Miller hopes his time will come
Veteran 6-foot-7 left-hander says he's headed in the right direction with Red Sox
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- There are safer places to watch Saturday night's Duke-North Carolina basketball rematch than with Red Sox pitcher Andrew Miller and his wife, Katie.
Take, for example, the Millers' reaction when Austin Rivers, the Duke guard and son of the Celtics coach, hit a buzzer-beater to give the Blue Devils an 85-84 win on Feb. 8, the last time the storied rivals met.
"She was jumping up and down,'' Miller said the other day. "I was crying."
Miller was an All-American baseball player at North Carolina, winning the Roger Clemens Award as college baseball's best pitcher as a junior. Katie was a four-year soccer player at Duke. Katie's mom and dad are both Dukies. So is her brother. Think about a Yankees fan and a Sox fan being married to each other -- we've heard that phenomenon exists -- and you get the idea.
Did Miller, who met Katie in their hometown of Gainesville, Fla., have any second thoughts before walking down the aisle?
"No," he said, "they're all too good to me. We dated for a long time. I knew what I was getting into.
"But as hard as we try, that [last UNC-Duke] game was tough, I'll be honest with you. I wasn't in the mood to talk and hang out with her after the game. And she's not the nicest person in the world when Carolina wins.
"I don't know if it'll get any better or worse the longer we're together, but it's not a lot of fun right now."
But let there be no doubt: There is one outcome for which Andrew and Katie are rooting together -- that this is the season Miller finally establishes himself as a big league pitcher.
Manager Bobby Valentine is right there with them.
"I'm really excited about the idea of Andrew Miller pitching for this team," Valentine said earlier in camp. "There are like four guys in the world who are over 6-foot-5 and can throw over 95. We have one of them."
The clock is a factor in Boston. The left-handed pitcher is out of options with the Red Sox, which means they cannot send him back to the minor leagues without placing him on waivers. The Sox signed Miller to a minor league deal last season after he flamed out with the Marlins but discouraged other teams from claiming him on waivers by tacking on a provision that would require another team to pay him $3 million in 2012 if it took him.
Miller also had an option to leave if he wasn't promoted to the big leagues by a certain date, but he displayed his confidence that Boston was the right place for him by not exercising that option. Both he and the Red Sox had said the restoration process would take some time, and it did: Miller showed glimpses -- he posted a 6-3 record while appearing in 17 games for the Sox, including a dozen starts. But he still walked too many batters (40 in 65 innings), and after a run of four straight starts in late August and early September, pitched just 3 2/3 innings in the last three weeks of the season, the Sox unwilling to run him out there even though injuries had left them desperate for a starter.
Bob McClure is Boston's new pitching coach. How would he unlock Miller's vast potential?
"If there was a way,'' he said, "I'd have him hit against himself. That's all he would need to see."
Since that technological breakthrough has yet to be made, here was McClure's advice to Miller: "Keep it simple. And stay out of your own head."
Here's an example of what McClure means when he says keep it simple. He was watching from behind the cage when Miller threw a pitch. "How often are you going to throw that pitch?" McClure called out. "Get rid of it."
The pitch was a two-seamed fastball that is supposed to start outside the strike zone, then bore in on right-handed hitters. "That's one of the toughest pitches to command that you can throw,'' McClure explained later. "Establish your command on the outside corner before you even try to throw that pitch.''
McClure found a receptive listener in Miller.
"That's not a pitch I've ever thrown and been comfortable with,'' the tall left-hander said. "It's just something I've messed around with, but yeah, if it's a pitch you're not going to use, why spend time working on it?
"Maybe after you're settled in and really comfortable, that's the time to work on it. He thought I was wasting too much energy on it, and he's absolutely right."
Miller had his moments with the Red Sox last season. He began the season with Pawtucket, which was expected, but when he was promoted in June, the Sox ran off wins in his first three starts. And while he wasn't going deep into games, there were flashes of dominance. But then there were 15 walks in 15 1/3 innings over his next three starts, and by the end of July, he was out of the rotation.
He rebounded in mid-August with back-to-back strong starts, including 6 1/3 scoreless innings against the powerful Texas Rangers in what ranked as his best outing of the season. But a week later, in a return engagement against the Rangers in Fenway Park, he gave up six runs in just 1 1/3 innings, and after giving up five runs in five innings against the Blue Jays in his next start, manager Terry Francona gave up on him.
By his count, the 6-foot-7 Miller has had six pitching coaches on three teams since being drafted in the first round by the Detroit Tigers in 2006 and fast-tracked to the big leagues the same year. They have all meant well, he said, and all had his best interests at heart. But having so many voices in his head has added to the challenge of self-discovery that will allow him to maximize stuff that is universally recognized as special. Most of his mentors have focused on trying to break him of the habit of throwing across his body, which they believe is a major factor in his command and control issues because it becomes so hard to repeat his delivery. McClure, for example, has suggested that he realign his back foot.
"I think it's something people are always going to notice about me throwing the ball," Miller said. "It's what I do to an extent. I know at one point I had worked out my mechanics to where I was straight. In doing so, all my stuff wasn't as good. My off-speed stuff wasn't as crisp. My fastball command wasn't even improved. I was putting more effort into a lower velocity level.
"I think part of it is maybe that's just the way my body works," he said. "I know I'm not going to be perfect. I know I'm going to walk somebody this year. It's a matter of getting ahead in counts and putting myself in position to limit baserunners, but I'll take my chances with my stuff if I throw the ball in the zone."
Miller will turn 26 on May 21. He has just more than 500 innings of pitching pro ball, almost 300 fewer than Clay Buchholz, who is almost a year older but still considered a developing pitcher. The arm is still strong. The unfulfilled potential still beckons. The Red Sox would love to see him compete for a spot in the rotation. Failing that, he could be a great weapon out of the 'pen. If.
"This is my seventh season,'' he said. "I'm starting to figure out what I need to do, what I need to filter and what's going to work for me. It's part of the process for me. The path to get here has been a little different, but I'm going in the right direction. I like working with Mac a lot, and I think I've learned a lot from these tumultuous years.
"I'm confident. I'm throwing the ball like things are going in the right direction. We're honing where we have to be. We're fine-tuning."
Now, if Miller could just be as confident about the Tar Heels on Saturday night, maybe he'll be the one jumping up and down.
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.