On March 7, Shelby Miller was battered.
The 24-year-old Miller allowed four earned runs on three hits and two walks in just one-third of an inning in his Atlanta Braves "debut" and, predictably, a portion of the fan base lost its mind. This was the player who served as the centerpiece of the Jason Heyward trade?
Well, in short order, Miller returned to looking like a potential stud, as he was crisp in his second outing, allowing just one run across three innings. The right-hander had this to say after that start, courtesy of Michael Cunningham of the AJC:
"Today was learning from last time and trying to get a good feel for the zone, which I felt like we did a good job of," Miler said. "Hit the corners a lot and threw some good curveballs and some good changeups, which is something we’ve been working on."
The hilarity of panic surrounding one Spring Training performance speaks for itself, but Miller's up and down start to March does bring about some interesting questions. Namely, what can we expect from the former Cardinal in 2015?
Shelby Miller is a former elite prospect, as he ranked in the top-10 of Baseball America's MLB prospect list in both 2011 (eighth overall) and 2012 (sixth overall) before making a brief debut in St. Louis near the end of the 2012 season. Then, Miller sustained real success as a rookie in 2013, making 31 starts and putting together a 3.06 ERA with 8.78 strikeouts per 9 innings.
From there, however, his production slowed last season, to the point where his strikeout rate dipped to an ugly 6.25 per 9 innings in accordance with a 3.74 ERA and a 4.47 xFIP. Miller simply wasn't a very good pitcher during that season, and in fairness, that performance likely sunk his value to the point where the Braves could acquire him in the midst of the Heyward package.
The "stuff" is still there for Miller, at least in the eyes of Braves brass, who have been very high on the acquisition. Atlanta's ace in the hole is the ability to pair a still-young pitcher with arguably the best pitching coach in the game in Roger McDowell, and he will immediately be charged with diagnosing whatever problems Miller encountered during his slight swoon in 2014.
Fortunately, the Atlanta Braves won't be counting on ace-level production from Shelby Miller this season. He is firmly slotted as the number three starter behind both Julio Teheran and Alex Wood, and for a club with low expectations, the organization can afford to tinker with his approach in an effort to maximize his future production.
From a baseline perspective, it appears safe to project Miller's ERA to sit somewhere in the mid-3.00's barring major changes. It is interesting to note that the right-hander's FIP and xFIP numbers are vastly higher than his career ERA (3.33 ERA, 4.03 FIP, 4.08 xFIP), but without more data, it would be a mistake to simply assume this can continue. Ideally, Miller would push his strikeout-to-walk rate back into the 3-to-1 range that he displayed during the successful 2013 campaign, and that could be an interesting barometer to follow throughout the season.
Simply assigning the narrative of "player received in exchange for Jason Heyward" is going to assign expectations to Shelby Miller, especially for those who held Heyward in high esteem. However, Miller is a key piece of the starting rotation going forward, and as a low-cost, high-ceiling option, Atlanta's success over the next three to four seasons could be directly tied to his development.
We will know a lot more about Shelby Miller in a couple of months, but for now, let's allow Roger McDowell to work his magic in peace.