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Shelby Miller, Easy Velocity, And His Finish

The Cardinals highly touted pitching prospect Shelby Miller made his Major League debut on Wednesday (9/5), striking out four Mets hitters in two innings of relief work. In this post I’d like to provide a brief look at Miller and his mechanics as they pertain to his velocity and command.

For those interested, here is a link of Miller’s debut outing at home from Wednesday (conveniently captured from a camera directly behind home). I will reference it several times and it may be useful to take a look at as you read over this post.

Consider this quote from Kiley McDaniel’s write up of a recent look at Miller, presumably while Miller was still in the minors,

“There are some things in Miller’s delivery to keep an eye on going forward. He has a consistent spin off to first base in his follow through that puts him in a bad position to field, but isn’t due to effort in his delivery, as there’s very little. With Miller’s angle to the plate, arm extension and balance in his delivery, his momentum at release is carrying him to the first base side. It clearly wasn’t affecting his command much, but is the sort of inefficiency that can become a problem when one part of the chain gets out of whack or fatigue sets in.”

I personally love reading McDaniel’s posts over at ESPN, but there are a few ideas here that left me puzzled and inspired this post. The two main ideas that I would like to discuss here are (1) effort in a pitchers delivery and what exactly that might mean; and (2) the idea that Miller’s finish may be problematic in some way, especially as it relates to command and velocity.

 

Effortless?

 

If you clicked on the video link above you would have heard the announcers describe Miller as having a “very easy, smooth, hard fastball.” The first half of that quote presumably refers to his delivery, and meshes well with McDaniel’s observation. Besides just our subjective look at the video, what evidence is there that Miller may have an easy/effortless delivery and velocity? A tempting answer may go like this: Miller has above average size, listed at 6’3” 195 lbs. Weight is correlated with ball velocity, and a longer arm/leg is theoretically a longer lever. This explains why scouts often comment on a pitcher’s size and view that size as an important factor in an evaluation of that player. So Miller may be able to generate velocity easier than some smaller pitchers (think, Pedro Martinez or Tim Lincecum) because he is a big guy.

This observation also provides some insight into Keith Law’s quote about Miller’s early season struggles in the minors this year, which Law attributed too, “an offseason conditioning program [that] caused him to lose enough weight to reduce his velocity and mess up his delivery.” If Miller is relying on his size to generate the plus heater, then we would expect that losing all that weight would lead to the velocity loss he reportedly suffered at the beginning of the season.

There are a lot of big guys in the big leagues, however, and not all of them generate their plus fastballs (if they have them) with the “low effort delivery” that Miller does. Not only that, but there are plenty of guys who lack the plus size yet still bring some serious heat (like the two guys named above). I think that we need to be careful with the claim that Miller has little to no effort in his delivery, or when we attribute any significant part of Miller’s velocity to his size (weight is only loosely correlated with velocity). It takes a lot of force and energy to throw a ball 95 MPH, even if you have above average size. In fact, “easy velocity” (easy velocity= low effort delivery + above average velocity) is sort of a misnomer. When people describe someone like Miller as having “easy velocity” what they are really describing is an efficient delivery. They confuse “little/no effort” with “little/no wasted effort.” This is more than just a semantic distinction. It is easy to imagine a pitcher who is both efficient (no wasted effort) but doesn’t exert a lot of physical effort on every pitch. Likewise, it is easy to imagine a pitcher who gives it 110% on every pitch, but isn’t particularly efficient (think, Joel Zumaya).

I am claiming that it is not Miller’s lack of effort that gives him that smooth delivery, but rather, it is his efficient mechanics with no wasted energy that results in what our eyes see as “easy velocity.” What does he do mechanically that makes him efficient? For brevity, here is just one example: stride direction. Miller’s stride direction as well as his foot alignment are slightly closed. This is biomechanically safe, as an open stride direction and foot alignment increases the kinetics of the shoulder (translation: not good for shoulder). Not only is this safe, but the fact that Miller is relatively online to home plate with his stride (and not grossly closed) will allow him to more easily utilize the torque created by his hips rotating ahead of his shoulders. This will help him generate velocity without having to fight to reorient himself towards home, resulting in both a 95 on the radar gun and a delivery that could be described as “smooth and easy.”

 

Spinning Off Towards First?

 

If I am understanding McDaniel correctly, he is referring to the “step-over” in Miller’s finish. Check out that video again from Miller’s debut. When you do, observe the fastballs thrown at the 32, 45, 50, and 55 second marks (also note the velocities). Miller finishes these deliveries with his right leg (backside leg) swung around his body towards first base. It’s not quite clear if this is exactly what McDaniel was commenting on, but if it is then I must respectfully disagree with his assessment that this is a potential problem. One name I’ve heard given to that step-over is “residual rotational momentum” and regardless of what you want to call it, it is a sign that the pitcher has the explosive rotation of his upper torso needed to produce big time velocities. Miller has some aggressive rotation in his delivery (although I wouldn’t say he’s the most aggressive guy out there) and that aggressive rotation has a lot to do with his above average velocity. Please note also that generating fast rotation of the upper torso takes some effort on behalf of the pitcher.

If you aren’t convinced that Miller can get away with a move like that long term, check out that 92 MPH change-up (or the 95 MPH heat at the 1:28 mark) that King Felix unleashed to end that perfecto a few weeks ago. You could really look at any of Felix Hernandez’s pitches, for that matter. Or Justin Verlander. Or Pedro Martinez, and so on. These guys are practically walking to first after some of these pitches. I have no problem with Miller’s rotational finish, and see no reason why he can’t consistently command the ball with it (Hernandez and Verlander do). Miller has been described as having above-average command. Perhaps that command will abandon him as he makes the next step in his career, but if it does it won’t be his finish that we have to blame.

Finally, when addressing a concern about a pitcher’s finish/follow through, one must also look to his earlier movements. A pitcher’s finish is the result of the mechanics that came before it. If one doesn’t like the way Miller finishes, than one must look further up the kinetic chain to find the source of the problem, or else you are simply observing the symptom of the illness without addressing the root cause. I’m guessing that was the intent behind the “with Miller’s angle to the plate, arm extension and balance in his delivery” part of McDaniel’s quote. However, I believe that this represents a misunderstanding of where that step-over comes from: the explosive rotation of a pitchers upper torso. Miller may very well have an issue with one of the three things mentioned by McDaniel. In my opinion, however, those issues are not reflected in his rotational finish. This is not to say that McDaniel didn’t have something else in mind; let’s not forget we’re only talking about one paragraph!

Summing Up

What does all this mean for Cardinals fans? I think that the excitement and hype showered on Miller is well deserved. There are not too many 21 year olds with a power fastball/curve combo that are described as having above average command. I’m excited to see where Miller takes it from here. Next time, I’ll delve a little deeper into Miller’s mechanics and hopefully begin to piece together a more complete picture of the young right-hander.

 

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