Shelby Miller: Is the Cardinals Right-Hander Worth the Risk?

Jeff Curry

After posting ace-worthy numbers in the first half of 2013, Miller struggled to dominate hitters at the same level after the All-Star break. Does that mean you should pass him up, or is he worth a spot on your team? We've got the answers right here.

When it comes to succeeding in fantasy baseball, the name of the game is finding players who will give you value that precedes their draft position. Cardinals starter Shelby Miller just might prove to be one of those players in 2014.

After a solid rookie campaign, expectations are high for the sophomore right-hander, whose ADP is 122.16, according to NFBC data. That makes him, on average, the 29th pitcher selected in drafts, and you often won’t find him past the 10th round in 12-team leagues.

In other words, it might be asking quite a bit of Miller to outperform his draft position. But given his tools, potential and situation, there’s a chance that he’ll be able to do just that.

Before we delve into all of Miller’s positives, however, it’s certainly worth noting a few of the red flags that come with the young righty should you draft him. The most apparent caveat is his youth and inexperience.

Indeed, Miller is only 23, and he has just 187 innings in the majors under his belt heading into 2014. It’s not necessarily the actual inexperience that is worrisome, however. Rather, it’s the fragility of Miller’s young arm that could raise some concern.

The Cards left Miller out of the playoff picture in 2013, allowing him to pitch just one total inning (in the NLDS) throughout the postseason. Luckily for potential fantasy owners, that innings limit won’t be an issue in 2014, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. So, while injuries shouldn’t be as much of a concern for Miller in 2014, his troubles in 2013 are worth keeping in the back of your mind come draft day.

Part of the problem, which has since been attributed to shoulder soreness, could also be connected to Miller’s over-reliance on his fastball. According to Viva El Birdos, Miller throws his four-seam fastball 73.6 percent of the time, the highest percentage of any starter in the majors. VEB also notes that some other pitchers throw fastballs at a greater rate overall, because they have two-seamers and such in their repertoires (unlike Miller), but throwing a four-seamer nearly three-quarters of the time is still a rather alarming rate.

Even so, as a young starter in the majors who is presumably still working on honing his repertoire, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Miller’s use of his fastball decrease a bit in 2014. Additionally, throwing one pitch a disproportionately high percentage of the time isn’t necessarily a recipe for disaster. For example, Clayton Kershaw had the third-highest reliance on a four-seamer in 2013, and his season turned out alright.

Another slightly worrying factor, which goes in hand with the sore shoulder, is that Miller regressed a bit in the second half of 2013. While that doesn’t necessarily spell doom, it could indicate that batters started to figure out the young right-hander and also showed that his fatigue might have caught up with him a bit.

That might seem like a lot to worry about, but it really isn’t. It’s just to provide a bit of a disclaimer, and to show that Miller is far from perfect, as he comes with a few warning signs on top of his many positives.

When purely examining Miller’s fantasy contribution last season, his all-around contribution is what really stands out. He won 15 games, and barring a statistical collapse, he’ll maintain that high total thanks to his team’s offensive firepower. He posted a 3.06 ERA, 16th-best in the majors. His K/9 total ranked 20th among starters, meaning he’ll post elite strikeout numbers as he increases his innings total.

Miller did post an unimpressive 1.21 WHIP, which is far from elite. However, that number was skewed by a tough second half, in which Miller had a 1.34 WHIP, something that should be partially attributed to the aforementioned arm fatigue. While it may or may not be naïve to assume those issues are behind Miller, it’s reasonable to predict that he will at least improve upon his lackluster 2013 WHIP, with a chance to approach his 1.12 total from the first half.

Don’t be fooled into believing Miller finished horrifically, however. He managed to post a 2.76 ERA in September, a major improvement over his tough August (4.55). He also posted a 2.78 ERA in July. The point is that you’ll likely hear plenty about Miller’s second-half regression, but just remember that it wasn’t all bad!

In the interest of leaving no stone unturned, another aspect to consider is the defensive improvement that David Freese’s departure will provide for the Cardinals defense. With Matt Carpenter shifting to third base, his natural position, and speedy prospect (and solid defender) Kolten Wong earning the nod at second base to start the season, the Cards grab a significant upgrade at two different positions.

Perhaps even better than Freese’s departure, however, is the addition of Peter Bourjos (who came over in the Freese trade). Cardinals center fielders ranked last in the NL in Total Zone Runs Saved in 2013, meaning any change would be good change; the addition of Bourjos constitutes amazing change, as he’s among the better defensive center fielders in the majors.

That’s an especially important upgrade for Miller, who heavily relies on the fly ball to get his outs. Only five qualified pitchers in the majors had a higher FB% in 2013, meaning the drastic outfield improvement should work wonders for the young right-hander.

Which brings me back to my initial point: Miller has all the tools and conditions to help him produce a performance that exceeds his draft position. He’ll have support in both a top-tier lineup and fellow ace-caliber pitchers in the rotation. He has a nasty repertoire of pitches that helped him strikeout nearly a batter per inning in 2013. And most importantly, he has a full season under his belt upon which to build as a starter. You can let Miller’s lackluster 2013 post-break performance dissuade you, but you’d be foolish to do so.

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