This is a good idea. We should get that out of the way from the jump. Results may damn this at some point in the future, there's no eliminating that from the array of possible outcomes, but in evaluating the process behind handing Chris Taylor the starting shortstop job and moving Brad Miller to the outfield, it's clear the Mariners are making the right move.
Right move or not, Miller was justified in expressing some level frustration to members of the media before last night's game. He said, as most admirable player's would, that he'd put in the work and do whatever his bosses ask, but pause and run yourself through that thought process for a bit.
Had you asked Brad Miller who he was, at any point during the parts of his life in which he was self-aware, he'd probably answer back "a baseball player, a shortstop." Now, part of that identity is gone. "Sorry son, you're just going to be that anymore."
And if it seems like finality is a little too heavy, let's be realistic here. We're all infatuated with Miller's 95th-percentile projection, the unconventional but slick-fielding shortstop who can hit like a corner outfielder, but that's gone now. The team that controls his rights through this and the next three seasons, but still loves the bat, says he shouldn't play shortstop everyday. So he's not going to.
That's happening for a few big reasons.
In speaking with the media on Monday, Lloyd McClendon said of Miller, "He's not the forgotten man. He's certainly not the culprit in all of this." Both had been assumed, but it was worth saying, especially the latter part.
It isn't Miller's fault the Mariners are where they are, dramatically below where nearly all parties expected them to be. He's actually one of only four position players even above replacement level so far in 2015. That's how bad the surrounding cast has been. Still, that doesn't mean Miller is blameless—or, more appropriately, not subject to changes that could make this team better.
I'm talking about defense. Of course I'm talking about defense.
We've all felt the change the past two nights, that calm when Chris Taylor fields a ball compared to the "oh god, no not this one please don't fire this over his—oh thank god, LoMo caught it" sense of dread that accompanies nearly every play.
Miller is not the worst fielder, and his unorthodox style combined with the athleticism produces some entertaining plays, but there are issues.
For whatever reason, 2015's the year everyone decided it was fine to look at UZR and DRS four weeks into the season and start doing serious analysis based on that. I won't do that, as that's ridiculous, but I will note there are other defensive tools available—specifically, the Inside Edge Scouting figures Fangraphs made available last year. Where the former metrics are shrouded in mysterious formulas, the latter is more clear—and starts to show us the issues we assumed were there.
Inside Edge breaks defensive plays up into percentiles (1-10%, 10-40%, 40-60%, 60-90% and 90-100%) and then charts players on how they do with each subset. It's subjective, and thus not ideal, but that's what we have. And what we have with Miller, is about what we'd expect.
Miller's fine on the everyday stuff, as he's made the play on 97.2% of the 90-100% plays—good for twelfth among shortstops. That's fine. From there, it's probably not. When you get into the 60-90% range, Miller's actually below the floor of what you'd expect, having completed only 57.1%, which is 18th among shortstops. Very oddly, he hasn't had a 40-60% chance, but below that he hasn't made either a 10-40% or a 1-10% play yet.
Miller's not going to kill you out there, but if you can upgrade at short, you should upgrade at short. In today's run-scoring environment, every run—hell, every extra base—can mean a game here or a game there. The upgrade is worth it, particularly because it helps the team elsewhere.
A short-term upgrade
This is as much about who Miller is likely supplanting in the outfield as it is him actually moving to the outfield. And really, it’s as simple as this: you’re replacing Miller’s glove with Taylor’s, and—a lot of the time—you’re replacing Dustin Ackley’s bat with Miller’s. As far as in-house upgrades go, you’d be pressed to find a more sizable one.
I mentioned above that Miller is one of only four position players to perform above replacement level so far in 2015. Ackley, not one of them, has been the Mariners’ worst position player so far in 2015—already worth half a win below replacement level.
Even outside the advanced metrics, you can sense a growing level of frustration with the former number two overall pick. He managed a sacrifice fly and a couple strong defensive plays last night, but moved to 0-for-15 on the season with runners in scoring position—including a "oh please just walk me" at-bat that saw him go up 3-0 before watching three straight strikes, one a middle-middle fastball any hitter should be attacking.
