It was a makeshift shot, but not the kind Shelby Miller preferred, the kind produced by nasty pitches that smash the bat in the hands of opposing hitters.
This was due to a mechanical failure that left the middle finger on Miller’s throwing hand throbbing after the right-hander, in his third start for an Arizona team that traded its top prospect to acquire him in 2016, plunged his hand into the mound following up on a pitch in the second inning at San Diego.
“I’ve never seen anybody slam their hand into the ground like that, ever, and it wasn’t like once, it was multiple times,” said Mike Butcher, the Diamondbacks’ pitching coach from 2016 to 2019.
“I was like, ‘What the hell is going on here?’ It was almost like hitting your finger on a basketball and you were trying to throw a baseball. She definitely affected him.”
Miller has no idea how or why he hit the front of the mound at Petco Park that night in April 2016; he had never happened in four minor league seasons and three major league seasons in St. Louis and Atlanta.
Shelby Miller reaches into the mound during a game with the Diamondbacks in April 2016.
But the freak injury seemed to unleash a cascade of calamity for a pitcher who went from an All-Star season in 2015 to a demotion from Class AAA in 2016, Tommy John surgery in 2017, a premature comeback and a disastrous 2018, a 2019 of shoddy, a The inactive seasons of 2020 and 2021 and 2022 were spent primarily in the minor leagues, where he transitioned to the bullpen.
Nearly seven years later, the 32-year-old Miller will attempt to revive his career with an organization known for turning junk acquisitions into highly productive major league players, the hulking 6-foot-3, 225-pound signing a $1-year deal. 1.5- MLB deal with the Dodgers on December 2.
“It’s one of those things where you have to ride the wave, man,” Miller said by phone from his home in Phoenix. “I’ve had a lot of success in the major leagues, I’ve had some problems these past few years, and it was an eye-opening experience playing in the minor leagues.
“Somehow it makes you love baseball and grind again, to be brave and try to get back to the big leagues, and I have. So I’m excited to say that I stayed and didn’t give up.”
Miller was beginning to wonder if he would have another chance in the big leagues. Released by four organizations from 2019 to 2021, Miller spent five and a half months of 2022 with the Class AAA teams of the New York Yankees and San Francisco Giants, compiling a 2.87 ERA with 12 saves, 69 strikeouts and 21 walks in 53 1/3 innings of 43 games.
But it wasn’t until Sept. 22 that the Giants finally called up Miller. He pitched 5 2/3 scoreless innings in three games before giving up five runs in 1 1/3 innings of his fourth and final game.
“I was dominating in the minor leagues and I was getting to that point where I was like, ‘There’s nothing else I can do,’” Miller said. “I told my wife [Erika] that if they don’t call me, I’ll never do it. But I never quit, I kept working hard, I got that chance and I got out.”
The Dodgers took note of Miller’s still-lively 94 mph fastball, sweeping slide and high sniff rates and identified him as a reliever on the rise, one who could help alleviate the loss of injured setup man Blake Treinen and complement a bullpen led by Daniel. Hudson, Evan Phillips, Alex Vesia, and Brusdar Graterol.
“I started trying to fix everything and got into my own head. It was kind of a downward spiral effect.”
“He was very successful in triple-A and has made a complete transition to become a reliever,” Dodgers general manager Brandon Gomes said. “It’s an interesting pitch: a fastball with a kind of low groove, it gets up and runs, and the slider plays into that. We feel like he’s going to have a high strikeout rate with an average walk rate.”
Miller has begun throwing bullpen sessions with assistant pitching coach Connor McGuiness at the team’s spring training complex in Phoenix and is in constant phone contact with pitching coach Mark Prior.
He’s working on a split-finger changeup, an 89-mph pitch with a nice dunking action that he thinks “will be really good” and a sliced fastball above 80.
“We’re looking at how we can improve tunnel pitches and trying to hone my craft a little bit,” Miller said. “These guys are so knowledgeable. Connor and Mark are amazing guys who know a lot about pitching, how to get guys out, how to swing and miss, and how we can do this every day.”
Miller had a five-pitch repertoire as a starter and established himself as one of the best young pitchers in the game in 2013, earning a spot in the Cardinals’ rotation as a 22-year-old and finishing third in the NL as rookie of the year. voting year.
He went 31-35 with a 3.27 ERA in 95 starts over three seasons (2013 to 2015) with St. Louis and Atlanta and made his first All-Star team in 2015, but his career took a nosedive after he was traded. the Braves. to the Diamondbacks at the 2015 winter meetings.
Arizona had parted ways with Zack Greinke, the 2015 NL Cy Young runner-up, from the Dodgers on a $206.5 million, six-year contract and viewed Miller as the final piece of a championship-caliber rotation that it included Patrick Corbin and Robbie Ray.
So the Diamondbacks sent prospect shortstop Dansby Swanson, the first overall pick in the 2015 draft, and two other players to Atlanta for Miller, a trade that was widely criticized when it was announced and looked worse a few years later.
While Swanson thrived in Atlanta, Miller went 5-18 with a 6.35 ERA in 29 games for Arizona, a three-year stint Miller described as “a roller coaster.” It really all went downhill, starting with the game in which he stuck his fingers on the mound, an injury that forced him out of that game after two innings.
“I’ve always had a very long follow-up, but it was definitely a weird time, and we couldn’t really pinpoint the reason why it happened,” Miller said. “After that, I got into a rut.”
Miller went 2-9 with a 7.14 ERA in 14 starts in 2016 before being demoted to Class AAA in early July. He returned in late August and went 3-12 with a 6.15 ERA in 20 starts.
“His fastball still had pretty good velocity, but he couldn’t spin the ball and it affected his control,” Butcher said of the finger injury. “I don’t want to make excuses for him, but for me, it affected his game in a big way.”
What seemed like a minor physical problem turned into a bigger mental one.
“I was coming off an All-Star season and I had never wrestled like I was, and I was just scratching my head, wondering what the hell was going on,” Miller said. “I started trying to fix everything and got into my own head. It was kind of a downward spiral effect.”
Miller’s struggles were a drag on a team expected to challenge for a division title, but he finished fourth with a 69-93 record, after which manager Chip Hale and general manager Dave Stewart were fired.
“I think he put a lot of pressure on himself to be ‘the guy,’ to perform at a higher level, because he knew we traded a lot to get there,” Butcher said. “I was trying to be perfect in an imperfect game.”
Miller tore a ligament in his elbow in his fourth start of 2017 and underwent Tommy John surgery in May. He returned in late June 2018, 13 months after surgery: “I rushed and I wasn’t ready,” he said, going 0-4 with a 10.69 ERA in five games. He was fired after the season.
“Those years in Arizona,” Miller said, “we’re a little crazy.”
So were the next four years, in which Miller made just 36 major league appearances and opted out of the 2020 season due to the coronavirus. But he showed enough in 2022 to warrant a guaranteed major league contract from the Dodgers.
“My family and my friends kept me going, they all told me, ‘You’ve still got it,’ they just believed in me, they made me not want to stop playing,” Miller said. “I have a lot left in the tank. I think I’m going to have a great year in 2023. I’m excited about it.”