When John Hart was hired to become the next President of Baseball Operations for the Atlanta Braves last October, he made it clear that the Braves were going to enter a rebuild, with the hopes of returning to contention when the Braves move to their new stadium in 2017. One of the first moves Hart made was the blockbuster deal that sent fan favorite (and 2015 free agent) Jason Heyward and setup man Jordan Walden to the Cardinals for Shelby Miller and prospect Tyrell Jenkins.
The deal made quite a bit of sense for both clubs. The Braves, organizationally, were short on majors-ready arms after critical injuries to both Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen and the pending free agencies of Ervin Santana (now with the Twins) and Aaron Harang (also gone, pitching for the Phillies). The Cardinals, meanwhile, suddenly found themselves in need of a corner outfielder following the tragic death of Oscar Taveras in October. For the Cardinals, the results have been immediately apparent with Heyward batting .287 with a .342 OBP, while maintaining his status as one the premier defensive outfielders in the game. Additionally, Walden has locked down the set up spot on the team with the best record in all of baseball.
For the Braves, Tyrell Jenkins is showing significant signs of becoming a solid starter down the road, with the potential of being called up early in 2016. The big piece for the Braves, however, was Shelby Miller, who is signed through 2018. Miller was a key piece on the 2013 Cardinals team that won the National League Pennant. However, Miller regressed somewhat in 2014, with an ERA that jumped to 3.74 and an FIP of 4.54, despite a shrinking walk rate. The Braves were counting on Miller to replicate his 2013 performance. In 2015, Miller has the 9th best ERA in the majors, and ranks in the top 30 for WHIP. Despite this, Miller posts a 5-10 record, which begs the question: is Miller simply an unlucky pitcher on a sub-.500 team, or could Miller be contributing to his own demise? Ryan Witry and Jesse Foster started debating the issue and decided it would be beneficial to our esteemed community of readers to hear it out.
Unlucky (argued by Ryan):
Following a disappointing 2014 for Shelby Miller, some were concerned that the flashes of brilliance Miller had shown in 2013 were simply flashes and not an indication of future success. However, Miller has shown improvement in several key areas. First of all, his 1.158 WHIP is the lowest of his three full years of major league baseball and his 2.50 ERA is good for tenth in the majors. His 0.5 HR/9 rate is the lowest of his career and his 3.1 BB/9 rate is about normal for his career thus far. He has contributed 4.3 wins above replacement, nearly a full win better than his best year in 2013. It also begs mentioning that Miller was the Braves lone All Star this year. In spite of all this, his 5-10 win-loss record is by far his worst.
So why has Miller struggled so mightily? The answer may not lie with him, but with his teammates. Miller is currently in a stretch of 17 consecutive starts without a win, and hasn’t won since May 17th, when he lost a no-hitter on his first pitch to Justin Bour with 2 outs in the bottom of the ninth.
In this stretch, he has given up 2 runs or less 9 times. Unfortunately, the Braves simply haven’t backed up their starter. Among qualified starters, Shelby Miller ranks 89th, dead last, in terms of run support with 2.6 runs per start, they have scored 1 run or less 8 times, or in the case of his start on August 16th against Arizona, the simply didn’t score until after he left the game. Overall, the Braves rank 17th in batting average and on-base percentage, and last in runs scored and RBIs. So while Miller has given his team a great chance to win, his teammates simply aren’t lending him a helping hand. With this in mind, I say Miller has simply been unlucky.
Lucky (argued by Jesse):
I am not here to argue that Shelby Miller is a bad pitcher and that the Braves made a mistake shipping Jason Heyward to St. Louis this past winter for him. In fact, I think the Braves did very well in acquiring Tyrell Jenkins and Shelby Miller in exchange for one season of Jason Heyward. As my colleague has pointed out, Miller has had a very good 2015 campaign, posting a 2.50 ERA, putting him in the top ten in that category in the majors. Yes, Miller should have a better record than the 5-10 record he is currently sporting, but I actually believe Miller has been a bit lucky this season.
So, why do I think Miller has been a bit lucky this season? Miller’s HR/FB% currently sits at 6.3%, which would set a career low. Furthermore, in 2013 Miller posted a 10.1% HR/FB% and in 2014 he posted a 9.9% HR/FB%. Miller’s HR/FB% rates in 2013 were about on par with the league average during those seasons.
This year, however, Miller’s 6.3% HR/FB% puts him 4.7% below the league average and ties him for the third lowest HR/FB% among qualified SP. There is belief that everything/everyone regresses to the mean, which, in this case, is 11.0%. This regression is evident in Miller’s FIP and xFIP, which are 3.27 and 3.84, respectively. Shelby Miller’s 2.50 ERA puts him a full 1.46 runs below the league average. However, Miller’s FIP is only 0.62 runs below the league average and his xFIP is only 0.05 runs below the league average. So, as we can see, Miller has been able to do a much better job of keeping the ball in the ballpark, but does he really have the ability to control this aspect of the game? To some extent, yes, but his 6.3% HR/FB% seems unsustainable and, thus, Miller should see some regression in that department. So, it would seem logical that we should see more balls leaving the yard than we have off of Miller this year. Enter Chris Coghlin.
That regression is what is taken into account in Miller’s FIP and xFIP. So, although Miller has been an above average SP this season and deserves better run support, he is not as good as his 2.50 ERA would have you believe.