I’m not saying Ackley should be DFA’d, or that he can’t turn it around. He might, I suppose, but as the Mariners sit today tied in the standings with the Texas Rangers, they aren’t in position to wait and find out—certainly not now that Miller’s bat is available to deployed in Ackley’s place.
It’s a bat the Mariners can’t afford not to have in the lineup right now. It’s hard to argue it legitimately plays in a corner outfield longterm, but right now, it’s one of their best.
His overall line isn’t quite where we’d like it be thanks to enormous struggles against lefties, but against righties, Miller’s been one of the team’s better bats—sporting a .309/.361/.474 line and 134 wRC+ against them. It’s a big upgrade over Ackley’s current 56 wRC+ overall and just 60 against opposite handed pitchers.
That aside, it should be acknowledged you’re likely taking a small hit there defensively, as Ackley was actually quite good out there in 2014. Then again, Miller is the better athlete and has the better arm, and with some work could close the gap quickly.
Miller may yet see time in Tacoma to hone his outfield defense, but that isn’t a guarantee—or the most insane idea. McClendon’s already said Ben Zobrist is the model (naturally, as unrealistic as it might be), and his first game in the outfield as a professional came in the majors. That tidbit comes from Eric Blankenship's work on the subject of Miller as a hypothetical outfielder, which is outstanding, and gives us an optimistic view of the future.
The long-term view
The Mariners need to find out if Brad Miller can play center. They need to do that in 2015. If he's not an everyday shortstop going forward, and that's what they've signaled with the move to more of a utility role, they need to find the ceiling of his outfielding capabilities—not just for him, but for their future, because if Austin Jackson departs in free agency there isn't viable replacement in-house.
The idea of Miller being that guy going forward sounds almost absurd in theory, but it's not actually as crazy as it seems.
I'm going to reference the aforementioned piece by Eric on Miller as you're unlikely to find any better quantitive evaluation of the potential outcomes here. I strongly encourage you to read the full piece as you might have a difficult time believing the results and it's worth getting the full context.
But basically: Eric took a group of middle infielders (ones who must've spent time at shortstop), and tracked their defensive metrics in the outfield against how they'd performed in the infield previously. It ends up being a total of 14 players and more than 66,300 innings.
He then averaged them out and laid out how they performed, overall, in the outfield. Here are the results:
Quite good, no? These guys end up being above average in the corners and average in center. (Again, this is Eric's amazing work, not mine.)
But where it gets more interesting is where Eric further broke down the group based on their range factors. Range is the biggest positive attribute in the outfield, Miller is a range-y guy and it made sense to at least take a look at how the subset did in the outfield. Because it's amazing.
Eric put it perfectly: "a shortstop with plus range typically becomes an outfielder with plus-plus range."
This isn't perfect, and we have no idea how this is going to go. Nathan had a great line last night where he said "baseball's most beautiful trick is spending 90% of the time lovingly petting our analytical side and then 10% teaching you that real life is lived outside the margins of projections." Miller may underperform these, but even if he does and ends up as an average centerfielder, that's still an asset.
The projections are favorable, but you never know until it happens.
If I had to guess, this is going to happen pretty soon—maybe even without Miller seeing any time in the minors. The coaches, going back to last fall, have raved about his natural ability as an outfielder, and this opinion may lead them to giving Miller a shot very soon.
Honestly, that's what I'd like to see. Start by giving him a sizable chunk of Ackley's side of the left field platoon before eventually giving him the occasional look in center against righties.
People will laugh at this, goad Mariners fans for their belief in Brad Miller, Shortstop and claim this move was a long time coming. That may be true, but this move is as much about the team's needs as a whole as it is Miller himself, a guy who'd still start at short on a number of teams.
The Mariners need some help, and this is the biggest in-house improvement they have available. It only makes sense to take it.