Reading today, if you are looking for a way to mark Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and to reflect on how his words still resonate: his ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail.’
• It’s weird to think about what the scouting and signing process must’ve looked like for the Cubs and Shelby Miller, the formerly very good starting pitcher whom they are signing to a minor league deal. Not only do you have the COVID situation, which inherently makes all workouts/scouting tricky, but his particular situation is just so unusual: the guy was fantastic through 2015, but then struggled badly through 2016 (some injuries), then popped his elbow in 2017, which cost him most of that year and the next year. He did come back in 2018 after the Tommy John surgery, but had elbow inflammation after just a handful of starts and was shut down again. So coming into 2019, it was already a big question whether he was healthy – and then he pitched very poorly with the Rangers. OK, so maybe with another year clear from the multiple injuries and surgery and post-surgery injury, he could finally be something approximating “normal” again in 2020, his age 29 season. Ope, there’s the pandemic, and he opted out.
• So, then … what on earth *IS* Miller at this point, and how did the Cubs even go about scouting him and working him out and signing him? Like, what did that look like? Placing calls, reviewing workout videos and data, and maybe a scouting session? Whatever it was, it was enough for the Cubs to at least give him a spot in Spring Training and a deal that’ll pay him more than the minimum (plus bonuses) if he makes the team. You can’t count on anything at all, but you also wonder whether there’s more there than you would usually think for a guy who “hasn’t been good in five years.” One other sign for hope? His velocity with the Rangers in 2019 was right in line with his pre-injury velocities in the mid-90s.
• Among the many nice things about pitchers with really deep arsenals, you can dream on dramatic performance improvements very quickly by simply optimizing the pitch mix a bit:
Overall, here is the usage, wOBA, and Whiff% of Mills 5 pitches.
Sinker: 33.2% 329 wOBA 7.6 whiff%
4 sm: 25.7% 441 wOBA 13.1 whiff%
Change: 16% 219 wOBA 32.5 whiff%
Curve: 15% 209 wOBA 22.4 whiff%
Slider: 10.1% 067 wOBA 42.4 whiff%
Lots of tweaking potential there, no?
— Cubs Prospects – Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) January 14, 2021
• The rub, of course, is that it’s possible some of the most effective pitches were so effective precisely because they were deployed so rarely. That’s part of the balance of getting the mix right. Clearly, Mills’ four-seamer is not an effective pitch for him, as it’s rated as a negative pitch for the entirety of his big league experience, and was especially bad last year (which was also the first year when it dropped significantly in how much he’s using it). But without it, maybe the sinker – with its similar velocity but very different movement – isn’t as effective? Maybe the slider is tunneled better with the four-seamer than the sinker? Etc., etc.
• Clearly, though, the four-seamer and the pitch mix are among Mills’ most obvious areas for improvement, as are his splits. We can’t sleep on this: for his career, Mills has absolutely OWNED righties (.164/.248/.296, 30.3% K rate(!)), and has been absolutely DESTROYED by lefties (.276/.355/.513, 16.8% K rate(!)). Those are some of the most extreme splits you’ll see, and they make him virtually unstartable against lineups with more than a couple lefties. Given his breadth of pitches and pitchability, you’d think this would’ve been fixed by now if it were fixable (adding a cutter, improving the changeup, better locating the sinker, etc.). So, as we head into 2021 with Mills more or less locked into a starting spot, that’s my major concern with him.
• An incredibly important person in the history of the game:
Buck O'Neil, shown here with the Kansas City Monarchs, was the grandson of a slave & became one of the great storytellers of the Negro Leagues. Later coached & scouted for @Cubs. Here's his amazing story! @sabr https://t.co/30Dhq1qVB3 pic.twitter.com/wOEt7mZ3Mq
— SABR BioProject (@SABRbioproject) January 18, 2021
• Throwing it way back:
— Jordan Bastian (@MLBastian) January 17, 2021
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