Last summer the Mariners called up both Nick Franklin and Brad Miller, in an attempt to inject some life into an under-performing club that was threatening both fan interest and jobs across many boards. It probably didn't seem as weird back then, but the moves made in that decision's wake--shipping off Brendan Ryan and converting Dustin Ackley to the outfield after a stint in Tacoma--were pretty drastic decisions for a Mariners club that had been building a certain way for a few years.
We all know what happened--Franklin and Miller both hit the ground running, but only Brad Miller was able to weather the bendy-baseball storm that assailed them both in August. He had his own set of struggles, but the upside is there, and the two are said to be "in competition" for the club's starting shortstop job. Two little guys: one with an oversized batting helmet ironically countering a golden-boy persona brought from years of praise, another with a wiry, grass stained frame perfectly illuminating that blue-collar grit so many baseball writers love to fantasize about.
Then, last week, the Mariners retweeted this picture from the Rawlings twitter account:
Seattle Mariners Justin Smoak,Chris Taylor,Willie Bloomquist,Tom Wilhelmsen,Danny Hultzen, Brad Miller with Rawlings pic.twitter.com/6f471fiDMh— Rawlings Sports (@RawlingsSports) February 13, 2014
Woah. And here's Brad Miller last year:
Something looks different. Did Brad Miller put on a bunch of weight in the offseason? And not Jesus Montero weight, but actual muscle weight?
Now before I get carried away, we should recognize that photos can be deceiving. We don't know how many pounds the first photo adds by way of the angle it was shot, or even if it was resized later. The eye test gives pretty flimsy evidence to draw out any sort of narrative conclusion. I checked his weight listing on the Mariners' official 40-man roster and tried to compare it to past entries both there and on the Rainiers' site using the wayback machine, but everything had him listed at 185 lbs. I'm pretty sure it has never been updated.
But just for the sake of argument here, lets ignore the photos and just ask ourselves what if Brad Miller has bulked up over the offseason? Does this do anything for the guy out of spring training and going into the 2014 season? It's probably a dumb question. Most of us would agree the starting job was his to lose, despite Nick Franklin putting in a lot of offseason work and likely repeating his successful AA to AAA transition following a rough previous year.
Brad Miller only had 335 plate appearances last year, and this is bordering on SSS, but these are all we have to work with so bear with me. If we set the bar at 300 PA's, he hovers right around 15th amongst shortstops in a lot of categories, and a lot of that has to do with a bit of a downtick in September production.
- He struck out less frequently than Troy Tulowitzki, Evereth Cabrera, and Brandon Crawford, who were worth 5.6, 3.1, and 2.2 fWAR respectively. None of these players are necessarily contact hitters--Tulo hits for power and Cabrera and Crawford are great defenders. But Brad Miller isn't a one-tool player, either.
- His 7.2% BB% was good for 18th amongst qualifying shortstops, which isn't great, but puts him behind established hitters like Hanley Ramirez and Tulo, who get pitched to a certain way because they can do damage. But-- 7.2% makes him 5th best amongst rookie shortstops last year, and two hitters ahead of him, Jonathan Villar and Pete Kozma, had a K% over 20%. This is great for a rookie, especially one not expected to a) hit 30 dingers or b) make plays of the week every sunday with a barehanded grab in left field to throw a runner out.
- His .154 ISO is ninth amongst all shortstops. 185 pounds worth of ninth. His .323 wOBA is 12th, and his wRC+ 11th. His struggles at the plate toward the end of the year certainly didn't help his wOBA, and his wRC+ is only six points less than Justin Smoak (which is probably a little more telling for Smoak than Miller...).
So the picture is as such: Brad Miller's rookie season paints him, on average, somewhere between 10th and 20th amongst all Major League shortstops with more than 300 plate appearances. In most of these categories, he is separated only by a few points--a .020 uptick in ISO would give him the fourth highest ISO, a 13-point increase in wRC+ would tie him for fifth, a .020 increase in wOBA would put him on base only less than Hanley Ramirez, Troy Tulowitzki, and Jhonny Peralta.
This is by no means scientific, but a little extra power would easily boost his ISO and slugging, which would translate into getting on base, or even how he is attacked, once pitchers realize they cant just throw strikes to a vulnerable rookie all the time. He has already shown the framework for having good plate discipline without cratering during his rookie struggles. If he can keep that up through all this--he is a damn valuable player for the Mariners, and not just because they have a rebuilding plan invested in him. Steamer and Oliver both put him at about 3.7 wins--but if there is even the slightest bit of truth to that first picture above, I can't help but wonder if there are any more in store. Sorry, Nick.
Again, this could be SSS. Much of this relies on possibly unrepeatable performances from last year by Miller and everyone else involved. And I don't know how much weight--if any--Brad Miller has put on. But Miller seems to be situating himself as a very specific type of shortstop with last year's numbers. He's a passable defender, but far from the wizardry of a Brendan Ryan, Andrelton Simmons, or a Zach Cozart. He can hit well, but he's not a Hanley Ramirez superstar. He doesn't need to be any of those things, because he's something else altogether. This is a pretty big step away from the previous infield plan, and you have to wonder how it's going to look if he does this well next year. We like to think of that Jack Z quote talking about sacrificing a little defense for offense as coming from a mountain filled with Michael Morses and Kendrys Moraleses, but it applies here too. And it's not nearly as catastrophic.
And the good news is that even if this entire post is dreaming something that isn't going to happen, he's still about a 2-win player. Last week was a weird week to be a Mariners fan. It isn't going to be like that all year.