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Toolshed: Miller succeeding in relief

D-backs left-hander dominating Fall League as bullpens grow in value
November 11, 2016

Jared Miller was coming off what he believed was his strongest offseason yet. After a 2015 campaign in which he thrived at Class A Short Season Hillsboro (1.81 ERA, 0.91 WHIP in 59 2/3 innings) but struggled at Class A Kane County (5.88 ERA, 1.68 WHIP in 59 2/3 innings), Miller had headed back to his alma mater Vanderbilt to prepare for a second full season as a starter in the D-backs system. He picked up tips on his cutter from fellow Commodore and new $217-million man David Price and even officially got his college degree, having left school early when Arizona called in the 11th round of the 2014 Draft.

When he arrived at Spring Training, the 6-foot-7 left-hander was in for a shock. He was headed to the bullpen. Given his performance and the evolving role of the reliever in today's game, the move couldn't have come at a better time.

"I took it as a demotion," he said. "They told me to put my head down and work and that this was a chance to help me move quickly. 'Yeah,' I thought, 'they're just telling me what I want to hear.' I'm a competitor. I want to compete for my job. But I wasn't going to let that ruin my year. To their credit, they kept their word and I moved up fast, playing at every [full-season] level and here I am now."

"Here" is in reference to the Arizona Fall League, where Miller has been arguably the most dominant pitcher in what's meant to be the game's best prospect showcase and finishing school. As of Thursday, the Salt River reliever was one of five qualified AFL hurlers who have not yet allowed an earned run, and his 14 innings trail only Frankie Montas' 14 1/3 frames for most among that group. Miller has faced 48 total batters in the AFL, striking out 25 (second-most on the circuit) while walking two and only giving up four hits. Only two pitchers with at least 10 innings have a strikeout rate above 40 percent; his is 52.1 percent. His 0.43 WHIP and .087 average-against are easily league bests.

But this level of dominance isn't particularly new to the 23-year-old, who employs a low- to mid-90's fastball, cutter and curveball in his arsenal. In 2016, Miller climbed from Class A Kane County to Triple-A Reno with stops at Double-A Mobile and Class A Advanced Visalia, finishing with a 2.64 ERA, a 0.96 WHIP, a .169 average-against and 80 strikeouts over 61 1/3 innings in his first year as a reliever since his sophomore season at Vanderbilt.

During his five-game August spell in the Pacific Coast League, the D-backs informed him that they wanted him to take on the test of Arizona Fall League and there he's found his best results yet. One particular improvement, though, has been in the control department, with his BB/9 rate dropping from 3.4 during the regular season to 1.3 over the smaller AFL sample. Miller believes he has an explanation for that, as well as the rest of his success in the Fall League.

"I think it's a swingers' league, to be honest," he said. "Guys are here to show off how good they can be, and in a lot of cases, that means they're not here to walk. ... I think I benefit from that. Nothing I throw is really straight. It's all working in two planes. They're swing-and-miss pitches, if everything goes right, and I've been able to take advantage, I think."

Miller's dominance out of the bullpen comes at a particularly interesting moment for relievers. The Cubs and the Indians both used their bullpens to great effect in getting to the World Series, going so far as to blow up the previously common idea that the best relievers should be saved for the ninth inning or later for save situations. Cleveland manager Terry Francona, in particular, utilized elite reliever Andrew Miller in a previously unorthodox way by having him go two innings or more in seven of his 10 postseason appearances and bringing him in as early as the fifth to either hold onto close leads or keep games from getting too far away against the heart of opposing team's lineups.

Jared Miller watched closely, and while his more experienced Indians counterpart made the role look easy, the D-backs prospect was able to pick up some tips from the game tape.

"I think the biggest thing Miller does is he trusts his stuff a lot," Miller said. "He's always pitching to his strengths and not trying to do much else. It obviously helps that he has two of the best pitches in the game, but he's always pitching with such conviction. Even [Orioles closer Zach] Britton really only throws one pitch. But it's cool to watch them be so consistent night in and night out."

The good news is Miller might be well-suited to such a role if he can maintain this run through the last week of the Fall League and carry through another offseason (this time when he'll prepare to return in relief) and into the spring. Coming off his previous role as a starter, the tall left-hander lasted two innings or more in 17 of his 45 appearances during the regular season and has done that four times in eight appearances this fall. In fact, he's recorded more than three outs in seven of his eight AFL outings.

After his previous doubts about the role, Miller has a chance to find the sweet spot of value as a reliever in a changing game, and it's an opportunity he's seizing in the Fall League.

"Here, you're playing against guys you've read about or seen in other parts of the Minors, places like that," he said. "These are all guys that are on the cusp of the Majors, and being sent here tells you the organization thinks you're on the cusp too. How you do here tells you how you fit in, how your stuff plays, that kind of stuff. I feel pretty confident right now."

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.