Reason Number Three to Love the Miller-Karns Trade
Here’s some web linkages in the event that you missed the first two parts of this series, in which, I reviewed Nate Karns and Logan Morrison. This third and final part of the series will take a deep dive into Brad Miller, the SS that is inarguably the linchpin of this deal from the Rays perspective. Let’s learn some more about his journey to the Show and how he has evolved as a player, if at all, using the Baseball-Prospectus Book Comments. Read this as, “Heading into the xxxx season.”
2012: Second-round shortstop Brad Miller hit .415 in his professional debut. It was only 59 plate appearances in the Midwest League, but he also won the ACC batting title, so he spent just about all of 2011 batting over .400. Small sample sizes giveth, and small sample sizes taketh away: he committed four errors in 14 games as a pro.
2013: It’s been nothing but blue skies and line drives for the second-round pick Brad Miller, who now has a .398 BABIP in the pros.
2014: Miller earned comparisons to Kyle Seager throughout his minor-league career, so it’s only fitting that he joined Seager as an overachiever on the 2013 Mariners. Miller charged through the high minors with good power and better contact skills, particularly for a middle infielder. Pitchers challenged him with fastballs once he reached the majors, but he made them pay, as six of his eight home runs come on hard pitches. He doesn’t grade out as a great fielder, but his bat is well above the shortstop standard and appears to be worth taking a minor defensive hit.
2015: Miller has logged three half-seasons of baseball now, two of them great and the other a Lovecraftian nightmare dimension. After handing Miller’s starting gig to Chris Taylor, the Mariners lost Willie Bloomquist for the year and decided to just make a better one. Miller henceforth broke out of his slump and had a productive second half, filling in around the infield and hitting as expected, albeit with a few more strikeouts and a touch more power than before.
The team now faces a happy dilemma: two capable starting shortstops. Barring a trade or another Nick Franklin debacle, the Mariners have spoken about makeing Miller a “super sub” in the mold of Ben Zobrist. He’s capable, if inconsistent, at short, and plenty fine at second or third. And although he hasn’t technically played outfield since childhood, coaches dubbed him a “natural” in drills. There’s also the problem that Kyle Seager and Robinson Cano, playing two of Miller’s natural positions, play more than most regulars. But unless Miller’s bat goes through another snowy April, the team will find a place for him somewhere most days of the week. There’s too much offensive potential to let him rot.
You get the idea of a player that came up with questions about his defense, but his ability to hit was hard to deny. He went through some ups and downs, and has spent a lot of time competing to get on the field, which has pushed his glove in all sorts of strange directions. He has been called a rich man’s Willie Bloomquist. It is alluded to that he is a poor man’s Ben Zobrist. He even wore plenty of the old line about being a good hitter for a middle infielder. Of course this only takes us prior to 2015. To get the nice little summary like above you’ve got to go buy the 2016 Annual, and you should, because it’s perennially excellent. If you can’t wait until February 9th perhaps you’d like to wade down into the darkness with me? Too late, let’s go.
The first column shows things that I think are important and then we have Brad Miller’s performance in each measure. The third column has his standardized z-score using the weighted average of the 362 players that have had at least 450 career plate appearances between the ages of 23 and 25 since 2002. The last two columns look at the mean and median for the group, as well. I like using z-scores because it allows us to get a good idea of where his strengths and weaknesses are relative to his peers.
His BABIP through wOBA numbers are where he is weakest compared to the group. Having a BABIP that low drives each of the other categories down as a bag of sand anchors a balloon and keeps it from ascension. The encouraging thing is that he basically has a league average wRC+, which allows us to infer that his ballpark hasn’t done him any favors over the years. Most stuff is within the norm, but one thing that stands out to me is his Ultimate BaseRunning being quite a bit above the pack. He’s not much of a base stealer, but he seems to run the bases well once he’s on. So far he’s looking something like an average hitter who’s line has been depressed by his park. He’ll strike out a bit more than the usual guy, but he runs the bases well and can get himself on. If the ball starts falling in on contact more often then he could be a real monster at the plate. Is that realistic?
