After two starts in his major league career, Bobby Miller was already looking for a change.
Weeks earlier, the Dodgers’ top-pitching contender had made a stellar major league debut, limiting the powerful Atlanta Braves to one run in five innings.
Days later, the right-hander looked even better as he went six innings in another one-run game against the resurgent Washington Nationals in late May.
For a former late first-round draft pick with just eight starts in Triple A, Miller had already exceeded what were initially modest expectations. At 1.90m tall, he was already well on his way to becoming the club’s latest rookie sensation, firing fastballs at 100mph.
Still, he noticed an area for improvement – an opportunity to speed up his ever-evolving development process and add a little more polish to his rapidly improving game.
In his first two starts, the 24-year-old knocked out just nine batters in 11 innings. While his sinking two-seam fastball resulted in soft contact and easy outs, he was looking for a complementary weapon to knock away more batters.
“I know the guys will be ready for my fastball before every game,” said Miller, whose high-speed heating has long eclipsed his sidecourts. “I want to get to the point where they have to respect my other stuff too.”
So he and the Dodgers’ pitching coaches tinkered with a new slider form in a bullpen session before his third pitch.
With a simple grip adjustment, Miller began throwing the court harder and with a little less flex, hoping it would be harder for opponents to tell him from his hand.
The results in two starts since: Back-to-back, scoreless six-inning Jewels against the star-studded New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies, with Miller notching seven strikeouts each.
The bottom line for the Dodgers forwards: Despite a lackluster minor league track record, Miller’s skills set him up for immediate MLB success.
“For him, everyone sees 100 and [thinks]”Oh man, just pump heaters,” assistant pitching coach Connor McGuiness said. “But he has so many guns … It’s almost like calling a video game.”
At four launches in three weeks, Miller’s numbers are also akin to a video game.
He’s 3-0 with just two earned runs in 23 innings, numbers the Dodgers haven’t seen from a debut pitcher since Kenta Maeda in 2016 and Fernando Valenzuela’s legendary 1981 season before that.
He has become an integral part of the team’s top-flight rotation and has led the club in wins and innings since his call-up on 23 May.
“Of course, that’s more than we could have wished for,” said Andrew Friedman, president of the baseball division. “We knew the premium stuff was there. But with a young player you never really know until he stands up and has success and failure.”
Billy Gasparino, the Dodgers’ vice president of amateur scouting, said, “I think ‘show up’ is a great word. I think he’s still evolving. But honestly it was a step up in the big leagues.”
Three and a half years ago, Miller’s journey to rookie stardom required a rather fortuitous first step: his rise to fame with the Dodgers began in a nondescript college duel.
Early in his junior season at Louisville, Miller was considered an interesting candidate with great potential — but not a strong contender for a first-round call-up.
“There were several areas where he needed improvement,” Gasparino recalls of a pitcher who even then had a lively fastball but lacked control and consistency on his secondary throws.
“He had a big body, a big arm,” added Dodgers area scout Marty Lamb. “But he wasn’t a big name.”
Things changed quickly, however, as Lamb watched Louisville play a pre-season intrasquad game with Miller on the mound.
A longtime member of the Dodgers’ scouting operation, Lamb was involved in the selection Walker Buehler, Will Smith and numerous other future big league players. He was used to seeing young players make big, unexpected strides.
Yet the growth Miller showed that day still impressed him. His fastball speed was in the high 90s. In addition, he displayed a number of improved braking and off-speed pitches that neither Lamb nor much of the scouting industry – which was at odds over Miller’s future as a relief or starter – knew he possessed.
“He was over the moon,” Lamb said. “Just a different guy than I’ve seen before.”
So much so that the veteran Boy Scout feared only one thing.
“If he [does this] “All year long,” Lamb recalled, concerned that Miller’s stock would rise too much for the Dodgers’ late-round pick, “we don’t catch him” in the draft.
“I think he’s still developing. But honestly it was a step up in the big leagues.”
— Billy Gasparino, vice president of amateur scouting for the Dodgers, on Bobby Miller
Unfortunately, things turned out differently.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced an early cancellation of Miller’s junior campaign and halted the season just as his stock was gaining momentum.
Lamb never saw Miller in person again, but instead championed his potential as a future star.
And in the end, the Dodgers not only drafted the candidate — “we got lucky,” Lamb said with a smile — but have since seen him round out their recent pitching success story.
“He’s a fundamentally different pitcher than when we got him to where he is now,” said Rob Hill, the Dodgers’ minor league pitching director. “As talented as he is, he’s not always given enough credit for the many changes he’s made.”
That process began when Miller reported to the Dodgers’ alternate training location at USC during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season and was immediately tasked with figuring out what weapons would best suit him.
He started playing with a curveball. He turned his slider into more of a power pitch. He continued to refine his move, his best secondary option for a long time. He worked to make his fastball command more consistent with both his four-seater and his sinker.
“I remember him getting there and how quickly he made adjustments,” Gasparino said. “It would be like, ‘Hey, try this.’ And he would have made it within two pitches.”
This led to a win in his first minor league season in 2021. Miller dominated in the High A with a 1.91 ERA in 14 games. Towards the end of the year, national evaluators took notice and he was ranked among the top 100 contenders in all of baseball by consensus.
The 2022 season was a bigger challenge.
Although he was building muscle and adding speed to his fastball, which was regularly hitting 100 miles per hour for the first time in his life, Miller’s focus on development overshadowed his need to simply play at a higher level against older, more experienced hitters.
In Double-A Tulsa, he had a 4.45 ERA in 20 games. A late-season promotion to Triple-A team Oklahoma City didn’t fare much better, with Miller recording a 5.65 ERA in four starts before missing time at the end of the season.
“It’s a blessing to have so many quality pitches,” Gasparino said. “But when you’re young and still finding who you are, it can be difficult to figure out when to use them.”
Miller agreed, acknowledging that he sometimes tried to overdo his rapidly growing arsenal. More than once he made a mistake in the minors and wondered, “Why did I just throw that shot?”
The answer, of course, was obvious.
“Some days I was just so eager to get into the big leagues,” Miller said. “I was thinking about other things, not in the right headspace.”
Since debuting in the majors, all of those issues have quickly disappeared.
He enjoyed the Dodgers’ meticulous game-planning process. He channeled his adrenaline and kept his composure on the hill.
“We knew there was something special about the draft,” McGuiness said. “But seeing him do that – the strong presence, the ability to execute the game plan, communicate and work with everyone – was a huge enrichment for him.”
Admittedly, it was only a small selection, but Miller is already reiterating his much-touted potential and consistently proving his skills can play against MLB opponents.
After developing into the versatile starter the Dodgers envisioned, he basks in the glow of his sudden breakthrough.
“It’s not about development anymore,” said manager Dave Roberts. “And I think he accepted that.”