Sinker helps Braves’ Miller reclaim status as potential ace

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Shelby Miller gets a hug from catcher A.J. Pierzynski after pitching a three-hit shutout against the Phillies on Tuesday. (AP photo)

Back in November, the day after the Braves got Shelby Miller (and pitching prospect Tyrell Jenkins) from the Cardinals in exchange for Jason Heyward and Jordan Walden, Miller did a conference call with a few of us Atlanta scribes. He was asked about his statistical turnaround midway through the second half of last season and what he thought was behind it.

Shelby Miller gets a hug from catcher A.J. Pierzynski after pitching a three-hit shutout against the Phillies on Tuesday. (AP photo)

Shelby Miller gets a hug from catcher A.J. Pierzynski after pitching a three-hit shutout against the Phillies on Tuesday. (AP photo)

“About halfway through the year I started mixing in a sinker, at the All-Star break,” he said. “I felt like that really took me to the next level as far as pitching, mixing that pitch in. And this past year (2014), just recognizing what you did right and wrong and what you can get better at.

“In the back of my head I know what I need to do in 2015 to be more successful and just go out and there and try to be the best I can. I think I’ll definitely bring that to the table and be the best the best pitcher I can be, more than a thrower. I’m here to pitch; I’ve been a thrower in the past.”

The best pitcher he can be? It looks like Miller is well on his way to becoming that.

He threw a three-hit, 99-pitch shutout against the Phillies Tuesday night, with one walk and eight strikeouts. ESPN Stats & Info said Miller is the first major league pitcher this season to throw a nine-inning complete game in under 100 pitches.

Even if it came against the worst hitting team in the league, it was without question a dominant performance, and left Miller with a 4-1 record and 1.66 ERA in his first six starts for the Braves, with two earned runs or fewer allowed in every start and six or more innings pitched in each of the past four.

In his past two starts against the Reds and Phillies, he’s given up two earned runs and nine hits in 16 innings, with four walks and 17 strikeouts.

Miller has a 1.66 ERA in six starts, while all other Braves starters have a collective 4.70 ERA in 21 starts, with Julio Teheran’s 3.82 ERA as the next-lowest among those with multiple starts.

Among NL qualified starters, Miller ranks fourth in ERA, fifth in opponents’ average (.178), fifth in average allowed with runners in scoring position (.148), seventh in opponents’ slugging percentage (.296), and 10th in opponents’ OBP (.255).

Miller has an opponents’ slash line of .178/.255/.296, while the next-lowest among Braves with multiple starts are Teheran’s .270 opponents’ average, Eric Stults’ .319 opponents’ OBP, and Alex Wood’s .405 opponents’ slugging percentage.

Now, back to that two-seamer and how it helped turn around Miller’s fortunes last summer. He had been a rookie phenom, creating buzz around the majors while posting a 1.98 ERA and .202 opponents’ average in his first 20 games (15 starts) from September 2012 through mid-June 2013, and collecting 112 strikeouts and 23 walks in 100 innings during that span.

But from mid-June 2013 through mid-August 2014, Miller was just 15-14 with a 4.17 ERA and .254 opponents’ average in 42 games (41 starts), and had an alarming ratio of 162 strikeouts with 102 walks (and 31 homers allowed) in 226 2/3 innings over that period.

Then, something began to click. He got comfortable with his new pitch, the sinker, which also helped make his other pitches that much more effective.

“Justin Masterson came over from Cleveland and he was with us (Cardinals) for that time, and I just picked up on what he was throwing,” Miller told us back in November after being traded to the Braves. “He’s a guy who’s had a good sinker in the past, and I just kind of tried his grip out and was comfortable with it, and I really started throwing that pitch a lot. I started going deeper into games with it and being a little bit more efficient.

“That’s what your manager and your team wants, try to save that bullpen and just be the best starting pitcher you can be. I think that pitch is going to help me be that. I’m always open to learning new things and trying to get better. I know the guys over in Atlanta are going to do that and be there to help me through this process.”

Go back up four paragraphs and re-read those statistics for Miller during that span of 42 games through mid-August 2014.

And now consider what he’s done in 13 starts going back to Aug. 23: Miller is 6-1 with a 1.88 ERA and .184 opponents’ average in that span, with 63 strikeouts and 22 walks in 81 1/3 innings.

And he’s only gotten better as he’s gone along: In his past 11 starts, he’s 6-1 with a 1.58 ERA and .183 opponents’ average, including six or more innings pitched in eight starts and two earned runs or fewer allowed in 10 of 11 starts (three earned in the other). In the five games he didn’t win in that period, his teams scored no runs while he was in the games.

