Following an awful start to the year, Seattle Mariners shortstop Brad Miller has broken out of an extended slump to become a major contributor in a surging lineup.
Miller looked lost through the end of May, and his line at the end of the month stood at a woeful .158/.234/.250. Since then, Miller has been one of the most productive shortstops in the majors and helped key an 18-10 June for the Mariners.
Everything went wrong for Miller in the early going. He struck out in nearly 30 percent of his plate appearances in April and ran one of the worst contact rates in the majors, limiting his offensive output.
Those struggles at the plate carried over into other parts of his game. Miller committed six errors through Seattle’s first 34 games (many on routine plays), and he made several simple mistakes on the basepaths.
Miller seemed to be struggling with confidence or some other mental aspect. A demotion to Triple-A Tacoma seemed inevitable to fans and pundits alike, including Michael Grey of 710 ESPN:
It was a major disappointment for the Mariners following Miller’s solid rookie campaign a year ago, where he posted a 103 wRC+ and a 1.7 WAR in just 76 games.
But Lloyd McClendon let Miller play out of the slump, apart from a brief three-game benching near the end of May. Miller said he used the time off to "kind of slow down," via Jackson Alexander of MLB.com
Whatever that benching stirred in Miller, it worked. Nick Franklin was unable to take advantage of the opportunity to win a starting spot, and Miller broke out quickly after.
Over the last 30 days, Miller has hit .294/.358/.471. His 0.9 WAR in that span trails only Alcides Escobar among American League shortstops.
Colin O'Keefe of LookoutLanding.com points out just how good Miller's pace was near the end of June:
So how exactly did Miller go from being one of the worst regulars in the majors for two months to having a productive June?
A big key was slimming down that strikeout rate. On May 14, Miller was striking out in 27.5 percent of his plate appearances and swinging at over 40 percent of pitches outside the strike zone.
Those numbers now stand at 24.3 percent and 33.9 percent, respectively. That’s still not great, but considering the hole Miller started in, it's a huge improvement.
Miller said that improved pitch recognition has helped his swing and confidence, via Bob Dutton of the Tacoma News Tribune.
I feel a little bit more like myself. That’s part of it. Every day, you come out, and you face some pretty good guys. You’ve really got to lock in and fight…It’s two-fold. Swing at the right pitches, and when they do come in there, you’ve got to put a good swing on it.
That confidence has translated to all aspects of Miller’s game. He still makes some mistakes in the field (now up to 11 errors) and on the basepaths, but there are far fewer downright mental lapses than we saw earlier.
Despite poor overall numbers for the month, Miller’s turnaround began in May. He reduced his strikeout rate by over seven percent from April while also increasing his walk rate by 11.7 percent.
In June, Miller finally saw results from the improved plate discipline, posting a wRC+ of 139. He hit five home runs in the month to increase his season total to eight, tied for the most among AL shortstops.
Data from BrooksBaseball.net shows that Miller was swinging and missing often on outside pitches out of the strike zone through the end of May. Those numbers indicate Miller was having trouble recognizing breaking pitches.
In a small sample size of pitches since, Miller has done a better job of laying off outside pitches while also swinging more at hittable middle-in pitches. That helps explain his increase in line-drive percent in June and the subsequent power surge.
Miller has a ways to go before his season numbers are respectable, but he has regained the confidence of the Mariners as their shortstop of the present and future. Consistent production from Miller will be critical if Seattle is to keep a playoff spot by the end of the year.
He wasn’t the only contributor to an 18-10 June for the Mariners, but the importance of Miller’s production at the bottom of the order is huge. It’s much easier for Seattle to work around one or two major holes in the lineup rather than have a third of it be an automatic out.
With Miller hitting well, the Mariners lineup is better now than it has been at any other point in the season. His turnaround is one of many reasons to be optimistic about the second half in Seattle.
All stats via FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.