For a year-and-a-half Shelby Miller's trip through the St. Louis Cardinals' minor league system was almost completely without incident. In 2010 the 19-year-old, on an extremely tight innings count, made quick work of the low-A Midwest League, striking out 140 batters in 104 innings while walking just 33. Forget his strikeout-to-walk ratio—Miller's strikeout-to-baserunner ratio that year was just over one. In 2011 it took Miller just nine starts in high-A Palm Beach to show the Cardinals he was ready for the high minors, and he appeared to make the leap to AA Springfield as casually as anything else he's done since emerging as the Cardinals' top prospect.
Now, the first roadbump: Miller's gotten knocked around in two of his last three starts, and across his last 10 he hasn't looked quite so invincible as he did in A-ball. August 10 brought his most ignominious appearance yet: Miller failed to get out of the first inning, walking three batters and allowing four earned runs before being pulled with 36 pitches already on the clock.
His cumulative numbers in Springfield—a strikeout an inning, just 27 walks, an ERA under three—still look brilliant, which is why it's odd to be having this conversation at all. But all the pieces have come together for Cardinals fans to be worried about their favorite prospect. It begins across baseball, where young pitchers have, despite the backlash that followed the codification and absurd media scrutiny of the Joba Rules, become more and more a protected species. They're shut down in midseason, they have strict pitch and inning counts, they're told what to throw and when to throw it. Miller himself failed to get out of the fifth inning at times in 2010, chased not by ineffectiveness but the Cardinals' fear of his teenaged arm.
Then there's what's going on around him. The Cardinals' Major League rotation has ground itself down after a hot start: Kyle Lohse, erstwhile comeback player of the year, was skipped, Kyle McClellan has returned to the bullpen, Chris Carpenter has been victimized by balls in play, and Jaime Garcia has seen even his solid outings shortened by inefficiency. In the minor leagues Maikel Cleto has been slowed by an aggressive promotion to AAA and Carlos Martinez hasn't made the jump to high-A look quite so easy as Miller did.
Being around all that and looking at Miller's last start I had no choice, if you ask a social epistemologist; my immediate thought wasn't, "Wow, a quick hook," or, "Wow, he didn't have it tonight," so much as, "Wow, he should be removed from the baseball field and placed in an enormous concrete egg of my own design until he turns 25."
I don't actually believe that, having read Kary Booher's reassuring tweets about his health and come down from my initial terrified high, but I understand the impulse. Miller's not being counted on in the Majors in 2012—at least not in any significant capacity—and at 20 he's got another year at least in which to make incremental progress in the minor leagues. 100 innings in 2010, 120 innings in 2011, 140 innings in 2012, and the Majors—and qualification for the ERA title—in 2013.
But the problems Shelby Miller appears to be having aren't related to pitching too many innings, at least if the press coming out of Springfield is any indication—they're about his incredible reliance on his incredible fastball. According to an article by that selfsame Kary Booher Miller's been throwing significantly more than 70% of his pitches as fastballs, a number that puts even Brad Penny to shame.
The decision to force Miller to throw breaking balls manifested itself in a fine outing the first time out—a no-hitter broken up by Mike Trout—but this time it didn't work. If that's the problem—and having not seen Miller I have no way of knowing—then the Cardinals need to see him work through it, for good or ill. Another three weeks of starts isn't going to run Miller down, and it might leave him with a better grasp of the Cardinals' plans for him than this sudden dip in both effectiveness and his coaches' opinion of him.
I'm worried enough about his arm—he's a young pitcher, after all—but I'm also worried about his development as it relates to the team. The last thing I want is another Anthony Reyes situation.
I—I promised my therapist I wouldn't mention Anthony Reyes again. If you'll excuse me, I'm going to enter a concrete egg of my own design and sleep this out until Reyes or Miller wins his first Cy Young.