In other words, in his past 11 starts, he’s won every time his team has scored while he’s been in the game.

The sinker has helped Miller regain his status as one of the game’s elite young starting pitchers.

“It just makes the hitters have to think about more pitches,” said veteran catcher A.J. Pierzynski, who caught some of Miller’s starts last season in St. Louis and has caught three of them this season, including Tuesday. “When you only have a couple of pitches to worry about as a hitter you can start to eliminate things. But when you have three or four things going through your head – he might throw this, he might throw that – it just changes your demeanor as a hitter.

“And he’s done a great job of doing that and continuing to get better.”

Johnson remembers facing Miller earlier, before he developed the sinker.

“What I remember is definitely more straight heater (four-seam fastball),” Johnson said. “I don’t where he was last year when I saw him, as far as physically or mentally. But you see the talent that has been hyped and people have talked about forever. It’s in there and he’s showing it. He’s having a great start. It’s so nice when you get guys who get on the mound and throw strikes and work quick. They just continue to feed off their own momentum and execution. When guys are rolling, there’s nothing better.”

When Miller was asked in November if getting back into a groove was partly due to the sinker, he didn’t hesitate.

“Yeah, it was a pitch that I definitely kind of ran with pretty quick,” he said. “I know some guys, I’ve been told my whole career, through Adam Wainwright and guys who’ve come through the system, that it’s a pitch I was going to need in the future. So I just started using it, and it was a huge help to me, especially when you’re pitcher with your four-seamer all the time – big-league hitters will adjust to that.

“And I got a lot of ground balls (with the sinker) and was able to get deeper in the game. I’m going to continue to try to get that pitch where it needs to be. All my pitches, there’s always room for improvement. So I’m excited about 2015 and what it brings.”

The Braves are excited about what he’s bringing, not just now but for the next several years while he’s under contract. Miller won’t be eligible for free agency until after the 2018 season.

Kelly Johnson homered, drove in four runs and got his 1,000th career hit in Tuesday night’s 9-0 win. But the night, for the most part, belonged to Miller.

“We needed one (run) and we got nine,” Johnson said. “Shelby threw unbelievable. That’s how you pitch. That’s textbook. He did great. You could tell right away that he had ‘A’ stuff. It certainly makes it easy to play behind him when you’re not on your feet too much out there. Come in and get to raking. Fun night to be part of that.”

A lot of times we see pitchers figuratively take their foot off the gas when they get a big early lead (the Braves got a two-run homer from Freddie Freeman in the first inning and Johnson’s three-run homer in a four-run fourth). But Miller showed no sign of letting up, from the first pitch through the 99th.

“You get a big lead like that and sometimes guys back off,” Pierzynski said, “but we were talking in the dugout – OK, let’s go, stay on them, don’t give them any room to breathe. To pitch the way he did was good, it was fun to watch. We needed it and our bullpen needed it.”

Johnson said: “He was very focused. I mean, you could tell. You can see when guys are locked in and they’re feeling good and they want to just continue to go out and focus on what they’re doing. He was locked in. I really think we could have won that game 1-nothing. He was locked like that. Like I say, he made it pretty easy.”

• Here’s the title cut from Ryan Bingham‘s great album Fear and Saturday Night.

Ryan Bingham

Ryan Bingham

“FEAR AND SATURDAY NIGHT” by Ryan Bingham

Some folks are scared that the world may be round

They hardly could walk on the streets of this town
Where out on the corner, the devil sits down
Seeking out strangers who stray out of bounds
But I don’t fear nothing except for myself
So I’m gonna go out to raise me some hell
I’ll take my chances, I was born to run wild
Hell, it’s Saturday night, I’m going to town
If I’m feeling anxious, I’ll put back some rounds
Maybe the 90 will settle me down
I don’t care for fighting, but I’ll come unwound
If some fool is aching to push me around
‘Cause I don’t fear nothing except for myself
So I’m gonna go out to raise me some hell
I’ll take my chances, I was born to run wild
Hell, it’s Saturday night, I’m going to town
Sometimes I run with the unwanted crowd
Faces of shadows and alleys surround
Gunshots are heard as the sun hides the crown
The cops on the night shift will soon shake us down
Well, I don’t fear nothing except for myself
So I’m gonna go out to raise me some hell
I’ll take my chances, I was born to run wild
Hell, it’s Saturday night
Hell, it’s Saturday night
Hell, it’s Saturday night, I’m going to town

 

 


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