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Wednesday, August 6, 2014
Shelby Miller remains a work in progress

By Anna McDonald

ST. LOUIS -- Doing his own laundry, that was difficult. There were also times when he was homesick. Shelby Miller was away from his family and in a totally different environment.

Miller, taken 19th overall by the St. Louis Cardinals in the June 2009 draft, went straight from Brownwood High School in Brownwood, Texas, to the minor leagues. He was a phenom who threw four no-hitters in high school. And he didn't have much time to figure out who he was or how to live on his own before he started his professional career.

"It's shocking," Miller recalled of those first days in the minor leagues as an 18-year-old. "You have to adapt quick, because obviously this is our profession. This is what we are here to do. I guess at first I was maybe a little shocked at how it was, just kind of how it all ran, and then you adapt to it. You make friends, and it's just completely different than high school baseball."

One of the friends he made in the minor leagues was Joe Kelly, who will make his debut for the Boston Red Sox on Wednesday pitching against Miller. Miller and Kelly grew up together -- learning the baseball life -- in a Cardinals minor league system awash with young pitching talent.

Shelby Miller
Shelby Miller is 8-8 with a 4.14 ERA in 22 outings (21 starts) this season.
Miller made his major-league debut at 21 on Sept. 5, 2012. The expectation for Miller has always been that he's destined to be a front-line starter, but the unfolding question is how to get him there.

There's no arguing his talent: No. 1 prospect in the Cardinals' organization by Baseball America in 2010 and 2011; Cardinals Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2010 and 2011; finished third in the 2013 National League Rookie of the Year voting; and on May 10 of last season, he became the only pitcher in Cardinals history to retire 27 straight batters in a game.

But 2014 hasn't been as smooth. Relying primarily on his 94 mph four-seam fastball, Miller is 8-8 with a 4.14 ERA. His strikeouts are down and his walks are up from 2013.

"The pitch I need to work on the most is probably my fastball, my command to each side of the plate," he said. "The velocity is there, but the command isn't exactly where I want it to be."

His curveball remains his primary offspeed pitch, although its velocity has dipped from an average of 79.4 mph in 2013 to 77 mph, and batters are hitting .323 against it, compared to .219 last year.

"My curveball, I feel like it's a sharp pitch and I have it where I need it and want it to be," Miller said. "But it's just executing at certain times. You know, I threw a good one the other night to Dee Gordon (who hit a line drive double to left field on July 20)."

It could be a little bit of bad luck, Miller said, when he makes a good pitch but is still giving up hits. "For the most part, I felt like it's been a good pitch for me this year," he said.

Highly regarded pitching prospects such as Miller are under more scrutiny than ever because the hype begins when they're still in the minors. We forget the context of how pitchers like John Smoltz and Tom Glavine started their careers. Glavine had a 4.29 ERA in more than 400 innings from age 21 to 23. Smoltz averaged 7.3 strikeouts per nine innings in his first full season in 1989, but slid to 5.8 by 1991.

"The evolution of learning how to pitch starts in the minor leagues and ends up developing in the major leagues," said Smoltz, now an MLB Network analyst. "If you look at the early parts of mine or Tom Glavine's career, I wasn't celebrated like a high-drafter or a phenom coming on to the scene. I was able to pitch 21 years. No one has come back to ask any of us what we did to be successful. No high-ranking official that I know of has ever come and picked our brain and said, 'How did you do it?' No one has even attempted to find out."

Teams are making their own way, trying to figure out how to best handle a young pitcher like Miller. The Cardinals are no exception. Every team has a different formula, and Miller, moved to the bullpen the last two weeks of July (he made one relief appearance), has been there twice during his career, having pitched in relief during last year's postseason.

"I'm told it's for rest and stuff," Miller said.

Manager Mike Matheny put the bullpen stint this way: "I've told Shelby a number of times, I've told everyone else, a number of times, but no one wants to believe it, but we're trying to get Shelby rest. Nothing more than that."

The Cardinals, when they refer to "rest," think of it in two ways. One is simply no pitching. With the second, they may move someone into the bullpen so they can take a breather from starting. In Miller's case, they wanted to lower his total innings pitched, as well as give him a break from starting.

With the cautious and careful way the Cardinals are handling him, the hope is Miller has every opportunity for a long and successful career. That strikeout percentage is down from 23.4 percent to 15.6 while his walk percentage has increased from 7.9 percent to 10.6. His overall rate of strikes is down from 65.9 percent to 62.5.

"The biggest thing is taking it game by game and not worrying about what you did last week, or last month, or the first half," Miller said. "It's more just figuring out a way to help the team win."

If he ever needed a reminder the Cardinals are committed to him, he has to look no farther than across the diamond Wednesday at his good friend pitching for the Red Sox. Miller says he's grateful to have been drafted by a good organization.

"We've got guys around here, veteran leadership, and guys who through the minor leagues could just pour that attitude into our blood, just kind of brainwash you to win," he said. "I mean, everybody wants to win, but there's something pretty special about this organization, the manager, and just how the organization is run. … I wouldn't want to be a part of any other place."