Brad Miller: An overlooked lefty slugger in free agency

Much of fans’ time during the lockout is spent playing armchair general manager and looking at ways to address their teams’ perceived needs — whether it be blockbuster trades, free-agent mega-deals or under-the-radar value plays. There’s probably more focus on those first two, but we’ve already taken pretty lengthy looks at the top free agents and the top
candidates who could change hands throughout the offseason here at MLBTR. As such, my own focus has turned to some of the lesser-heralded
free agents who probably deserve a bit more love than they’ve gotten to this point in the winter. In the case of Brad Miller, his lack of appreciation probably pre-dates the current offseason.

Over the past three years, Miller has played on a one-year, $1M deal in Cleveland, a one-year, $2.5M deal in St. Louis and a one-year, $3.5M deal in Philadelphia. Those three teams have guaranteed a combined $7M to Miller and received 40 home runs through 718 plate appearances, with an overall batting line of .236/.331/.480. Obviously, the batting average isn’t ideal, but the leaguewide average during that time is .248 (or .251 excluding pitchers). Miller hasn’t been that much below par in terms of his batting average, and he’s above average in terms of on-base percentage and, particularly, in his power output.

This isn’t to say Miller should be lumped into the mix of most appealing free-agent bats available. He’ll play the coming season at age 32, making him older than the market’s high-profile names, and his skill set has obvious flaws. We’ll get those out of the way first.

Miller’s lefty bat has been a non-factor against southpaw pitchers, evidenced by a .168/.230/.336 output over the past three seasons. He’s punched out in nearly 38% of his plate appearances when facing same-handed opponents. It’s not a new phenomenon, as Miller’s career numbers indicate, but his struggles against lefties have increased in recent years, even as his output against righties has improved.

Defensively, Miller is something of a man without a position. His days as a shortstop early in his big-league career never yielded strong ratings from metrics like Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating. More rudimentary marks like fielding percentage and his error totals agreed that Miller probably wasn’t well-suited as an everyday shortstop. That’s all the more true as he trends toward his mid-30s. Miller has seen plenty of action at first base, second base, third base and in the outfield corners over the past few seasons; his best statistical showings in those relatively small samples have come at second base and in left field. He’s not a premium defender anywhere, but Miller can capably handle those two spots and fill in as needed around the diamond.

Setting aside those noted deficiencies, there’s one thing thing Miller also does quite well: mash right-handed pitching. Over the past three years, Miller has hit .251/.352/.512 against right-handed pitchers — good for a 127 wRC+ that ranks 47th among the 321 hitters who’ve tallied at least 400 plate appearances (that is to say, he’s been about 27% better than the league-average hitter). At least against right-handed pitching, that wRC+ puts him alongside heavy-hitting names like Jose Ramirez (126), Carlos Correa (126) and Marcus Semien (129). Miller obviously isn’t as good overall as anyone in that trio, and it’s not realistic to shield him from left-handed opponents entirely over the course of a season. Nevertheless, the damage he offers against right-handed pitching is real.

The productivity when holding the platoon advantage doesn’t appear fluky in nature, either. Miller has walked in 12.9% of his plate appearances against a more defensible 26.3% strikeout rate. His .293 average on balls in play doesn’t scream for regression. A quarter of his fly-balls against righties have left the yard, which is a strong mark — 19th among that previous subset of 321 hitters, right alongside George Springer and Nelson Cruz — but not so lofty that one should expect it to come crashing back down in a major way.

Moreover, the general quality of Miller’s contact is excellent. His 2021 percentile ranks in average exit velocity (91st), max exit velocity (91st), hard-hit rate (84th) and barrel rate (80th) all stand out. He’s also above average in terms of sprint speed (62nd percentile) and in his ability to lay off pitches outside the strike zone (71st percentile both in 2021 and in 2020). Miller’s contact rate on pitches in the zone is a good bit shy of the league average (about five percentage points), but he’s not going to get himself out too often by flailing at pitches off the plate.

Miller’s flaws are easy to see, and again, the point of this certainly isn’t to suggest he will or should be paid along the same lines as Kyle Schwarber, who just put up a fireworks display for the ages when healthy in 2021. But Miller’s .251/.352/.512 slash against righties over the past three seasons is a whole lot closer to Schwarber’s .247/.348/.555 slash against righties in that same time than their eventual price tags will suggest, and Miller has actually been a much better hitter against righties than free agents like Joc Pederson and Eddie Rosario in recent seasons. Fans looking for left-handed bats might not have Miller high on their wish list, but when used properly, his production is closer to some of the bigger names than most would expect. Whether the market will treat him as such this time around is yet to be determined, but the forthcoming addition of a universal designated hitter won’t hurt his stock.

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