I’ve been more optimistic than most about the Indians’ offseason — I can admit that. Even in light of Paul Dolan’s ill-advised comments today in an interview with The Athletic that forced me to re-write this opening paragraph to tone back some of that optimism, the Tribe’s plan has always made some level of sense deep down, even if it hasn’t been exciting to watch.
The Indians are going to win the American League Central this season. They’ll probably win it next season. If they want to maximize their chances to win the World Series, one route is to just try and win the division a dozen times and hope you break through one of them. You can easily make the argument that the 2016 team — the one that actually made it to the dance — was the worst Indians team of the past three years. Surely 2017 was better, and 2018 was mostly the same players, just further along in their development.
I have no behind-the-scenes insights into the Indians’ front office, but if I had to guess at what exactly they’re doing not paying Marwin Gonzalez $60 million, or paying Craig Kimbrel whatever lump sum he wants, I would guess they’re doing something along the lines of “don’t compromise the future for a chance at winning a little harder this year.” It might work, but it’s not the safest strategy, and it can leave your roster exposed very quickly.
You know, like it already has.
Francisco Lindor is going to miss Opening Day with a calf issue, and last week it was revealed that Jason Kipnis will also be sidelined. Only Lindor will hit the injury reserve list (along with Bradley Zimmer), but the Indians’ middle infield is completely and totally depleted heading into Opening Day. The idea of stretching your roster to its breaking point in order to maintain the prospect of a winning team in the future is great until things start to fall apart and you don’t have the depth. It can result in crazy things happening, like Max Moroff and Eric Stamets being slated to take up two spots in your lineup that has playoff aspirations.
In an effort to address this newfound hole, the Indians went out and signed Brad Miller to a major league deal on Sunday, less than 48 hours after he opted out of his minor league deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Miller is the epitome of everything the current front office looks for in their free agent signings, dating back to the Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn debacle — he’s not too old, he’s shown some signs of life in the past, and he can still hit the ball hard.
Hanley Ramirez, for instance, fills out two of those three qualifications well. Miller is only 29 and his batted ball data suggests he could make a return to peak form, even if the results haven’t been great. He was a solid player in 2016, swatting 30 home runs in 152 games for the Tampa Bay Rays. He didn’t show much of an eye at the plate, walking just 7.8 percent of the time and getting on base at a .304 clip, but the power was clearly there, and his 111 wRC+ was enough to overcome his lacking defense for an overall value of 2.3 FanGraphs WAR.
Since then, he’s pretty much fallen off a cliff due to numerous, seemingly very impactful, injuries.
Even prior to his first injury, though, Miller showed signs of his power starting to wain. He slugged just .318 through his first 163 plate appearances in 2017, but maintained a .350 on-base percentage thanks to patience at the plate that drew him 30 walks to 45 strikeouts. He was still an effective hitter, just in a different way. No one is going to complain about a full season of a 15 percent walk rate. The injury troubles started in May when the Rays sent him to the injured list (then called the disabled list) with a left abdominal strain. He was activated on June 1, but it wouldn’t last long.
Less than a week later, on June 7, Miller was back on the disabled list. This time it was his right groin. He was activated on July 7 and has stayed mostly healthy since, save for one short trip to the disabled list on April 9, 2018 for a left groin strain.
It’s a fairly arbitrary line in the sand to draw, but Miller was a completely different hitter before and after his initial disabled list stints in 2017.
From his major league debut on June 28, 2013 through his last game before his abdominal strain on May 15, 2017, Miller made contact 77.4 percent of the time overall, including 65.9 percent of the time on pitches out of the zone. He swung 48 percent of the time overall, and chased pitches 31.0 percent of the time.
From his return on July 7, 2017 through his most recent game in the majors on July 26, 2018, Miller has made contact 70 percent of the time overall, and 59.2 percent of the time on pitches outside of the zone. That’s a 7.4 percent drop in his overall contact rate and a 6.7 percent drop in his contact on chased pitches. All that while still swinging at 48.2 percent of the pitches he saw and chasing 31.1 percent of the time — hardly a change from his pre-injury approach.
It’s also ugly in graph form.
Pitchers didn’t necessarily attacking him differently either; he saw roughly the same kind of pitches before and after his initial injury. The guy just couldn’t make contact like he used to, and it’s resulted in him being released and/or traded three times in the last year. Miller had rode a hot 2016 to a $3.6 million payday in 2017, and a $4.5 million payday last season, only to see it come crashing down around him.
The upside of Miller, and the reason he garnered a major league deal from the stingy Indians, is that his raw power is still very much there. Miller’s average 90.8 exit velocity last season was 0.5 higher than his peak season in 2016, and he barreled the ball a career-high 10.7 percent of the time. It resulted in a 49.3 percent hard-hit rate, good for 15th in all of baseball among players with at least 150 batted balls.
Similar to the Hanley Ramirez signing earlier in the offseason, Miller has the profile of a hitter that can still hit the ball hard. He just has holes that need to be addressed. In Hanley’s case, it’s a drooping launch angle and the slow death-march of time. For Miller, it’s making contact — and as a bonus, he’s still on the better side of 30 for another seven months.
For what it’s worth, Miller has showed a lot of improvement with his contact this spring, despite not making the Dodgers’ Opening Day roster. In 12 games with the Doyers, Miller went 10-for-26 with two home runs for an impressive, improbable slash line of .385/.429/.615. He also faced some legitimate pitching, too, with a quality of opponent rating of 8.5, tied for third among all spring training batters who have had at least 20 at-bats.
Can the Indians actually fix him in time for the regular season? I don’t know... maybe? But like most of my go-to feelings towards the Indians offseason to this point, it’s worth it to wait and see it. At best, they have a previously untapped power source to compliment Lindor, Ramirez, and Santana, and at worst they either have a suitable platoon bat against righties, or an easy release candidate that no one in Cleveland will ever think about again.