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Ian Miller, Firestarter

Meet the Mariners prospect with plus-plus speed who wants to put a spark into the lineup

Cody Cunningham/Jackson Generals

Ian Miller doesn’t believe in doing things at anything less than a breakneck speed. When I e-mailed him about interviewing for this article, he had a response back to me in less than 12 hours—and not just any response: 4,709 words, detailing everything from his high school career to his goals for next season. Miller is a Tesla generator, his own prime mover, but then again, he has to be; without hype, without pedigree, he has had to make his own fire.

The hustle began early for Miller, who in high school e-mailed the head coach of every single Division I school. “Hours upon hours of e-mails,” he says. Like many highly active kids, despite being bright, Miller didn’t fare well in school—a land where your movements are restricted by bells—even having to switch schools after landing in trouble inside and out of school walls. After transferring to a Catholic school, Bishop Shanahan in suburban Philadelphia, Miller met varsity coach Mike Cooper. Cooper, who was retired at the time after a successful career in business, saw in Miller a drive and determination that reminded him of himself. Cooper began coaching Miller, a JV player at the time, both on and off the field, even leaning on his good friend Jamie Moyer to offer advice to the young player to keep him moving in a positive direction.

Miller’s e-mail campaign resulted in a few walk-on offers from D1 schools, and he decided on Wagner College, which offered the additional bonus of being near home. His parents were going through a divorce, and Miller felt called to stay close to his mom; he went home every weekend over his freshman year, focusing on staying out of trouble and keeping his grades up. What Wagner didn’t offer was a scholarship or a promise to play every day, so Miller threw himself into working his way up: 6 AM conditioning, practicing in the snow, sprints until he wanted to throw up and weight room work until his arms shook, all pressing towards an everyday role on the freshman team. Meanwhile, he grew closer to his father, who had gone through a similar process at UCLA, working his way up as a walk-on before eventually being drafted by the Reds. “We connected through that,” says Miller, “and all of the tough times that came with that because he went through it and I could kinda pick his brain with the experience he went through.” The combination of his hard work and following his father’s advice paid off, and Miller was named a freshman starter. Sadly, his father passed away suddenly near Thanksgiving, and while Miller would never make excuses for his performance, he didn’t have quite the season he had hoped for, batting just .230. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t the season he had envisioned, and he came back for his sophomore year determined to improve.

He did just that, batting .312 in his sophomore season and leading the Northeast Conference in stolen bases, with 34. His 64 hits tied for 6th overall in the NEC and his OBP of .400 was 10th-best. He followed his successful sophomore year with a stint in the Alaska Baseball League—once home to our own James Paxton—and it was there Miller developed his identity as a baseball player. As he says: “I was like, 'oh crap, I could get drafted and be something special, I can really steal bases’.” Miller is, in fact, elite at stealing bases—he set the record for stolen bases in the ABL, breaking Jacoby Ellsbury’s record. In 36 games, Miller stole 36 bags in 40 attempts, was named to the ABL All-Star team, and was named as Baseball America’s sixth best prospect in the league and Perfect Game’s eighth best prospect. After that, scouts and agents started calling. For the first time, people were coming to Ian Miller instead of the other way around.

In 2013, the Reds had shown interest in drafting Miller. He went to the workout, inspired to play for the same team that had drafted his dad, and turned in what he thought was a deal-sealing performance, hitting well in the cage, charging through the outfield, and running a 6.26 60-yard dash, only to later be told they didn’t trust his bat. Miller added that to the chip on his shoulder and kept working, determined to succeed for whatever club did choose him. Tom MacNamara liked what he saw in Miller, and the Mariners selected him in the 13th round. He worked his way steadily through the lower levels of the organization before making a successful, although injury-shortened, debut at Clinton in 2014 (.271/.332 /.349). The next year, he was promoted from A+ Bakersfield after just 39 games, but ran into a wall at AA Jackson, slashing .254/.310/.320 on a team that won only 53 games. Miller acknowledges his role in Jackson’s poor performance: “All I wanted to do was show out and hopefully move up and further my career and be a big leaguer.” He wasn’t the only one. The team as a whole slashed just .245/.323/.360 and came in near the bottom of the league in almost every major offensive category. “Kinda brutal,” Miller says.

(One thing that wasn’t brutal: the plus center field defense Miller brings. There’s another highlight, from this year, here, of a sliding, run-saving catch, but be forewarned: the quality is extra-MiLB-y.)

