With a quarter of the 2015 season gone, can we declare a winner in this November’s Shelby Miller-Jason Heyward deal? Not just yet, but almost. Who’s ahead?
Shelby Miller was one out from joining elite company Sunday night, retiring 26 straight batters after allowing a lead-off walk to start the game. Miller wasn’t thought of as the biggest acquisition in the trade that brought Jason Heyward to St. Louis last November, but he has the Braves looking incredibly smart with his steps toward becoming a bone fide ace.
All the while, Heyward continues to show glimmers of his full ability with the Cardinals, yet has managed a disappointing line of offensive statistics. That’s not to mention the other part of the package Atlanta received—righty pitching prospect Tyrell Jenkins is performing well-enough through his first seven starts at the Double-A level and may have the stuff to help out Atlanta’s bullpen as soon as next year.
What’s led to this reversal in the respective stocks of Miller and Heyward? One’s pretty clear and the other, not quite as much.
On the one end, Shelby Miller has been stellar through his first seven starts, posting the best WHIP (0.93) and opposing batting average (.169) of his career. He’s overcome whatever was plaguing him last season, when he struggled with his command and missing bats—now, Miller’s back around his 2013 walk rate with a 3.00 BB/9 and he’s striking out a batter and a half more per nine innings (though still nearly one batter shy of his 2013 mark of 8.78).
Miller’s bumpy 2014 and subsequent offseason trade led to a lot of articles about his potential and whether the Braves were getting a project or a starter on the verge of putting it all together as the centerpiece of the trade. In every such piece, there was optimism and a common thread within it: Shelby Miller’s repertoire was changing and improving.
In Miller’s first few seasons of pro ball, he leaned hard on Number One, throwing his four-seamer (which touched 97 MPH at times) at least three-quarters of the time. After being drafted, he already had a curveball to work on and set to developing a changeup. The former projected well by many scouts’ accounts and it seemed if he could demonstrate above-average command of the curve, Miller would be a top-of-the-rotation starter.
Along the way, Miller and his coaches have tinkered with his offerings and mechanics. Now, six years after being drafted as a big Texan flamethrower, he’s become more of a fastball pitcher than he ever was before, in so far as he has more types of fastballs than ever before:
His arsenal now is pretty similar to his former teammate John Lackey’s—both a four-seam and two-seam fastball which carry the brunt of the workload, a cutter which generates a fair amount of whiffs, and a curveball and change-up relegated to every-once-in-a-while options. It’s another former teammate (and July 2014 acquisition) that taught Miller the technique behind his two-seamer, Justin Masterson. With a new grip came increased effectiveness and now we’re seeing a lot more confidence from Miller in his two-seamer, so much so that he’s throwing it as often his four-seamer. With that and his cutter comprising about half of his pitches this year, his changeup has all but disappeared from the equation (he’s only thrown it three times all season).
Sunday afternoon, we saw what it looks like when he puts it all together. He hit 97 MPH a couple of times with the four-seamer, hammered the lower half of the strikezone with the combination of his two-seamer and cutter, and even threw his curveball nine times, inducing a swinging strikeout on one of them.
The strikeouts are still a little on the low side (but complaining about four strikeouts is a pretty minor quibble in a two-hit shutout that was nearly a no-hitter), but Miller kept up his propensity for inducing ground balls. Heading into last night’s start, batters were hitting 48.7 percent of balls on the ground against him and the Marlins fell victim to the same pitfall, grounding out 11 times in 29 plate appearances (a 37.9 percent rate).
There’s some cause for pessimism going forward—Miller’s opposing BABIP of .203 is going to be hard to keep up at the rate he gives up ground balls and his strand rate of 87.9 percent of runners is going to be equally hard to maintain unless he can strike out more batters. He seems to be growing more confident in his arsenal with each start, though, and we may be seeing a pitcher take a large step forward toward becoming an ace.
Heyward, of course, was the biggest name in the November trade, but had every bit as many question marks hanging around him as Miller did. He was entering a contract year after a season when a lot of his 5.2 WAR came from his defensive contributions. Heyward’s been unfairly plagued by his tantalizing 2012 numbers, when he posted numbers suggesting he was a middle-of-the-order type of bat (30 doubles, 37 home runs, 16.9 percent HR/FB). Despite putting together a pretty solid season leading off for the 2014 Braves (26 doubles, .351 on-base percentage, 0.68 BB/K, and 20 stolen bases), there was a lot of worry as to whether Heyward would improve upon or even maintain his production at the plate.
Turns out those concerns were well-founded. The most glaring things among Heyward’s 2015 statistics are his walk and strikeout rates, which have gone wildly in the wrong directions. So far, his walk rate has plummeted to just seven percent, down over three percent from last season and well below his career mark of 11 percent. The strikeout rate is even more concerning if it hints at Heyward reverting to old bad habits—he’s up to 19 percent from last year’s 15.1, but is still shy of his first three seasons, all of which hovered around 21 percent. Indeed, he’s not seeing the ball particularly well—he’s swinging at 31.8 percent of pitches outside of the strike zone and only offering at 59.3 percent of those within it.
Opponents aren’t really pitching him any differently. The game plan is still the same; keep throwing Heyward pitches low and away. However, he’s shown a new vulnerability to pitches in the middle of the zone but below the knees, swinging and missing over a third of the time. Heyward had shown an improved ability to lay off those pitches in the past two seasons, but now seems to have relapsed to chasing those pitches while not swinging at those on the inner third and at the belt or higher.
He is getting contact on those pitches in the zone he does swing at (a hefty 95 percent contact rate), but he’s hitting 61.5 percent of balls in play on the ground and not managing much hard contact on grounders. Pairing that with one of the lowest line drive rates of his career and the lack of fly balls he’s pulling (54.6 percent of them are going to the opposite field) have hurt his batting average.
Suffice it to say, Heyward has a lot of trends to reverse in order to pull his weight alongside Matt Carpenter and Matt Holliday in the Cardinals’ lineup. If his plate discipline starts improving, one would have to think he can with the quality of the contact he makes.
So with Jason Heyward’s contract expiring at the end of the season and Shelby Miller under team control through 2018, is it time to call this trade a win for the Braves? Maybe not yet, but as Miller said to his catcher sunday night after the final out — “almost.”