As the Mariners and their fans come to grips with the team’s dwindling playoff hopes, the eyes of September turn to the team’s farm system. While the big club won’t see the candied swing of Julio Rodriguez for at least a few years, and the likes of Joey Curletta, Kyle Lewis, and Evan White could use more seasoning before they really start cooking, the Triple-A squad has some intriguing call-up candidates.
Of course, players like Gordon Beckham, Chasen Bradford, and James Pazos are fun because we get to see how they look after being yo-yo’d between Tacoma and Seattle. But the true entertainment from expanded rosters lives in big-league debuts. With an improved on-base percentage in 454 plate appearances with the Rainiers, and blazing speed on the base paths and in the outfield, Ian Miller could provide an injection of excitement to the Mariners.
Miller’s most tangible improvements this year have come in the plate discipline department. As the Mariners’ front office continually champions the idea of controlling the zone, Miller appears to have taken that to heart. In his first full season in Triple-A after being moved up last July, Miller’s on-base percentage and walk rate have undergone encouraging upticks. In an admittedly smaller sample in 2017, Miller posted a .297 OBP and 2.8% walk rate in 177 plate appearances after his promotion to Triple-A. This year, those numbers are up to .338 and 9.3%. While he’s aware of the Dipoto regime’s obsession with controlling the zone, Miller says his transformation at the plate was largely self-driven.
“This is something I kind of did on my own. After last year I tried to evaluate myself. I knew what I needed to do better, and that was one of the areas I needed to focus on,” Miller said. “The key is not to swing at too much crap, to be honest with you. My strikeouts are still there, but I’m trying to be more of a leadoff guy and see more pitches when I can.”
As he alluded to, Miller’s strikeout rate has sat right around 18 percent since beginning the 2017 season in Double-A. He will tell you himself that while numbers can’t always tell the whole story, they’re an omnipresent reminder of each trial and tribulation in the baseball experience:
“People that say they aren’t aware of their numbers are straight lying to your face. Everybody knows their own numbers, man.”
“It’s your worth. It’s what you are. Numbers are everything, unfortunately. That’s the truth.”
Other numbers point to slight changes in Miller’s game as well. Per Fangraphs, the Philadelphia native is hitting more line drives in Tacoma than he did last year and has cut his infield fly ball percentage in half. The former 14th-round pick from Wagner University knows that hitting will always draw attention, but he is also capable of applying his skillset in other useful ways.
“If I’m struggling with the bat I try to take away hits when I can, maybe an outfield assist, or a diving catch. There’s stuff that I can do outside of swinging the bat that can affect the team positively. The month of August hasn’t been great to me, but I’m playing good defense.”
While many outsiders are familiar with tee work, soft toss, and other common hitting drills, defense is often perfected with live reps. It’s hard to simulate chasing down a fly ball or gunning it across the diamond without actually doing it. Miller says that shagging flies during batting practice allows him to fine tune some aspects of his game before the bright lights turn on. His speed and instincts with the glove are born chiefly from pre-game warmups.
“That’s all during batting practice, getting out there and taking every read off the bat like it’s in-game,” Miller explained. “First step quickness, jump, all that stuff, it’s just balls to the wall. Working on throwing to bases, having a coach hit to me during batting practice and throwing to the bases, doing everything 100%, that’s really all that is.”
Of all the highlight opportunities that playing centerfield provides, Miller says getting a chance to show off his arm is atop the list of favorites.
“I had two diving catches in one game the other day, but I also had an outfield assist and I think the outfield assist was way sicker,” Miller said confidently. “It’s like art. You’re looking at the masterpiece you’ve set up for yourself. You know right when the throw leaves the hand if he’s out or safe, you don’t even need to see what happens.”
Stealing bases is the other major piece to Miller’s repertoire. He’s swiped 28 bases this year while being caught nine times. Though this may seem like a far cry from the career high of 50 he put up across two levels in 2015, the chance to learn from Dee Gordon at Spring Training this year offered invaluable experience. Obviously, both players are fleet of foot, but Gordon was able to relay the finer points in the art of securing the bag.
Appropriately enough, the Rainiers' first hit of the 2018 season is an Ian Miller double (infield single, stolen base) pic.twitter.com/jgLUxI7v1z— Lookout Landing (@LookoutLanding) April 6, 2018
“We talked about counts, and good counts to run on, especially if a guy is going quick to the plate. It’s about knowing your catcher. It’s about knowing the batter at the plate, and if he can drive you in from first [then you don’t need to run],” Miller said of his conversation with Gordon. “It’s a whole bunch of stuff that goes into it. Dee knows way more about it than I do, I kind of just go. I know counts, I know catchers, I know good situations and all that, but he’s got it down to a science. Being fast does not automatically equal stolen bases.”
For many of its shortcomings, the minor leagues can give players a peek into the minds of seasoned veterans. Whether at Spring Training, during a rehab assignment, or when a guy with MLB experience is down, Miller is keenly aware of the insight that big leaguers have. He says sharing a clubhouse with people like Gordon Beckham, Ben Gamel, and Dan Vogelbach has helped him immensely.
“Luckily I kind of know all those guys a bit from being around them in Spring Training. I literally tried to pick their brains every day about hitting, their approach, how they load, all that stuff.”
When it comes to Vogelbach specifically, Miller divulged that he finds himself awestruck when watching the big man swing the bat. Their relationship extends off the field too, as the two have gotten to know each other through the wonder of Epic Games.
“I talk to him about hitting all the time too. He’s the best hitter I’ve ever seen,” Miller said of Vogelbach. “He’s an all-around great guy. We play video games every night, Fortnite, until about 2 or 3 a.m.”
The big ticket attraction in Tacoma this year, Robinson Canó, certainly made his impact felt in two games with the Rainiers. Apart from his on-field contributions and batting cage wisdom, Canó made sure his teammates’ bellies did not go unsatisfied.
“The post-game spread was unbelievable,” Miller said lovingly. “Steak, filet mignon, king crab legs, all that stuff. It was pretty cool, man. He was here two days, and he got it both days. He took care of us; it was a cool experience.”
Whether the Mariners decide to bring him up is yet to be seen, but the 26-year-old speedster can certainly bring tools that are unique to the Mariners’ outfield. If called up, he’d immediately be the fastest and best base stealer of the Mariners’ full-time outfielders, and someone who can be an above-average defensive replacement at any of the three positions.
For someone like Miller, who’s made stops at each of the Mariners’ minor league affiliates, playing the role of sponge arguably supersedes his role as a base stealer or defensive star. While every player in the minor leagues would be well-served to pull up a chair at Ben Gamel or Robinson Canó’s locker, there’s one area where Miller has both of them beat: social media.
When asked if he ever had a goth phase of his own, Miller was admirably honest while giving a shout out to one of his biggest fans, and the woman he credits for partially keeping his head on straight.
“I tried skateboarding a little bit, but I would always rough myself up because I stunk. That’s about as gothic as I got. I wore Vans a couple times. I wanted to get an earring in like fifth or sixth grade, but my mom wouldn’t let me. That turned out to be the right choice. I wanted to be cool, but I’m glad now that I didn’t get my ears pierced. Thanks, mom.”