Lies, damned lies and statistics: Shelby Miller knows the truth
“Guys are lying if they say they never look at their own stats," Shelby Miller was saying the other afternoon. "You can’t help it." This was several days after the 25-year-old righthander had been traded from the Braves to the Diamondbacks, and we were talking about what kind of thinking might have gone into the deal. “For me, I pay attention to the main numbers. As for some of the advanced statistics, I don’t even know what half of them mean.”
Yet if the Cubs’ $184 million signing of Jason Heyward—a rightfielder who in 2015 hit just 13 home runs, knocked in just 60 runs and did not finish in the National League’s top nine in any offensive category—is this off-season’s Exhibit A that teams are looking well past traditional stats in making player investment decisions, then the Miller transaction is just the kind of supporting evidence needed to close the case. Non-traditional stats may not mean much to Miller, but they mean a lot to the talent evaluators who love him.
A brief reminder: To acquire Miller from Atlanta, the D-Backs gave up Dansby Swanson, baseball’s No. 1 draft pick six months ago and a 21-year-old shortstop who had an OPS of .876 in Class A this summer. They gave up Ender Inciarte, a 24-year-old, good-hitting, great-fielding outfielder who was worth 5.3 Wins Above Replacement, according to baseball-reference.com, in 2015. They gave up Aaron Blair, a 6’5”, 23-year-old righthander who was regarded as the best pitching prospect in their system. Arizona also presented the Braves with 12 of their fattest cows and agreed to sacrifice a goat at the opening of SunTrust Park when it opens outside Atlanta in 2017. (Okay, there weren’t actually any livestock incentives in the deal, but you get the drift.)
“You are always aware of who you got traded for,” says Miller, who in 2014 was sent from the Cardinals to the Braves in exchange for that same $184-milion man, Heyward. “The fact that they traded a No. 1 pick for me shows how much they wanted me. That fires you up.” As far the inclusion of Inciarte in the deal, Miller, as is a ballplayer’s wont, made a personal assessment. “He has hit me pretty well”—Enciarte has a .500 on-base percentage and a two-run single in six plate appearances against Miller—“I was hoping he was going to stay on the team so I wouldn’t have to face him anymore.”
The “main numbers” that Miller pays attention to include ERA (“I like to keep it at 3.00, said Miller, who posted a 3.02 mark this past season) and won-loss record. The latter has not exactly gone his way. Says Miller: “The bottom line is that you want your team to win the game you are in, so in that sense, I’ve not had the best results.”
Um, right. Last season, Miller's record was 6–17, and Atlanta went 11–22 in games that he started, meaning that with Miller on the hill, the Braves had a winning percentage of .333. In games he did not pitch, it was .434. That’s a big difference. But maybe that’s a fluke and, for what it’s worth, Atlanta was lousy, finishing with the third-worst record in the majors.
So what about the year before? In 2014, Miller pitched for the Cardinals and had a record of 10–9. St. Louis went 15–17 in games that Miller appeared in (a .469 winning percentage) and went 75–55 in games he did not appear in (.577). That’s a big difference too.
By those measurements—or even by looking at the baseball-reference.com projection that has Miller going 9–12 in 2016—Arizona was flat-out nuts to make the deal. Here’s where some number-plumbing comes in handy. Along with his ERA (which ranked 11th-best among NL starters) Miller allowed hitters to bat just .238 against him (also 11th-best) and he allowed just 0.57 home runs per nine innings (fifth). He had a very strong WHIP of 1.25 (19th), threw a couple of shutouts and pitched a lot of innings (205). And though his new home park is much more hitter-friendly than his old one, Miller will be pitching in front of a D-Backs defense that includes a Gold Glover in the infield (first baseman Paul Goldschmidt) and the outfield (centerfielder A.J. Pollock), as well as a shortstop (Nick Ahmed) whose 2.8 defensive WAR was fourth best in baseball. It's reasonable to expect that Miller’s .276 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) will drop,
Perhaps most telling is that Miller had a 3.6 bWAR last season. It is very strange to imagine that a starting pitcher could be measured as worth 3.6 more wins than a prospective replacement even as his team is going 11–22 and even as he makes 24 consecutive starts without recording a win. But baseball is a funny game, and WAR, like all of them, is a funny stat. Miller’s WAR, in effect, factors in some rotten luck. In an eight-start stretch from May 8 to July 5, Miller pitched to a 2.77 ERA; the Braves went 1–7. Then during a nine-game stretch, from July 19 through Aug. 31, Miller posted a 2.93 ERA, and allowed opponents to hit only .227 off of him. This time, the Braves went 1–8.
Whether or not Miller looks at those kind of numbers, they all add up to the fact that the Diamondbacks, who have also minted Zack Greinke as their new ace, could in 2016 have as good a one-two at the start of their rotation as any NL team west of Queens or east of San Francisco.
“Goals for this season? I don’t really set them for myself—just that I want to stay healthy,” says Miller. “The statistic I’m most worried about is winning the World Series. Looking at what we have done this off-season, that is exactly what we are trying to do.”