Owen Miller has been a rock in the Guardians’ lineup so far this season. The most common clean-up hitter for Terry Francona (30 times), Miller has paid off the confidence with a 111 wRC+ and 1.0 fWAR in 201 plate appearances this season.
In recent games, however, Miller’s found himself a bit lower in the order — and maybe that change should have come earlier. Since May 1, Miller has been slashing .213/.266/.315 with a wRC+ of just 63, an enormous fall off from his 228 wRC+ for the month of April. Part of this is due to luck, as Miller’s BABIP in April was .486, which roughly halved in May to .246. While his luck hasn’t changed much thus far in June (.250 BABIP), Miller’s rolling average wRC+ is creeping back toward league average, which might have a lot to do with the pitches he’s facing.
In most at-bats, Miller is seeing more fastballs than any other kind of pitch, but as the threat Miller posed at the plate increased, the number of fastballs he saw decreased. Pitchers attacked Miller with more breaking balls, and it had an effect. The effect was not evident in his performance on individual pitches, as his xwOBA against breaking balls actually increased in May as he saw more of those pitches. The effect was more within Miller, and it might be the opposite effect of what we have seen with most Cleveland hitters in 2022.
April 15 was Miller’s peak in terms of wRC+ (245) and also swing percentage. As pitchers varied their offerings and presented Miller with more breaking and offspeed pitches, his aggressiveness waned and, with it, so did his offensive production. Miller is not Steven Kwan or Myles Straw, he’s a middle-of-the-pack guy in terms of swing percentage (47.5%, 74th in MLB for 2022), and his ability to lay off balls is worse than league average (36.5% O-swing%, 125th); however, it seems like aggressiveness might be a part of his success.
With his skill set, Miller needs to make contact. He ranks in the 43rd percentile for average exit velocity, 53rd percentile for maximum exit velocity, 30th percentile for hard-hit percentage, and 49th percentile for walk percentage, and yet he still manages to be in the 68th percentile in expected batting average. During the big downturn in his run creation, when he was swinging less, Miller slightly increased his strikeout percentage (20.7 vs. 22.2% in April vs. May) and dramatically decreased his walk percentage (12.1 vs. 5.1% in April vs. May). Swinging less, but striking out more and walking less is counterintuitive, which kind of seems like the Owen Miller story at this point. The only way it all works is by making contact. And that only happens when he swings the bat.
Remember that Miller’s BABIP was astronomical in the first month of the season? Well, that’s not too different from his numbers in the minors, in which he ran BABIPs of .369, .382, .328, and .379 at Low-A, Single-A, Double-A, and Triple-A to which he paired wRC+ numbers of 135, 145, 121, and 132, respectively. Simply put, Owen Miller makes good things happen when he connects with the ball.
Miller’s success comes from slapping the ball around the field and using his speed to create hits. Though he does pull the ball a bit more often and might benefit from pulling the ball even more (see his 289 wRC+ on balls hit to left as evidence), he regularly uses the whole field, with some uniformity in his 35.9, 36.6, and 27.5% rates hitting to the pull, center, and opposite fields.
We’re already seeing a bit of a resurgence from Miller (or maybe regression toward the mean), perhaps as a result of his swing percentage increasing. Maybe it has something to do with moving him away from the clean-up spot. More likely, I think, it has to do with Owen Miller doing Owen Miller things: Being aggressive and hitting line drives around the field to create offense.
It’s been cool seeing guys like Kwan, Straw, and, of course, José Ramírez bucking the league-wide trends by swinging less and creating more offense (more Ramírez than the other two lately, unfortunately), Miller can be an important part of the Guardians’ offense without perfectly matching that profile. Miller has walked and struck out a bit less than league average this year, and if he can keep slapping line drives around the field, I think he can continue to be a strong presence in Cleveland.