When assigned to Jackson again in 2016, Miller and his teammates quickly found out that the old ways were gone and buried. Mike Micucci, Dipoto’s new hire for Field Coordinator, made an impression right away at minicamp. “This little Italian dude came in the cages and cursed us out, just destroyed us verbally,” marvels Miller. Micucci, whom Miller had never met, delivered an impassioned speech detailing the club’s failures last year, and a sworn promise that those failures would not be allowed to continue—not now, not ever. “Never been more scared of a dude in my life,” says Miller.

Micucci, despite the first impression, would turn out to be a clubhouse favorite among players. New head coach Daren Brown, whom Miller describes as a “class act” and the “best head coach I ever had,” also set about changing the culture from a me-first to a team-oriented clubhouse. New hire Andy McKay was there too, a direct contrast to the fiery Micucci, quietly observing and preaching his mental skills philosophies in a soft voice. “Nice dude, but not someone you disrespect or second guess,” observes Miller. “Two different guys and two different ways the process is taught, and their points all come together and come across to everyone.” He bought in to the new regime’s way of doing things, and his teammates did, too, as Miller says, “not because we HAD to do the things they were preaching, but we WANTED to... the things they were preaching, the things they were telling us to do, backed up by factual evidence, were so instrumental to helping us win—it was fun to do, the process of coming in every day and doing the things they implemented in our regimen to get us ready every day—it works.” (Miller writes the way he talks, which in turn is the way he runs—at breakneck speed. His 4,000 words came in all of about ten sentences.) Suddenly, Jackson was a great place to show up to work every day.

Along with a renewed focus on the team came a need to understand himself as a hitter. Miller is a lifelong Ichiro fan, and models his game after him, watching hours of highlights on YouTube. This year, he started actively trying to work himself into the role of a leadoff hitter, focusing on getting on base any way he could in order to use his speed to help the team score runs. “I stopped trying to hit the ball with all of my might,” notes Miller. “This was the first year (and a little bit last year) that I understood my role as a speed guy. I wasn't ever going to be paid in my career for hitting the ball out of the park, and Daren Brown had endless amounts of meetings with me drilling that into my head. I know I drove him crazy.” Coaches Roy Howell and Renny Osuna also poured time into helping Miller succeed, throwing him extra batting practice, and Alvin Davis helped too, when he was in town. Through it all, Miller continued to get messages of encouragement from his high school coach Mike Cooper, now a father figure to Miller. Cooper talks to him daily and even travels to see him play.

The work paid off and Miller charged into 2016 batting .283/.328/.350 over April, including an 11-game hitting streak with a 13-game on-base streak. By the end of the month, he had worked himself into his desired position of leadoff hitter. In May, he actually collected more hits than he did in April, in addition to walking more (20 and 10 vs. 17 and 6, respectively), but his strikeout percentage ballooned. Miller got the strikeouts under control in June, cutting them back to single-digits, and drove his walk rate even higher, taking 13 free passes.

With Miller’s speed, handing him a walk is essentially handing him a double, and in June he stole as many bases as he was given walks. His on-base percentage soared to .349. Early in his carer, Miller had relied on his speed alone to outrun even poor reads. As he’s moved up levels, he’s had to learn to refine his craft. Miller admits, “when I got to AA I had one goal, and that was to steal 50 bags. I got picked off, caught stealing left and right, because I was just trying to get to 50. . .[earlier in my career] I was an idiot on the base paths.” In 2016, Miller, with the help of Daren Brown and Todd Donovan, worked on refining his approach, looking for better reads. He learned to shut down once he’d stolen second and trust that the potent Jackson offense would offer him an opportunity to score, and he learned how to pick his spots when running from first. Picking the spot is the hard part; Miller knows once he gets going, if he’s chosen the right spot, he is almost bulletproof. “The teams know I'm running, the groundskeeper knows I'm running, the fans and the guys selling the peanuts know I’m running, but regardless, you won't be able to stop me,” he says. It would sound like bragging, and maybe it is, but it’s also a fact: over the regular season, Miller stole 49 bases in 53 attempts, and got his 50th in the bottom of the tenth inning in a playoff game. Zach Granite actually swiped more bags than Miller this year in the Southern League, but was caught 14 times, for just an 80% success rate. Years ago, that might have rankled Miller, but what really excites him now isn’t the number, but the percentage—94%, including the playoffs. “Not including the time I got caught in big league spring training because I overslid the bag,” he adds, shaking his head at his former self.

How fast is Ian Miller? This fast:

Let’s break that down a little (all images courtesy of Jay Chalk).

