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Saturday, July 16, 2011
A tale of two pitchers

By Dave Gershman


Friday night’s duel in St. Petersburg between the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays featured an extra dose of significance. It didn’t have anything to do with the bevvy of homers hit, and it had absolutely nothing to do with the Rays’ walloping of the Sox. Instead, it was a bittersweet story that we witness each and every year. Before David Price and Andrew Miller were yanked from the ballgame, they opposed each other in a matchup that, four years ago, might have been considered one for the ages as a showdown between young guns. Instead, this matchup symbolized the fact that not every drool-inducing prospect makes it as a star.

In the spring of 2006, the University of North Carolina’s team boasted one of the best college arms some scouts had ever seen. Miller not only dominated the opposing teams in his conference, he dominated aspiring prospects in the Cape Cod League. For a while, he was projected as the first overall pick in the draft. Despite falling to sixth overall, he was still the top left-handed arm selected in that draft class.

A year and a day later, the best pitcher in the country -- a left-hander as well -- went first overall. You might have heard of him as the ace southpaw and two-time All-Star for the Rays: Price. At the time each was picked, the question was not, “Is this guy going to get to the bigs?” The question was, “How soon?” Both hardly prompted questioning regarding any facet of their makeup, stuff or potential.

However, the tough and rocky road in professional baseball took its toll: Price succeeded; Miller faltered. Baseball is as funny a game as any, and Friday’s matchup was a reflection of that, showing us that even the best prospects don’t always pan out.

In any case, Miller and Price pitching against each other tells us that despite everything going wrong in Miller’s young career, he’s valued by the contending Red Sox -- for now. He’s here for a reason. The reason truly might be that he’s here by default, as three from the initial contingent of Red Sox starters -- Clay Buchholz, Jon Lester and Daisuke Matsuzaka -- are currently on the shelf.

Miller is a valuable experiment for now because Triple-A Pawtucket has offered almost all it can at this point. Guys such as Felix Doubront are not yet ready, and prospect Junichi Tazawa is still getting back in the swing of things following Tommy John surgery.

The nagging problem is that Miller isn’t any different than the guy the Marlins recently gave up on. He can’t throw strikes consistently, nor can he keep the ball in the yard. Heck, Friday night’s game was lousy, even by Miller’s standards.

Compared to last season, Miller has actually lowered his walk rate by nearly three per nine innings. However, his strikeout rate has also dropped while his contact rate has gone up. Batters are connecting 77 percent of the time when they swing; last year, that figure was 70 percent. To put his decreased strikeouts into perspective, he’s punching out more than two fewer guys per nine than last season.

On the other hand, Price has enjoyed lots of success this year, continuing the success expected of him from his days on Vanderbilt’s diamonds. It’s no surprise that he is valued much differently than Miller. Price has walked less than two batters per nine innings this year and has struck out almost a man per frame. In addition, he’s posted a fielding independent pitching (FIP) of 2.90, 80 points less than his ERA on the season. His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is right around league average (.290) and has been worth 1.6 wins so far halfway through the season. In other words, he’s been really solid. He’s the centerpiece of a young, ace-filled rotation the Rays hope to rely on for years to come. That’s obviously hoping that Price remains a Ray and that Wade Davis gets his act together. And it relies on the expectation that Matt Moore’s development doesn’t falter like, say, Miller’s.

It’s intriguing to look at how similar Price and Miller were at the time they were drafted, and how different they are now. Not just different on the pitching end of things, but one is extremely coveted by his team and the other might lose a rotation spot in the weeks to come -- especially after the trade deadline.

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Dave Gershman is the author of Marlins Daily, an affiliate of the SweetSpot network.