Washington Nationals: Justin Miller came back down to earth with a bang

We move into our third week of 2018 Report Cards as we cover several Washington Nationals players. This time, we look at relief pitcher Justin Miller.

It’s into week three of our 2018 Report Card series at District on Deck, as we continue to dive into the Washington Nationals roster. Next in the spotlight is Justin Miller, who couldn’t have had more of a Jekyll and Hyde season if he tried.

He initially got the call-up in late May after a sensational nine-game stint with the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs. He struck out 23 in 13.2 scoreless innings for the Chiefs, then carried that into the majors with 21 strikeouts in 10.2 innings during his first eight games.

He wound up finishing the season with a 7-1 record to go with an ERA of 3.61 and 60 Ks in 52.1 innings. He even ended up with two saves and 11 holds as he was thrust into a late-inning role early on with others faltering.

The Positives for Miller

Early on in the season, he appeared to reinvent himself with a slight change in his mechanics and with the start we mentioned above, it was paying off. But even after he slowed down, his deception was still making hitters swing at pitches out of the zone. He led Nats relievers with a 33.7 percent swing rate outside the zone, which also ranked 20th in the National League, just below Raisel Iglesias and Jeremy Jeffress who finished 19th and 18th respectively.

Justin Miller was also fantastic at stranding runners that he inherited from other Nationals pitchers. He was second on the staff in inherited runners stranded with a total of 23 stranded, and second on inherited runners stranded percentage among pitchers with at least 20 appearances, behind Sean Doolittle, at 11.5 percent. While some relievers struggle in that sort of situation, it’s clearly one that Miller thrived in, and that skill can be valuable in a major league bullpen.

Areas for Improvement

When Ross Shinberg talked about the collapse of Justin Miller, he noted how even though his fastball was superior, he continued to heavily use his slider. Hitters ended up hitting just .208 off his fastball, while his slider opposing batters hit .242 on the season. His fastball also generated more swinging strikes than his slider, which is pretty abnormal given the break on the latter pitch. If he wants to get back towards his dominant form, he needs to start abusing his fastball more.

When hitters did got contact off Miller, they often did some damage, as he struggled to keep the ball on the ground. His 33.6 percent groundball rate was sixth lowest in the NL among qualified relievers, and while his hard contact rate was middle of the road, his 52.2 percent medium contact rate was 14th in the NL. A lot of the contact came when he hung his slider in the zone, as this FanGraphs heatmap shows, and he’ll need to get that pitch out the zone more to be more effective.

The Final Grade

Despite attracting the attention of portions of the baseball world with his negative FIP to begin his Nats career, the mid-season regression was significant. While it’s likely he’ll be back in 2019, that drop in performance means he’ll need to step up this spring to hold his spot.

Overall, the way he was able to come up big for a team that once again suffered from inconsistency in the bullpen was certainly valuable. However, the iffy way that he finished the year, unfortunately, has to cap his 2018 grade. B-

JUSTIN MILLER

RP, Washington Nationals

B-

Next: Spencer Kieboom - 2018 Report Card

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