Brad Miller continues to struggle, situation coming to a head

Thearon W. Henderson

So much for preseason optimism about Miller's upside. Now Miller is finding his floor, and the Mariners have a tough decision to make.

Brad Miller is lost at sea. Beyond his poor offensive production and defensive gaffes, a defeated look has glazed over his eyes. Yesterday's doubleheader truly felt like rock bottom. Pinch hit for with Willie Bloomquist. No hits, an error, another that was overturned, and a botched attempt at an in-between pop-up between him and Cole Gillespie.  A confident Miller, last year's Miller, seems like the kind of guy who would have ran all out until he heard somebody call him off. Maybe that's not true. But that's how it feels, and that might be how it feels to him.

Miller has reached the desperation segment of his slump, trying to change anything that might get him going. Ditching his usual stirrups for long pants in the second game. Losing his ever-present long sleeves. Growing a beard. It feels like a matter of time before he slaps on some eye black, wears batting gloves, or dons one of those custom low-profile 3930-style hats New Era used to make for Ichiro.

To myself, and others, Miller seemed like a player who might be immune to the sophomore slump. After all, while his counterpart Nick Franklin fell victim to the rookie wall, Miller plowed right through it. His spring training saw him crush the ball to all parts of the field, and his power was staggering. It led, probably unfairly, to dreams of what Miller could be, and what we all expected from him. Even with minimal offensive improvements, Miller looked like he could be one of the league's best shortstops. His pace from a half season last year landed him at easily above a 3 win projection for 2014, and 5 wins seemed within sight. Clearly myself, and others, got ahead of ourselves, and forgot that baseball can be incredibly difficult for anybody, even somebody a community deems as damn-near infallible. We're all guilty of it a little. Dreaming is fun. Getting those dreams crushed is harsh.

Brad Miller isn't just slumping, he's completely broken. His last 14 games have produced a .116/.191/.140 line, and benching him through a stretch of games in late April hasn't done anything to fix it. He's now sitting at a 48 wRC+. Everything about his peripherals is moving in the wrong direction. Tony Blengino has speculated that Miller has fallen victim to a systematic problem within the M's organization, becoming obsessed with pulling the ball, something that plagued Nick Franklin through August and September of 2013.

Season O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% SwStr%
2013 34.00% 70.40% 50.30% 71.80% 89.20% 82.70% 44.90% 8.60%
2014 42.00% 60.80% 51.30% 60.50% 86.00% 75.40% 49.30% 12.70%

It's a mess. Miller is swinging at more pitches outside the zone and less pitches in it, all while swinging about as much overall as he did last year. His selectivity has gone to hell and he's making less contact outside the zone as well. Pitchers have been able to attack Miller early and throw him garbage later, knowing that Miller will go chase it and make poor contact if he does hit it. Miller's .219 BABIP doesn't seem like a hint that positive regression is coming. He's making tons of bad contact and bad contact doesn't turn into hits.

Unsurprisingly, Miller's K rate has soared to 26.7% (up from 15.5% in 2013). Though he's walked a few times lately, his BB% is still only 5.2%. A visual look at how much he's whiffing on a per swing basis is even uglier.

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Miller's getting eaten alive by pitches beneath the zone, and a look at the bottom two rows shows he's having some trouble distinguishing between the two, making ok contact at ones hanging on the fringe but failing on the ones below, occurring with similar frequency.

So what can the Mariners do? I've previously been more reluctant to suggest Miller should be shipped back to AAA, simply because I still believe in his talent and AAA is level he's already dominated. But after the past several games, it's impossible to ignore that Brad Miller trying to play through this just isn't really working, or at least it hasn't. It appears more like a downward spiral than battling through it, as they say -- the swings more desperate, his body language terrible. Shoulders slumped with mental mistakes in the field. No signs of breaking out. Brad Miller doesn't seem to know what to do, and if the Mariners hitting coaches did, there would likely be some signs of changes. But there hasn't been. It's the usual "play through it" kind of attitude with Miller. But he isn't, and it's starting to bleed into the rest of his play.

Now that the Mariners are above .500 with a home stretch coming up, there's a real chance to continue this push into relevancy. They're being bogged down by Miller, as depressing as that is to say. You can't say the Mariners don't have options either, with both Nick Franklin and Chris Taylor currently annihilating AAA. At this point, even Willie Bloomquist is probably a better option than Miller, especially against lefties. Franklin has already gotten a shot that didn't go well, though his appearances were scattered. He's clearly the guy who would get the call if Miller were demoted, since Chris Taylor is new to the level and isn't on the 40-man roster. Franklin has a 1.079 OPS and eight hits (two homers) in his last three games. There doesn't appear to much left for him to prove in Tacoma.

The other option would be to call up Franklin, demote somebody like Stefen Romero, and let Miller take another mental break, but that didn't exactly work for him a few weeks ago. If Franklin comes up, he needs to play every day or at least near it for the foreseeable future. But where does that leave Miller? With a chance to work his way back up, eventually bumping Franklin into right field? I'm not sure.

You can never predict exactly what's going to happen in player development despite all best educated guesses, and Miller is proof of that. I don't know if Nick Franklin will hit the ground running if he gets promoted or if he'll fall flat once again. I don't know what demoting Miller would do to his psyche. What I do know is that Miller is currently a terrible baseball player who used to be awesome, and the Mariners prefer to employ awesome baseball players. Something with Miller has to give sooner rather than later, whether it's busting out of his slump or taking a cab back to Tacoma. I wouldn't be surprised to see the latter happen as soon as Monday.

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