Promote Brad Miller
Tomorrow marks the one month anniversary of Brad Miller‘s promotion to Tacoma. Given what he’s done in the 23 games he’s played down there, it might be time for another one. Take a look at his consistency as he’s climbed the ladder in the minor leagues.
Miller has hit at every level he’s been at, and he’s done it with basically the same set of skills and minimal variance. He draws walks, makes contact, and hits a ton of line drives. Don’t pay too much attention to those slugging percentage numbers, as they’re inflated both by minor league BABIPs and some hitter friendly ballparks. He’s got some gap power, but he’s not going to be a huge home run guy in the big leagues. That said, the rest of the package looks like it might be good enough that his home run total won’t really matter.
Miller is often compared to Kyle Seager, because they were both high performance/moderate tools guys in college, and they didn’t profile as impact players based on their athleticism. Both just started hitting better than expected when they became professionals, though, and Seager has developed into the Mariners best everyday player. Seager is an easy comparison for Miller because of their similar pedigrees, but it also misleads in some ways.
The primary difference between them is on defense. Seager has always been an average to above average defender, both at second and third base, and his glove was probably the one thing you could point to as a college player and say “that will get him to the Major Leagues”. Miller, though, is a bit of a question mark defensively. From a physical standpoint, he can handle shortstop. He’s not Brendan Ryan, but he moves well enough to cover the necessary ground and has a good enough arm to make throws from deep in the hole. However, Miller is extremely prone to making errors on routine plays. And not just the once-in-a-while variety. He makes a lot of errors.
In 212 minor league games, Miller has made 55 errors, which works out to a pace of 42 errors per full season. Error rates are higher in the minors than they are in the majors for various reasons, including lower quality infields, and it isn’t that strange for minor leaguers to make a lot of errors. Back in 1993, Derek Jeter made 56 errors in one season, and his career minor league fielding percentage of .934 is lower than Miller’s .942. But Jeter was a teenager coming up through the minors, spending his final year in Triple-A at age 21, and this is a more common problem for very young players.
Miller is 23, and he played three years of high level college baseball at Clemson. You don’t generally see a lot of players at his age and experience making this many mental mistakes. And that’s really what they are. He’s not just butchering plays left and right because he is being asked to do something he physically can’t do; pretty much everyone who has watched him on a regular basis has said that the errors come as the result of simply whiffing on routine plays when he has plenty of time to glove the ball or make the throw. He makes his fair share of difficult plays; it’s the easy ones that tend to give him problems.
There’s actually a pretty decent Major League player with a similar problem right now; Ryan Zimmerman, the Washington Nationals $100 million third baseman. Zimmerman was a defensive wizard in college and drew comparisons to Evan Longoria, but a combination of shoulder problems and getting in his own head have made routine throws from third base to first base an adventure. The Nationals might have to eventually move Zimmerman to first base just to take the pressure off of him making the throw across the diamond.
This isn’t to say that Miller has “Steve Sax syndrome”, but from most accounts, his defensive problems are mental, not physical. This is either something you beat and it goes away, or it beats you and you change positions. In other words, there’s no real reason to treat Miller like Seager or Franklin — guys who just didn’t have the physical skills necessary to play shortstop and were moved to 3rd and 2nd respectively to compensate for their lack of range — because he’s either a shortstop or he’s an outfielder.
Given Miller’s potential at the plate and the organization’s hole at shortstop, having him stop making these routine mistakes would be in everyone’s best interests. Having a left-handed hitting shortstop who can provide some real offensive value would be a big boost to the team’s talent level, and the best case scenario involves Miller and Franklin teaming up to be the long term double play combination for years to come. Moving him to the outfield might make the defensive issues go away, but that decision should only be made once the organization is convinced that Miller’s error issues aren’t fixable.
And, really, they probably won’t be able to make that determination while he’s in the minor leagues. The only way to judge whether Miller can avoid the routine mistakes under the pressure of a Major League game is in a Major League game. And really, they should be incentivized to give him as a long a look at shortstop as they can afford to.
The 2013 season affords them that chance to take a look. The Mariners season isn’t going anywhere, so if they stick him at shortstop and he makes 25 errors, it’s not going to be the difference between a playoff berth and watching October baseball on TV. You can take some flyers in seasons like this, because the downside if they don’t pay off aren’t as low as they are when you’re trying to win.
The working assumption is that Brad Miller will be called up once the Mariners trade Brendan Ryan to a contender in order to free up a spot for him in the line-up, but I’m not sure I see the point of waiting. Teams know exactly what Brendan Ryan is. They don’t need to watch him play for the next five weeks to know that he’s a plus glove/no hit player who fits perfectly as a part-time player and defensive replacement on a contender. You’re not going to hurt Brendan Ryan’s (minimal) trade value by making him a part-time player now, letting him teach Miller the fundamentals of the position, and serve as a mentor to the kid on defense.
The Mariners already committed a roster spot to Henry Blanco for the sole purpose of having a guy who can teach Mike Zunino the finer points of catching. Ryan might not be the same kind of respected veteran leader, but if you had a young shortstop with defensive issues, who else is better equipped to show Miller how to field the position? Give Miller a month with Ryan around to help him conquer the mental side of playing shortstop, plus give yourself another month to evaluate whether or not he can be your everyday shortstop in 2014.
If you wait until after the trade deadline when Ryan is no longer an impediment, you’re reducing your evaluation time by 30%, and for what gain? Miller’s spent the better part of two years in the minors after spending three years playing high level college baseball. He doesn’t need to spend any more time in Tacoma. He’s not getting fooled by Triple-A pitchers. At this point, it’s not so much about Brad Miller learning as it is the Mariners learning about Brad Miller.
Can he play shortstop? That’s the question that will hang over his head until he’s called up and we see how he responds to the pressures of making the routine play in front of a large crowd. If he’s not a shortstop, better to learn that now and make the OF conversion next spring than to have to figure that out in-season next year and then try to make the IF-OF conversion while meaningful games are being played.
And if he is a shortstop, and he keeps hitting like he’s been hitting since he became a professional, then it helps the 2013 Mariners too. So, let’s not bother waiting until some contender gives the Mariners a C- prospect in exchange for Brendan Ryan. Just make the move now and give Brad Miller three months to show whether or not he can be the long term answer at shortstop.