To answer that question it can help to dig into his approach and what happens to his balls in play. He swings quite a bit more than his peers, especially out of the zone and while he seems to put a lot of those in play his contact rate on pitches in the zone is poor. The really interesting thing is that while he sees first pitch strikes a hell of a lot more than other guys his zone rate is actually quite low. This leads me to believe he’s going to need to become less rigid in his first pitch thinking. This is something Ben Zobrist actually does a lot and when he switches gears on pitchers he is an absolute beast. It looks like Miller is similarly taking a ton of first pitches in an effort to tilt the count in his favor and perhaps inflate his walk rate. The problem is watching a good one go by makes you really want to hit the next one, and it looks like pitchers have success going out of the zone after that. We can look at this using the incredible resource Baseball Savant:
The strike zone boxes follow the regulation size, which is a bit smaller than what was used in the table above, but I think you get a good feel for when he’s being aggressive first pitch and when he isn’t. He wants to hit the ball out over the plate, but if he gets something inside he’s going to take a hack, too. He does a pretty good job on pitches away off the plate and up, though he will expand a bit down. Here’s the numbers behind that:
He seems to show solid selectivity on first pitch as he’s taking a ton of pitches that are out of the zone and unafraid to swing when they do come within the confines of the strike zone. He does get a little more swing happy on non-first pitches, both in and out of the zone, but his run values per 100 pitches are better in three of the four quads with only taken strikes getting worse. I think he could stand to get a little more aggressive on first pitch, but as we see in the charts above it’s not like he is letting a ton of hittable pitches get by him, as is. Similarly, he could stand to tighten up a bit on his swings at pitches that are out of the zone on non-first pitches. Here’s a look at those charts:
There’s a ton of white space on his takes within the zone, which reflects that he is swinging more often at pitches he can get to and he’s still doing a great job leaving off-the-plate pitches alone. A nuanced point, and one you can see better if you open the image in another tab, is that he’s not taking many change ups. You can see that better in his swings as there are a ton of change ups down in the zone that he’s offering at, as well as, breaking balls throughout the zone and down. It looks like his increased swing rate hurts him on all those breaking balls below the zone, though any adjustment there might take away from all those fat fastballs he’s already offering at so I’m not sure that an adjustment would come without an offsetting, new, thing to dislike.
I skipped over it in the second table, but you can see that, while his vertical trajectories (ground ball, line drive, infield flyball, outfield flyball) mostly hug the norm you can see that he is very light on pulling the ball preferring to go opposite field and up the middle more than his peers. Those pitches over the outer half of the zone where he can get the fat part of the barrel on a ball plays into these results heavily. If he can become better at selectively pulling the ball on inside pitches then you should see the power play up, but I’d be afraid of that inviting more swing and miss into his game and would be a detriment to what looks like a solid all fields approach. We can see these results better using his spray chart courtesy of Fangraphs:
He’s rolling over the ball a ton versus lefties, but occasionally he can rip a long flyball up the guts and some hard line drives to the pull side. He doesn’t show much authority opposite field with a ton of medium-depth flyballs and some bloopers. Versus righties we see a much better willingness to use the whole field with a bunch of ducksnort liners over the shortstop to go with some deeper flyballs, but also quite a few cans of corn to shallow leftfield. Nearly all of his homers are to the pull side where we also see a ton of line drives. The caveat here is that stringers are more likely to label a hit as a line drive and an out as a flyball, but we don’t really see many pull-side flyballs. Let’s look at this in a slightly different way, by outcome:
We see the liner singles over the infield and in front of the outfield and a couple doubles down the line, but this is a good way to see how little he does against lefties on balls in play. Switching over to righties we see that he’ll spray doubles down the line and to the alleys, really to all fields, which is nice to see. The singles are also to all fields on grounders and liners alike. I like what I see against righties.
