New routine converts Miller into confident hurler
Once a can't-miss prospect, Red Sox lefty enjoying success
The setting was hardly grandiose, the circumstances not exactly ideal, but Andrew Miller knew he had no choice but to ask for help.
You see, all sorts of things come with being taken near the top of a Draft class. A multimillion signing bonus. Lofty expectations. Interview requests. And, when those lofty expectations aren't lived up to, lots of suggestions.
Miller had been inundated with advice for years. It had been mostly good instruction with mostly good intentions, but none of it had been able to resurrect the career of a can't-miss prospect who, to that point, had missed time after time on baseball's grandest stage.
And yet as Miller walked toward McCoy Stadium's bullpen mound alongside Triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox pitching coach Rich Sauveur, he willingly opened himself up to more.
Identifying the problem had been no trouble. Miller was throwing far too many pitches in the early innings of his starts for Pawtucket, a trend that left the 6-foot-7 left-hander repeatedly unable to pitch deep into games no matter how smoothly the middle innings went. He had just thrown 90 pitches in a May 24 start in Toledo, Ohio -- 58 of them needed to finish the first two innings alone.
The walks were a problem, too. No one in the International League had issued as many as Miller, who had just offered up four more in that outing.
After the game, Miller asked Sauveur for the freedom to increase his in-game pitch count. That wasn't an option, Sauveur answered back. But by the time the pair walked to the bullpen two days later-- preparing for Miller's between-starts side session -- the veteran pitching coach had come up with a different proposal.
"He wanted more pitches, and I was thinking in the back of my head, 'What can I do to get this kid more pitches, because I obviously can't do it on the field,'" recalled Sauveur. "It was just something that came into my head."
That something was to have Miller throw an extra inning's worth of pitches during his bullpen sessions -- both the ones he threw in between starts and game days. Miller agreed it was worth a try.
Miller proceeded to throw his normal side session that afternoon. Three days later, before his May 29 start against Indianapolis, Miller made the change. He threw his normal set of pregame pitches, sat down for four minutes, got back up and threw 23 more.
That night, he went out and pitched seven innings. He threw just 80 pitches.
"Phenomenal," Sauveur said. "It was almost funny to see this happen the way it did. It was absolutely amazing."
"It allowed me to go out and feel completely ready for the game," said Miller. "I'm not making adjustments in game situations as much as I have in the past, because I've already gotten as close to game speed as I can possibly simulate."
Miller incorporated the altered routine into his next side session, and it became fixed from there. The results were just as steady. In the four starts Miller made after adopting the change, he allowed one walk and struck out 26 in 25 1/3 innings. He limited opponents to five runs, and only one of those were scored in the first two innings.
"The confidence that the kid showed in just those four starts, I saw that he was ready to be back at the big leagues," Sauveur said. "He could have stayed down here and done what he was doing, but there was no need for it."
Sauveur wasn't alone in that opinion, and Miller has since taken his new routine and renewed confidence back up to the Majors. An injury to Clay Buchholz, who, ironically, is the only other pitcher to whom Sauveur has recommended a similar change, opened up a roster spot. Miller's name was called.
"He's refined his pitching a lot, which is good. He went to Triple-A, never pouted, worked hard and worked his way back here."
|-- Red Sox manager Terry Francona, on Andrew Miller|
The ascension is hardly unfamiliar. Miller has spent parts of the previous five seasons in the Majors after being rushed there by the Tigers in 2006. Chosen sixth overall in the 2006 Draft, Miller made three relief appearances at the Class A level before debuting for Detroit in the middle of a pennant race that season.
He did not make the Opening Day roster in 2007, but was up not long afterward. He posted a less-than-spectacular 5.63 ERA in 13 appearances before he was packaged in an eight-player deal that netted the Tigers two stars: Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis. Miller landed in Florida.
That's where the spiral really began. Miller struggled for the next three seasons and found himself floating between the Majors and Minors. It was far less impressive than what had been expected from a player who was counted as one of baseball's top 10 prospects in 2007.
"It definitely got tough for a while," Miller said. "There were moments when it was hard to go out there and battle. At the same time, I knew I had done it before, and I wanted to get back and make the most of it. I didn't feel like I had reached my potential. It seemed like it would be a shame to give up on it."
In three seasons with the Marlins, Miller won 10 games and lost 20. He posted a 5.89 ERA.
"I knew he wasn't the kind of guy who was going to give up on it quickly or settle for mediocre results," said Daniel Bard, a teammate of Miller's at the University of North Carolina and now his teammate again in Boston. "You know you should be doing [better] than the results are showing. You know you're a better pitcher than how things are going."
Perhaps the journey wasn't scripted all that smoothly. But it's critical to note that it's not over. To assume that Miller is going to leave all that talent untapped would be premature. You could say he has the potential to be a late bloomer, as Miller recently turned 26. He's hardly past his prime.
Miller has started two games for the Red Sox since that callup and proved that someone in the organization was right when they urged Boston to acquire the lanky lefty from Florida in a minor deal this past offseason. He's had two solid starts, collected his first big league win since last September, and much to Sauveur's delight, didn't allow a run in the first four innings of either outing.
"He's refined his pitching a lot, which is good," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "He went to Triple-A, never pouted, worked hard and worked his way back here."
Now it's a matter of sticking, which has always been the hard part.
"For me, those times when it was tough, I feel like I learned a lot about myself," Miller said. "I know what it feels like to be kind of down in the dumps and struggling as bad as you possibly can. I know what it takes to pull yourself back up, and I'm still on that path. I'm working toward getting to what my potential is."
Miller's delivery must stay fluent, the changeup -- which is now of the four-seam variety -- must continue to develop, the fastball command needs to remain unwavering.
And he must not forget the lesson taught by Sauveur, the reaffirmation that even if you don't know what you're looking for, don't hesitate to keep looking.
"He's got a long career ahead of him, and I think it's going to happen up there at the top level," Sauveur said. "There are going to be things that click with each individual. There is going to be something that helps you have more success. This whole bullpen thing, obviously, it's helped him. I'm just tickled that he grabbed on to it. He could have taken it two ways when I mentioned it to him, and he said, 'OK, let's try it.'"
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.