Shelby Miller hopes to revive MLB career with Dodgers in 2023

It was a jam shot, but not the kind Shelby Miller favored, created by nasty, bat-splintering pitches on opposing batsmen’s hands.

That stemmed from a mechanical error that left the middle finger on Miller’s pitching hand throbbing after the right-hander jammed his hand in the mound on his third start for an Arizona team that sold their top prospect to win it in 2016 further the follow-through of a second-inning pitch in San Diego.

“I’ve never seen anyone slam their hand down like that — never — and it wasn’t once, it was multiple times,” said Mike Butcher, the Diamondbacks’ 2016-2019 pitching coach.

“I thought, ‘What the hell is going on here?’ It was almost like pinching your finger with a basketball while trying to throw a baseball. It definitely influenced him.”

Miller has no idea how or why he hit the front of the mound at Petco Park that April night in 2016 — it’s never been in four minor league seasons and three big league seasons in St. Louis and Atlanta happens.

Shelby Miller rams his hand into the mound during a game with the Diamondbacks in April 2016.

But the unusual injury seemed to set off a cascade of disasters for a pitcher, who went from an All-Star season in 2015 to a Class AAA demotion in 2016, Tommy John surgery in 2017, an early comeback and a disastrous one 2018, a shabby 2019, was spent mostly in the minor leagues where he transitioned into the bullpen.

Nearly seven years later, Miller, 32, will try to revive his career at an organization known for turning scrap buys into highly productive big leagues. Million dollar major league deal with the Dodgers on December 2nd.

“It’s one of those things where you kind of have to ride the wave, man,” Miller said over the phone from his home in Phoenix. “I’ve had a lot of success in the big leagues, I’ve struggled a bit in recent years and playing in the minor leagues has been an enlightening experience.

“It kind of brings you back to loving baseball again and the grind of being rough and trying to get back into the big leagues and I did. So I’m happy to say that I stuck with it and didn’t give up.”

Miller began to wonder if he would get another big league shot. Released by four organizations from 2019-2021, Miller spent 5½ months in 2022 with the Class-AAA teams the New York Yankees and San Francisco Giants and posted a 2.87 ERA with 12 saves, 69 strikeouts, and 21 walks in 53 1/3 innings combined 43 games.

But it wasn’t until September 22 that Miller was finally called up by the Giants. He threw 5 2/3 innings scoreless in three games before being roughed up for five runs in 1 1/3 innings of his fourth and final game.

“I was dominating the minor leagues and it got to the point where I was like, ‘There’s nothing more I can do,'” Miller said. “I told my wife [Erika] that if I don’t get drafted, I never will. But I never stopped, I kept working hard, I got this opportunity and I ran away with it.”

The Dodgers took note of Miller’s still-buoyant 94-mph fastball, sweeping slider and high breath rates, identifying him as an up-and-coming helper who could help mitigate the loss of injured setup man Blake Treinen and one of Daniel to complement the listed Bullpen Hudson, Evan Phillips, Alex Vesia and Brusdar Graterol.

Shelby Miller delivers during a game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Philadelphia Phillies in September 2021.

Shelby Miller delivers during a game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Philadelphia Phillies in September 2021.

(Matt Slocum/Associated Press)

“I started fixing everything and got into my own head. It was kind of a downhill, spiraling effect.”

– Shelby Miller

“He’s had a lot of success in Triple A and has fully developed into a helper,” said Brandon Gomes, Dodgers general manager. “It’s an interesting throw — a fastball with a kind of low slot, rise-and-run, and the slider plays that out. We believe he will have a high strikeout rate with an average walk rate.”

Miller has begun throwing bullpen sessions with assistant pitching coach Connor McGuiness at the team’s spring training complex in Phoenix and is in constant phone contact with pitching coach Mark Prior.

He’s working on a split-finger transition, an 89-mph pitch with good jumping action that he thinks is “getting really good,” and an upper-80s cut fastball.

“We’re seeing how we can tunnel pitches off the heater better and trying to perfect my craft a little bit,” Miller said. “These guys are so knowledgeable. Connor and Mark are great guys who know a lot about pitching, how to get guys out, how to do swings and misses and how we can do that every day.”

Miller had a five-pitch repertoire as a starter and established himself as one of the game’s better young pitchers in 2013, when he secured a spot in the Cardinals’ rotation as a 22-year-old and finished third in the National League vote of the year.

He went 31-35 with a 3.27 ERA in 95 starts over three seasons (2013-2015) with St. Louis and Atlanta and fielded his first All-Star team in 2015, but his career took a hit after being dropped by the Braves was traded to the Diamondbacks at the 2015 winter meetings.

Arizona had sidestepped 2015 NL Cy Young runner-up Zack Greinke from the Dodgers to a six-year, $206.5 million contract and considered Miller the final piece in a championship-caliber rotation that included Patrick Corbin and Robbie Ray.

So the Diamondbacks sent shortstop prospect Dansby Swanson, the first overall pick in the 2015 draft, and two other players to Atlanta for Miller, a trade that was widely planned when it was announced and looked worse a few years later.

While Swanson was thriving in Atlanta, Miller, with a 6.35 ERA in 29 games for Arizona, went 5-18, a three-year stretch Miller described as a “roller coaster ride.” In reality, things were downhill, starting with the game in which he jammed his fingers into the mound, an injury that forced him out of the game after two innings.

Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Shelby Miller delivers against the New York Mets in September 2015.

Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Shelby Miller delivers against the New York Mets in September 2015.

(John Bazemore/Associated Press)

“I’ve always had a very long follow-up, but that was definitely a weird moment, and we really couldn’t find a reason why it happened,” Miller said. “After that, I faltered a bit.”

Miller went 2-9 in 2016 with a 7.14 ERA in 14 starts before being demoted to class AAA in early July. He returned in late August and finished with a 3-12 record and 6.15 ERA in 20 starts.

“His fastball still had pretty good speed, but he couldn’t spin the ball, which affected his control,” Butcher said of the finger injury. “I don’t want to make excuses for him, but for me it affected his game a lot.”

What seemed like a small physical problem turned into a bigger mental problem.

“I just came off an All-Star season and I’ve never really had any problems like I have, and I was just scratching my head and wondering what the hell was going on,” Miller said. “I started fixing everything and got into my own head. It was kind of a downhill, spiraling effect.”

Miller’s struggles weighed on a team that was supposed to be fighting for a division title but finished fourth with a 69-93 record, prompting the firing of manager Chip Hale and GM Dave Stewart.

“I think he put a lot of pressure on himself to be ‘the guy’ and play at a higher level because he knew we traded a lot to get him,” Butcher said. “He was trying to be perfect in an imperfect game.”

Miller tore his elbow ligament on his fourth start in 2017 and underwent surgery by Tommy John in May. He returned in late June 2018, 13 months after surgery — “I kind of rushed back and I wasn’t ready,” he said — going 0-4 in five games with a 10.69 ERA. After the season he was released.

“Those years in Arizona,” Miller said, “we’re a little cuckoo.”

So did the next four years, during which Miller played just 36 major league games and pulled out of the 2020 season because of the coronavirus. But he showed enough in 2022 to warrant a guaranteed big league contract from the Dodgers.

“My family and friends kept me going, everyone was like, ‘You still got it,’ just believed in me and made me keep playing,” Miller said. “I still have a lot in the tank. I think 2023 will be a big year for me. I look forward to it.” Shelby Miller hopes to revive MLB career with Dodgers in 2023

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