This is a good time to start focusing on that left-right split. I have him with an observed split of .230 that regresses down to .127. The former places him 13th largest of the 91 lefties that saw at least 1,000 plate appearances over the last three years. The latter sees him with the 27th largest and surrounded by guys like Lucas Duda, Adam LaRoche, and Prince Fielder who are wider, and David Murphy, Joe Mauer, and James Loney as smaller splits. It would probably be wise to shield him from same-handers, but let’s dig in starting with his overall trailing Run Value numbers versus both types to establish a baseline:
All run values are calculated using Joe Sheehan’s figures, which are dated, but still tell us a lot. I guess that’s what BP meant when they referred to one of his seasons being from a “Lovecraftian nightmare dimension.” Outside of that he has mostly been tolerable and even enjoyed some stretches that the more generous would call good and some of this best performance is also his most recent. Let’s look at the sore spot first by focusing on lefties:
There it is in all it’s glory. After some initial success it looks like the book got out on him and he failed to adjust. His most recent stretch lends encouragement, but unless he’s a top-five defender it’s tough to see him playing everyday. That’s ok, because lefties are still the minority and he should have ample opportunity to face righties where he looks much better:
Now that’s more like it. He has mostly been an above average hitter against righties throughout his career disregarding that abysmal stretch early on. This looks like something that we can work with. Let’s segue from here into what his swing rate and results look like versus the various pitch types using the excellent Baseball Heatmaps starting with the heater (two and four seamers, cutters, and sinkers):
He swings a lot on inside fastballs from lefties while leaving most of the outer edge alone and he’s pretty normal against righties other than the up and down stuff. He really likes the ball up and in and will offer often. Here’s how he has fared versus the league average:
All those swing at inside lefty fastballs don’t do him a ton of favors, but he’s more below average than bad. He’s pretty good against righties with some dead spots low and away and small weaknesses on all those fastballs outer half and inner third. Let’s switch over to the change (change ups and splitters):
He doesn’t see many lefty change ups so let’s skip that and look at all those down and away cambios he loves to swing at. That’s kind of a problem and something that I highlighted earlier. The thing about being a good fastball hitter is that they’re not all fastballs and he does look susceptible to chasing the change. Let’s look at the results:
You can see how much all those swings on change ups below the zone and away hurt his profile. If they hang it he bangs it, which is nice to see, but it looks like a good offspeed pitch can leave him in knots. Here’s his swing rates compared to league average versus the breaking ball (curves, sliders and knuckle curves):
He’ll chase below the zone against lefties and he gets back-footed a ton by righties. It looks like he gives up early on breakers that are up and over, which is fine on the fringes, but if he’s missing a bunch of hittable pitches over the heart of the plate then he’s missing some opportunities to punish mistakes. Here are his results:
The lefty breaking ball really gives him fits and goes a long way in telling us why he’s a great candidate to be platooned. Against righties he does have a very hot spot. If they miss on the back foot and hang it down and in, a notorious hot spot for most lefties, he can really hit it. While it’s not ideal, he does look like a guy that isn’t just a fastball hitter against righties. The good change might give him fits, and I wouldn’t expect much against lefties, but he looks like someone that can really do work against righties. While these give us a look at his career, in total, we can also get a feel for how he has evolved over time:
Run values sync up with the primary axis on the left while the other things we’re looking at use the secondary axis on the right. The run values show good improvement against the fastball and he’s now an average or better hitter against it despite what looks like a lowering contact rate (foul balls not considered contact). He is seeing fewer fastballs in the zone than ever, a good indication that pitchers fear him, and he has adjusted his swing rate accordingly. Let’s move on to the change:
We can readily see that his improvements against the fastball have come at the detriment of his ability to do anything with the change. He has increased his swing rate over time, despite seeing fewer and fewer change ups located in the rulebook strike zone. Unfortunately, this may just be the price he has to pay in order to do damage against fastballs. If you can live with some swing and miss against the cambio then you may like the rest of his profile. On to the breaking ball:
This looks like genuine improvement against the breaking ball stemming from an increased swing and increasing contact rates. Perhaps this is the sign of a maturing hitter that is able to recognize spin better and is better able to diagnose what pitchers are doing to him. After a career of being below average to out and out bad against the breaking ball he seems to be showing more success against a pitch that many guys just flat never figure out. Let’s hope it’s a sign of things to come.
All in all you’re looking at a guy that could see upwards of 500 plate appearances with the majority against right handers whom he has shown average to above ability to hit. Lefties will give him trouble, but the Rays are well-versed in how to hide a player’s weaknesses. The bat probably plays all around the infield, but could really be something special if he’s able to stay on shortstop. This analysis has made no endeavors into his efficacy on the other side of the chalk, but future attempts will be made. Without this critical input it is difficult to diagnose whether he will be an above-average player or settle more into the 1.5-2.5 WAR range on the long side of the platoon. I would place him on the higher end of that spectrum as he looks like he should provide some utility with the bat and gain a few more runs on the bases. He could be the type of guy that you like having at the top of your lineup with his ability to take an extra base, both during the run of play, and out of the box.
Get used to seeing Brad Miller in the lineup, because I think he’s going to make for a nice little catalyst most days that can help jumpstart an offense. If the bat regresses some and he’s more like a below average hitter, even against righties, then the glove will obviously have to play up, because there’s already quite a few candidates in-house for the bottom of the lineup slots. It’s difficult to see him being bad with the glove AND bad with the bat, such that, this ends up looking poorly for the Rays. Particularly when you factor in that they have Mr. Miller for four years of control. This looks like the biggest piece of the trade and something Rays fans can look forward to for a long time to come.