Brad Miller Is A League-Average Shortstop; Brad Miller Is An Ex-Shortstop
Soooo, Brad Miller will henceforth be the M’s version of Ben Zobrist, roving around the IF a bit and the OF a lot. With Chris Taylor in the fold, the M’s have a guy who can probably get to league average overall, and certainly has the defensive chops to handle shortstop. Brad Miller’s purported versatility allows the M’s to take advantage of their depth at the SS position to cover some of the holes that have appeared in the line-up. It’s even possible, per Lloyd McClendon, that the move to various spots further down the defensive spectrum will help his offense: “I think as a result I became a better offensive playe,” Lloyd told Ryan Divish. “I think this will help Brad as well.” It all sounds positive, but the move comes as the result of a series of problems, problems that don’t have a lot to do with Miller. Any club has to do the best it can with the personnel it has on hand, but each step in the logic chain is questionable. It’s May, and nobody’s won anything yet, but it looks like the move of a team that’s starting to feel a bit desperate.
In part, the reaction to this move hinges on one’s view of Brad Miller’s defense. This seems like a religious debate; some people just *feel* that he’s shaky. To be up front, I’m not really in that camp. I don’t think he’s a gold glover, but I think he’s a perfectly average SS, whose good arm and range overcome some yips when he tries to do too much too quickly. For whatever it’s worth, he’s been a few runs above average over his career by UZR – that seems right to me, though many people obviously quibble with these (or any other) numbers. If you see Chris Taylor as an above average SS, that’s great, but he’s not replacing a Mike Morse-level SS defender – the gains, if they’re there, are somewhat marginal, particularly with a month of the season already gone. If you think Taylor’s better, I certainly wouldn’t argue the point, though. The problem is that Miller offers a bit more with the bat, as you can see in their rest-of-season projections. Miller‘s at a 96 and 99 wRC+ by ZiPS and Steamer, respectively, while Taylor clocks in at 90 and 88. Taylor’s strikeout rate is, by itself, not particularly troubling. What it does, though, is put more pressure on him to do damage when he puts the ball in play. And that’s not something Taylor’s ever really going to do. When Taylor hits the ball really hard, it tends to go up the middle.He doesn’t really have the pure batspeed to pull the ball in the air with regularity. Of course, we’re talking about a shortstop with some decent bat-to-ball ability, so this is by no means a fatal flaw. What it does do is limit Taylor’s ability to replace Miller’s bat at SS, even if things go well and his K% drops (as the projections think it will). Thus, I don’t think it’s likely that Taylor replaces all of Miller’s production, and I don’t think the M’s absolutely must improve their SS defense.
As it happens, I think the M’s agree with the above. The problem isn’t at SS, it’s in the outfield. The M’s talked about Brad Miller playing OF in the winter, but then they opted to bring in three OFs – Justin Ruggiano, Seth Smith and Rickie Weeks. They also have had to use Nelson Cruz in the OF much, much more than they thought, thanks to an early groin injury that limited Smith’s mobility. The problem, though, has been with the OFs the M’s already had: Dustin Ackley and Austin Jackson. Ackley’s revamped his swing yet again (it’s its own “best shape of his life” story at this point) and it’s resulted in big changes to his batted ball trajectory – he’s not grounding out as much as he used to. Instead, he’s flying out. His swing path and launch have resulted in both fly balls and pulled contact, and *it’s still not enough*. Ackley’s fall after a promising first week has been one of many disappointments, and I don’t blame the M’s for looking into substitutions. If Smith is capable, he’d seem like a good candidate, though this would mean essentially keeping Cruz in the OF full time. Miller’s huge platoon splits make him a good candidate to work in LF with Rickie Weeks, until you remember that turning a starting big league shortstop into a platoon corner outfielder is about the most ridiculous thing imaginable.
