percent). This year, he’s seeing pitches in those zones frequently (about 12 percent of all pitches), whiffing on 25 of 48 swings (52.1 percent) in those locations. What’s worse, that spike in O-Swing rate is coming on these pitches that he can’t hit, with his swing rate in those zones jumping from 38.3 percent in 2013 to 43.4 percent so far in 2014.

miller1miller2

INTERLUDE: Turns out that the Boss and I were working on similar pieces at the same time. Instead of duplicating, Eno Sarris provides us some additional context for Miller’s increase in swing rate:

This stabilization fruit has been skinned by more than one writer, and the first time Pizza Cutter / Russell Carleton took a swing at it, he noticed that swing percentage stabilized around 50 plate appearances. That makes sense — the denominator for swing percentage is pitches seen, and we’ve been a big proponent here for looking at per-pitch numbers before you look at per-plate-appearance numbers. You see four or five pitches per plate appearance, so those numbers will become meaningful four-to-five times as fast.
Reach rate wasn’t covered in that article, and it doesn’t have the same denominator as swing rate. Where swing rate is over all pitches, reach rate is over all pitches outside the zone. Considering the league-wide zone rate is 47% this year, we could do some bad math and figure that reach rate takes about 100 plate appearances to stabilize. So Miller still has a few games to try and push that reach rate in the right direction, maybe.

Take a look at his swing map, and it tells the same story: swinging less inside the zone and swinging more outside the zone, particularly up high. That’s lefties on the left and righties on the right, this year compared to last year so that warm colors mean more swings, and regressed to league average thanks to Baseballheatmaps.com:

millerleftymillerrighty

While Miller is still flashing pop with the three home runs and a .160 isolated slugging, his poor early returns have led the Seattle Mariners to make two moves to insure against his struggles:

*Drop him in the order, slotting him ninth. Non-pitchers hitting seventh-to-ninth last season scored runs in just 9.55 percent of plate appearances (and 31.9 percent of their times on base), averaging an RBI every 10.3 times up. Players hitting first or second, as Miller had been before the demotion, scored runs in 12.5 percent of their plate appearances (and 38.9 percent of their times on base), averaging an RBI every 11.7 times up. The trade-off is clear: a few more RBI opportunities, depending on team context, at the expense of runs.

*They called up Nick Franklin, who was hitting .395/.469/.744 in 11 games at Triple-A and wasn’t atrocious as a rookie himself in 2013, with a wRC+ of 90.

The message to Miller seems pretty clear: he can probably figure this slump out, the pop and defense are certainly enough to keep him in the everyday lineup, and he’s probably been at least a little unfortunate (he owns a .224 BABIP, though his batted ball profile is to blame for some of this), but his leash is not infinite.

I’m still holding on Miller in deeper leagues, both because there’s still top-12 upside here and because his trade value would be non-existent, but I’ve moved him to the bench where possible. Players generally don’t show strong walk rates in the minors and then forget how to tell the difference between a ball and a strike or forget how to hit fastballs to this degree. This is more “slump” than “new reality,” but it’s a bad enough one that I’m insulating myself from it until there are some positive signs of a turnaround.

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