30 players, 30 teams, 30 days – Nationals

 

For a team that has a lot of fantasy-worthy players, I’m missing out on a lot Nats. Bryce Harper didn’t make it on to any of my teams, though I wasn’t necessarily avoiding him. I’ve lamented the lack of Adam Eaton on my rosters earlier this season, when he was tearing up the Reds to begin the season. I actively avoided Daniel Murphy because of his knee injury and my fear that it would take longer to return than expected, and that he’d be compromised once he did return. But the player I want to discuss today is someone who I’m certain I gave no thought, let alone consideration, this year or even last, and that’s reliever Justin Miller.

Miller signed a minor league deal with the Nationals in January, after spending the entire 2017 in Triple-A Salt Lake in the Angels’ farm system. Looking at his numbers last year, there was little reason for the Angels to promote him. He had a 5.48 ERA and 1.26 WHIP in 46 relief innings there. His velocity had dropped to 90 mph on his fastball after previously hovering around 93 mph in previous seasons. At age 30 to begin the season, there was little reason to think that he’d make a big impact in 2018.

But once again, baseball has found a breakout player in an unlikely place. Miller has regained velocity, specifically on his fastball, where he’s up to averaging 95 mph. With that added velocity, along with pinpoint control, Miller has been utterly dominant. At Triple-A Syracuse, before he got promoted to the big leagues by the Nats, he had not allowed an earned run over 13.2 innings, striking out 23 while allowing three hits and three walks. That success has continued upon his arrival to the big leagues – he still hasn’t given up his first earned run this season, going 10.2 innings with a 21:0 K:BB and just two hits allowed.

Where did this come from? For his part, Miller credits his offseason work to improve his fitness and mechanics at Cressey Sports Performance in Las Vegas. Teammate Brandon Kintzler is among the major league players that have done some work there in the past, and has the same agent as Miller. The workout facility specializes in identifying areas of muscular weakness and fixing the mechanics that go along with that. Miller also focused on losing weight in the offseason. As colleague Scott Pianowski has observed, we’ve often mocked the “best shape of his life” reports in spring training, or training camp in the NFL, but sometimes that improved conditioning really matters.

Miller also has a unique closed delivery which prevents opposing hitters to get a good view of his stuff – and with that increased velocity, suddenly those hitters have very little time to identify his pitches. He retired two left-handed batters in this sequence – imagine how right-handers feel against this delivery (H/T to DistrictOnDeck – a great Nats-specific blog who was way ahead of me on Miller):

The Nats really could use Miller right now. Kintzler is on the DL, as are Joaquin Benoit and Koda Glover. Worse, so are Stephen Strasburg and Jeremy Hellickson in the rotation, forcing the organization to dig deep from the likes of Erick Fedde to start games. The likelihood of those replacements going deep into games seem slim, so that bullpen will be leaned on heavily in those starts.

Miller has already picked up four wins since his recall – clearly that’s not bankable, but … a team that has a strong offense and shaky starting pitching seems like a good formula for relievers to pick up wins, especially win that pitcher is as strong as Miller. The only danger to his fantasy value is that he moves into a primary set-up role – ironically an improvement in his standing will prevent him from picking up wins, in exchange for holds, which aren’t as frequently used. Should something happen to Sean Doolittle – and nothing ever happens to Doolittle, right? – the Nats might turn to Miller immediately instead of some of their previous alternatives.