But not everything was smooth sailing for Miller in 2016, and in July, he slumped badly, falling to just a .209/.276/.267 slash line. The strikeouts crept back up into the double digits and his walk rate fell. This was a problem with a deeper root: Miller had just seen Yefri Perez, a someone he had played against in Jacksonville with his same skill set, get called up by the Marlins. Perez hit in the .250s, like Miller, but was worse at stealing bases. Miller didn’t understand why that couldn’t be him, and pressed harder at the plate. “I got caught up in that, and was deep in my own head with looking at other people’s success,” he acknowledges. Help would come in the form of Mike Micucci, the fiery Italian Miller feared at the beginning of the season, and Todd Donovan, new director of player personnel. Donovan made a special impression on the struggling hitter. “He [Donovan] told me to get out of my own head, and—I’ll never forget this—he said, ‘Ian, if you DON'T hit, you'll be a good player. You can field, you can run, and you can throw…that's valuable, you'll be a valuable player and you'll be a good player, but if you hit, you could be a star'. I thought to myself, ’this dude is crazy'. I'm hitting .225 at this point on the YEAR, my confidence is down, I think I have 30 stolen bases at this point and I'm going nowhere fast. That was huge. He showed me appreciation and respect. . .this is a dude that hit something like .275 in the Southern League and stole like 60-65 bags…if he said that to me and believed in me like that, I had no choice but to believe it too. He said, 'Stop trying to get into the box and get two hits an at-bat; get up there and move the runner, get the sac bunt down, get a sac fly, bunt—do the little things right’.”

Focusing on the little things helped Miller bust through his slump. “At this time we had a March Madness bracket-type thing going on where with the quality at-bats if you beat the guy you went up against, you’d move on to the next round. I was hitting .225 at this point but was moving on each round because I was weirdly having some quality at-bats—I was walking, bunting, etc, just not getting hits. He [Donovan] said keep with that, the Mariners love that…I went out there the next game and that was my intent. I said, 'I'm going to get three qualities a game—a quality at-bat, maybe a stolen base, a nice play in the outfield, a base hit, walk, etc.—anything that was a quality to me, so I was going out there trying to do three quality things a game, and if I did that I would help put my team in a good position to score runs, and hopefully help win a game. I did that for like a month without looking at my average. A month later I glanced at it, and I was at like .245-.250, up from .225. That was mind-blowing. Not long after that I was up to like .258-.259. I ended around .253, but Todd Donovan…pounded into my mind the leadoff approach. He turned my year around. He's a stud.”

The intervention worked. In August, Miller slashed .333/.382/.395. By the end of the month he had reclaimed the leadoff spot and went on a ten-game hit streak to celebrate. He collected a season-high 27 hits and stole 12 bases while striking out just six times. In the playoffs, Miller came through at clutch moments. The first time was in the opening game of the divisional series against Montgomery. Despite a dominant performance from pitcher Andrew Moore, the Generals had been unable to get anything going offensively and the game went into the tenth inning tied 0-0. With one out, Miller took a walk on four straight pitches. The type of headache Miller presents for a pitcher was on display when he attracted four straight pickoff attempts, and then went on to steal second base anyway, setting up a walkoff winner off the bat of Tyler O’Neill (who, being Tyler O’Neill, had to blast a homerun in dramatic fashion, but it’s important to note a base hit would have done the trick here too). He came through as well in the championship series, during an 8th-inning rally to surge past the Mississippi Braves, who had tied up the first game of the series. Miller sacrifice bunted a runner into scoring position, who would eventually make it home on a Tyler O’Neill double (that guy again). It’s not glamorous, but it’s productive. Jackson went on to win the Southern League Championship.

Champions! That's Ian, in the blue.

Miller didn’t get an invite to big league camp this year, but is determined to make an impression at minor league camp. He is in Arizona for the third straight off-season, working on strength and conditioning with performance coordinator Rob Fumagalli. He’s the only position player there, and spends most of his free time alone, but that’s how he prefers it. “I’m not here to be social, I’m here to get better,” he says. “Baseball is all I got.” Miller knows that the Mariners, 26th in the league last year in baserunning by Fangraphs’ BsR, could use his speed, especially if they are in position for a playoff push. As Andrew pointed out in a July piece about the Mariners’ baserunning woes, “the inability to correctly read a pitcher, get a good jump, and make a good slide appears to be a systematic problem for the Mariners.” But Ian Miller wants to be more than just a speed guy. He wants to be that spark at the beginning of the lineup, the pesky player who gets on base and wreaks havoc on the basepaths. He wants to be like his hero Ichiro, who he describes as, “the complete outfielder and leadoff hitter. The arm, the on base ability, the sneaky power, the calm and collected type—I love that.” Others might not have the same high expectations for Miller as he has for himself, but nothing could matter to him less. Ian Miller is a self-contained storm, lightning in a bottle, just waiting for his chance to catch fire.