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On Shelby Miller's Weird, Effective St. Louis Cardinals Debut

The St. Louis Cardinals' first experience with Shelby Miller hasn't exactly been what we expected.

Sep 10, 2012; San Diego, CA, USA; St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Shelby Miller (40) pitches during the fourth inning against the San Diego Padres at Petco Park. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-US PRESSWIRE
Sep 10, 2012; San Diego, CA, USA; St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Shelby Miller (40) pitches during the fourth inning against the San Diego Padres at Petco Park. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-US PRESSWIRE

Everything else about Shelby Miller's final year as the St. Louis Cardinals' top prospect has been odd—his entering camp in too-good shape, his rough start, the Cardinals' revocation of his pitch-selection rights, his white-hot finish—so it shouldn't, in hindsight, have come as a major shock that his first few appearances in a Cardinals uniform would be equally weird. But now that he's picked up his first MLB win it seems like a good time to point out just how weird it's been.

Weird Thing One: The Velocity

Shelby Miller's velocity might have escaped becoming a story—after those first few high-80s fastballs—if so many other Cardinals' pitchers' velocities hadn't already become stories. Sam Freeman, a left-handed veteran of elbow-surgery, came out throwing 93, and maxing out even higher; Joe Kelly hit the high-90s out of the rotation despite carrying a career minor league strikeout rate under eight.

Trevor Rosenthal might have been the biggest roadblock to Miller's escaping our notice. A former sleeper prospect turned real prospect whom few expected to see in the majors this year, Rosenthal arrived in his emergency-reliever role brushing up against the triple digits. He's averaged 97.4 miles per hour so far.

Suddenly it seemed like every young Cardinals pitcher was capable of remarkable velocity feats. Then Shelby Miller, the Cardinals' top prospect since 2009, owner of a huge, fearsome fastball that had brought strikeout rates to 11 wherever it went, came out and threw 89. Then he reached back, finally comfortable with the bullpen, and hit 95, maybe.

Velocity inflation has not been kind to pitchers who can hit 95 out of the bullpen. Miller's fastball has movement Freeman and Rosenthal, at least, would kill for, but few of us prospect-watchers imagined that Miller, throwing with something to prove for an inning or two at a time, would average 92.3 on PITCHf/x.

Weird Thing Two: The Command

Something, obviously, had to have been making Miller effective all these years, if not pure speed. And by the time the Cardinals had to take pitch-calling out of Miller's hands, I think those same few prospect-watchers would have been alone in imagining it was his command, and his intuitive grasp of pitching.

I'm not sure what else to credit, though. Miller's startling run back to competence in Memphis created the kind of gaudy stat that transcends its PCL origins: at one point, he'd struck out 50 batters against just one walk. And as much as his command was supposed to be a work in progress, as Miller tore through low-A and AA in succession, his walk rate has never risen above 3.4 batters per nine innings.

For a long time I assumed that was because he could generate so many swinging strikes, and that he would struggle with command at higher levels because that was what we were being told—because that was the role he filled in the Cardinals' system.

Now, at least, it looks like that isn't the case. 66 of his first 102 pitches have been strikes.

Weird Thing Three: The Leverage

After Sunday's win, my hope for Shelby Miller is that he's finally passed Victor Marte and Sam Freeman on Mike Matheny's list of reliable relief pitchers. You can blame Rosenthal for this again, if you'd like, but I was not expecting, back in March, to have to hope-against-hope that the Cardinals' top pitching prospect would be able to unseat a guy the Cardinals acquired for $1 USD on the depth chart.

But Miller's first win, Sunday, was also his first chance to pitch outside the traditional long reliever role. Rather than bursting onto the scene in 2013, Miller's come into the Cardinals' pitching picture quietly, with a bunch of other young and new pitchers of varying provenance, and quietly waited for his turn in 2012.

Weird is Okay (in this case, at least.)

So what have we seen so far? A surprisingly disciplined future starter with low-to-mid-90s fastball who's been gradually introduced to higher-leverage work in September.

This is not the kind of thing you expect out of your bit-spitting, disciplinarily-problematic, hard-throwin' Texan high-school prospect—but then, maybe that's exactly why that sort of caricature-based prospect-binning isn't actually very useful.

In his six major league innings, Shelby Miller has shown off a moving fastball that he can spot on either corner. That is, he's been a little like Chris Carpenter, multiple elbow and shoulder surgeries and all—only he doesn't throw as hard. That's pretty exciting, even if we were never quite excited for the right reasons in the first place.