Center field is another possibility, thanks to Austin Jackson’s continued struggles and, now, injury problems. Over his career, Jackson never really had much in the way of platoon splits. But he cratered against righties last season, and that’s been true the first month of 2015 as well. If the M’s think that’s permanent, a job share might make a bit more sense.
That said, it’s hard not to think back to some of the recent position changes and how they’ve fared. The M’s drafted Dustin Ackley as a CF (he played 1B his junior year due to TJ surgery), and had him play CF in the AFL after drafting him. Later on, they made a surprising move in making him a 2B, a position he hadn’t really played before. That’s where he came up, and by 2013, he was a capable defender at the keystone. With all of their SS depth (and then with Robbie Cano), the M’s moved him back to CF, and in a bid to spark his bat, to left. Whatever benefits to moving to the OF that accrued to Lloyd McClendon have not found their way to Ackley. This makes some sense: sure, it’s nice that you’re moving to another position, a position with fewer chances, but changing position requires a ton of work and thought. It’s not like Ackley had the luxury of concentrating on his hitting when he had to relearn CF, or adjust to LF. A year or two ago, the M’s officially took the catcher’s gear away from Jesus Montero and had him focus solely on his hitting. So, uh, last year happened. Even now, with his renewed focus and utterly transformed body, his batting line isn’t really where you’d want a PCL 1B’s to be. It’s too early to tell if Rickie Weeks will benefit from moving to the OF, but it hasn’t so far. The benefits of a position shift on the psychology of hitting aren’t discernible yet, if they’re there.
The M’s middle-infield surplus has been a boon to the club, as they turned Nick Franklin into Austin Jackson, and could conceivably turn Miller into a replacement for Jackson, all while having Taylor man SS. It’s really hard to second-guess the Jackson trade, which I still think was a great move. But it’s also hard to avoid thinking that the M’s have intractable problems, and that these problems have resulted in “spending” that IF surplus in some sub-optimal ways. The M’s have a young SS with decent defensive numbers and some pop in his bat and now feel the need to have him roam around the OF, patching holes and platooning with disappointments. It’s hard to see him being a plus CF early on, because he’s never tried it. Ackley wasn’t, and he at least played in college and at least a bit in the minor leagues. Sure, a number of IFs have made the move (as Erik Blankenship wrote about at LL back in December), but most of the them got a few innings of work, were awful, or both.* He looks athletic, and I’m sure given time he’d wouldn’t be terrible, but that may not help the M’s climb back in the race in 2015.
Having a Ben Zobrist would be great. I’m all for Brad Miller being deployed intelligently, and it’s tough given the fact that his IF flexibility is hampered by the fact that Cano and Seager also hit lefty. Moving him to the OF makes sense, but I can’t shake the feeling that it means that not only are Dustin Ackley and/or Austin Jackson’s days numbered, but that their parting shot is to hamstring Brad Miller’s value. Unless Miller gets enough at-bats for the upgrade to be worth it, and unless he takes to one, two or three new positions *very* quickly, Miller’s value to the M’s will almost certainly drop this year. It may be better going forward, but given the move down the spectrum, some OF growing pains and limited ABs, it’s tough to see it playing out differently in 2015. I like Chris Taylor a lot, and have a touch more faith in his bat than many observers, but the net effect to the team could be fairly small. I wish Miller the best, and I sincerely hope he’s used appropriately. The M’s really may not have a choice considering their upper-minors depth. I’ll be cheering for Miller while watching through a gap in my fingers.
* Erik’s work notes that, on average, these IF cast-offs put up essentially an average CF UZR over 7,900 innings. The problem is a form of survivorship bias. Many of the players in the sample didn’t play CF, and most of the ones who did were poor at it. But Alfredo Amezaga was amaaaaazing in a medium-sized sample with the Marlins. Because he was good, he got to play a bit more. Same with Jerry Hairston, Jr. Clearly, some guys *can* do this. Many, many big league CFs started as SS. I just draw a very different conclusion from Erik’s study – I care about the success rate, not an averaged UZR.