‘Feeling good again’: Brewers’ Miller aims to get back to form

At spring training there’s a mix of core players and prospects. Major-league veterans trying to hang on and experienced minor leaguers hoping for their first shot.

Then there’s Shelby Miller.

Once one of the game’s best pitchers, Miller is in Milwaukee Brewers’ camp looking to regain the form which propelled him to being named an All-Star in 2015 and finishing third in the National League Rookie of the Year vote in 2013.

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From 2012-15, Miller had a 3.22 ERA, 1.236 WHIP and 7.6 K/9 over 575 1/3 innings. Since, though, ineffectiveness and injuries have limited him to 183 innings, with 101 of those coming in 2016 with Arizona. His ERA over that span? A bloated 6.89.

Things went so bad in 2016 with the Diamondbacks that he was sent to Triple-A. It got worse in 2017 when he suffered an elbow injury and had Tommy John surgery after making just four starts. Returning in mid-June the following year, he made just five appearances (with a 10.69 ERA) before elbow issues shut him down again.

Miller signed with Texas before the 2019 season but his time with the Rangers lasted only a few months, released on July 4 after recording an 8.59 ERA and 1.977 WHIP in 44 innings over 19 games (with right starts).

A week later, the Brewers signed Miller. He’d make five starts for Triple-A San Antonio, sporting a 4.79 ERA but with 20 strikeouts in 20 2/3 innings. Miller wasn’t going to be an option for Milwaukee in its September call-ups and the pitcher “exercised the release clause in his contract” on Aug. 27 and became a free agent.

Exactly five months later, Miller signed back with the Brewers. But this wasn’t the same Miller who toiled in Triple-A.

During the offseason he shed weight. Miller said he was up to 250 pounds in 2019. The Brewers list him at 225 pounds.

“(I) didn’t feel that athletic, wasn’t really myself,” Miller said of his 2019 season. “Injuries might have set me back as far as I trained.”

Later he added, “This is the kind of shape I was in (before Tommy John surgery).”

It’s not just his conditioning. While Miller might have lost some pounds, he’s returning to his bread and butter.

The Rangers had him throwing 4-seam fastballs and curveballs. The Brewers coaching staff had other ideas.

“I came over here and they told me my pitch selection wasn’t where it needed to be,” Miller recalled. “I stopped throwing a sinker and cutter, which made me good in the past.”

If Miller can even get close to where he was in the past – he had an ERA+ of 122 in 2013 and 127 in ’15 –it’d be an unexpected find and boost to the staff, and likely the rotation.

Yes, the rotation. While Miller was used mostly in relief with Texas, he’s being stretched out. Perhaps his role will be as a long reliever but his preference is to start. After all, that’s where he’s had the most success in his career.

Counsell said Miller is being looked at as a starter for the Brewers – but down the line.

“Shelby needs to put some foundation beneath him. … He needs to pitch and have success. Feel good about his stuff,” Counsell said. “This is kind of investment in Shelby and we’re hoping he can pay big dividends as we get into the season.”

This has the potential to be a great story – a once-great pitcher making a comeback after four agonizing years. But this is a tale that will be told well after spring training, if at all.

“He’s a little father back, he’s starting over a little bit,” Counsell said. “But Shelby Miller has achieved some pretty special things in the big leagues and his arm, from what we’ve seen, is capable of doing that. How long it takes to get him there, I don’t have the answer.”

Counsell told of a message he relayed to Miller when the two met at the team’s Maryville facility at the start of camp.

“Let’s just give this some time,” the manager said to the pitcher, “it doesn’t have to happen overnight.”

Miller isn’t letting on his short- or long-term goals, but it’s clear he’s itching to see if he can get back to form.

“Feeling good again finally,” he said, “and (I’ll) see what I can do with it.”