The Tampa Bay Rays have learned time and again how critical it is to have bullpen depth. Take last season–the Rays thought they would have an effective relief corps, but then Grant Balfour, Heath Bell, and Joel Peralta all fell apart. Now this year, the Rays already know that closer Jake McGee will be out to begin the year. The Rays need as many options as possible knowing that a bullpen collapse is never as unlikely as it seems. That is where Jim Miller could come in.
Miller, who will turn 33 at the end of April, just signed with the Rays on a minor league deal with an invite to spring training according to MLB Trade Rumors’ Steve Adams. He gives the Rays a veteran option for Triple-A Durham to younger players like Jose Dominguez, C.J. Riefenhauser, and potentially Steve Geltz. Miller has a strong 3.48 ERA in 67.1 major league innings, although his 7.9 K/9, 5.2 BB/9, and 1.3 HR/9 paint a less rosy picture.
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Miller had his best big league season in 2012, when he managed a 2.59 ERA in 33 appearances and 48.2 innings pitched for the Oakland Athletics. In the two years since then, however, he has made just three MLB appearances, all with the New York Yankees. Miller has posted good minor league numbers throughout, managing a 3.34 ERA, an 11.1 K/9, a 3.2 BB/9, and a 0.7 HR/9, but he may be classic case of a pitcher whose numbers wouldn’t translate to the big leagues in the long-term.
Many pitchers whose peripherals deteriorate significantly at the game’s highest level do not throw very hard. Jim Miller goes starkly against that, averaging 93.78 MPH since 2008. That is enough to provide hope that he could be a useful pitcher for the Rays. However, Miller’s velocity is counteracted by poor fastball command and two inconsistent breaking balls in his curveball and slider.
Miller has always allowed walks and home runs, and he doesn’t strike out enough batters to make up for it. It is telling that his 33.5% groundball rate in the major leagues has only gone up to 36.8% in his last four years in the minors. Miller is not a pitcher who locates his pitches well, and when you’re throwing in the 92-94 MPH range as opposed to 96-98, it is difficult to succeed with that flaw.
One we can say, though, is that the Rays have gotten value out of pitchers with high fastballs, and Jim Miller certainly fits that group. Here is a Brooks Baseball plot of where his fastballs have ended up in the zone.
Wildness has a lot to do with Miller throwing so many pitches up in the zone. He isn’t like Jake Odorizzi or Drew Smyly who have found success by throwing fastball just high enough that hitters can’t make contact. Even so, Miller’s ability to beat hitters with fastballs up is something to start from, and then the Rays can worry about improving his command and secondary pitches.
The chances are that Jim Miller will only make an appearance or two for the Rays in 2015, just like he did with the New York Yankees the last two years. The Rays have plenty of younger pitchers with comparable stuff and better command. At the very least, though, it is always nice to have another experienced pitcher who has tossed some effective big league innings, and the Rays will try to make the adjustments that can lead him to more sustainable success.