Through the season’s first six weeks, nobody has hit worse than Seattle Mariners shortstop Brad Miller. Projected as a top-ten shortstop going into the season, Miller’s above-average defense was supposed to pair with an at-least average bat to make him a quality everyday player and franchise building block. What we have instead is 140 plate appearances and a 28 wRC+, easily the worst in the majors.
A reminder on how wRC+ works: park-adjusted total offensive value relative to league average, with 100 representing an “average” hitter. Miller has been four times less productive than an “average” hitter. Last year, Miller had a 103 wRC+ in 335 plate appearances. Pending a demotion – which gets more and more likely with every hitless game - there’s a chance that by the time he’s halfway towards his 2013 plate appearance total he’ll have a quarter of his 2013 wRC+. Alcides Escobar had baseball’s lowest wRC+ last year, at 49. This early season version of Brad Miller has barely been half that.
Something is wrong with Miller, obviously. He hit at every level of the minor leagues and was immediately a productive hitter at the big league level a year ago. It’s tempting to look at other busted or once-busted prospects on or near the roster and conclude that this is simply the Mariners Effect, where a prospect who’s upside you fell in love with turns out to be total crap. That’s the easy emotional response, but it’s a little too far-fetched for us to take seriously. What’s going on here is bad luck and bad habits, both extrapolated to extremes.
No 28 wRC+ is going to come without a bit of bad BABIP luck, and sure enough Miller’s batting average on balls in play is .193, fourth-lowest in the majors. BABIP isn’t just a straight-up luck stat, as footspeed and quality of contact stand to hold a fair amount of influence over how often a batter turns a batted ball into a base hit. Miller’s a fast guy, so there’s no Molina-like blame to be laid. But quality of contact is always a legitimate question when looking at the BABIP of a guy who looks terrible at the dish. Miller’s .193 almost passes the eye test, as those of us who’ve watched him closely the last few months can attest. He’s put occasional good wood on the ball, but only ever so occasionally. Most of the time it’s weak contact. That’s bad.
After BABIP, our focus shifts to strikeouts and walks, because more often than not there’s something to be seen there. Sure enough, Miller’s walks are down, but only by 2.2% from last year. Miller’s never been much of a free pass guy, but helped keep his 2013 OBP borderline-respectable by not striking out a ton. This year, the K’s are up from 15.5% to 27.9%, an alarming development. That’s a huge jump in walks to the dugout, and a Brad Miller that strikes out nearly a third of the time is not a Brad Miller that has an obvious path to success in the major leagues.
The obvious solution is for Miller to put on a Tacoma Rainiers jersey until his approach at the plate comes back. This is more than a slump at this point – this is a quarter of a season as a quarter of a player. Miller’s season isn’t lost, but it’s May 16th and already he’s got a hell of an uphill climb if he wants to finish the year as anything close to an average hitter. Until recently there were two possible replacements on the Rainiers roster – Nick Franklin and Chris Taylor. Both are hitting like wild in AAA, with Franklin having already received a taste of MLB action earlier this year. But Franklin’s really not a shortstop, and Taylor broke his finger on Tuesday. Were it not for that injury, a callup may have been in the cards.
For now it looks like the M’s will roll with Miller for at least this current road trip. At this point a turnaround has become a complete necessity, as the team can already hardly afford to keep him on the roster. Right now, Miller is dead weight on a Mariners team that’s hanging around at .500 and still very much wants and hopes to contend. The situation is a total bummer, and the only person who can change that is Brad Miller. Let’s hope he does.