The discussion happened sometime in early June in the press box of Cheney Stadium. It was about two weeks after Brad Miller had been promoted to Triple A Tacoma. And during that time, he had basically dominated Pacific Coast League pitching.
But he’d also committed six errors, ranging from rushed throws to bobbled balls.
The lack of consistency in the field at shortstop was something that was always mentioned shortly about Miller after his limitless potential was praised.
Amid the pregame debate, a Rainiers staffer said this: “I don’t know everything it takes to be a good defensive shortstop in the big leagues, but Brad Miller seems like a guy that is going to do everything he can do to become one.”
Now it’s August, and Miller is the Mariners every day shortstop. And the questions about his ability to handle the defensive responsibilities have arisen in the last few weeks.
He’s committed three errors and his last nine games and could have been charged with two more. There have been a few mental mistakes and regrettable decisions. It also seems more glaring when you consider that one of the best defensive shortstops in all of baseball is sitting on the bench.
For all that Brendan Ryan isn’t as a hitter, he was that much and more as a fielder. So Miller’s struggles stand out more.
The people within the Mariners organization knew there would be mistakes. It happens with rookies playing one of the toughest positions in baseball. And no one seems the least bit concerned.
Because it’s Brad Miller and he is going to everything he can to become a good defensive shortstop.
“There’s no way not to love Brad Miller unless you aren’t watching the game and seeing what he brings,” Ryan said. “He’s giving it his all every night. Defensively, he asks questions, he learns, he wants to get better and he knows he has room to get better. It speaks to his humility and hunger. I think that’s what you want to see as a teammate and a coach. This guy is willing and wants to improve.”
Acting manager Robby Thompson, who handles the infielders, has no complaints about Miller’s commitment to improving or his understanding of what’s needed to get consistent.
“Effort isn’t a problem for Brad Miller,” Thompson said with a grin. “It’s never been a problem.”
While the effort is there, the experience isn’t. This is just his third year of professional baseball. He played just 26 games with the Rainiers before being called up. Conversely, Ryan played almost six pro seasons before earning the every day job with the Cardinals.
“You have to find a way to make that routine play every single time no matter what because that’s what big league managers want at this level,” Ryan said. “That’s what it took for me to get a chance with Tony LaRussa in St. Louis.”
Obviously, Ryan was not and is not as gifted offensively as Miller. It was Miller’s bat that forced the Mariners to call him up sooner than expected. Since being called up, he’s hitting .257 with seven doubles, four triples, two homers and 18 RBI in 35 games while taking over the lead-off duties.
Still, Miller lives by the credo of most shortstops – defense first.
“My job, first and foremost, as a shortstop is in the field and being consistent for my pitcher,” he said. “I want to make every play. They work their tail off to get that ground ball and I want to cash it in.”
To do that, Miller needs to clean up his footwork. It’s something he’s tried polish since being drafted in the second round of the 2011 draft out of Clemson.
“It’s getting a little better,” Thompson said. “Brad needs clean up some of to angles to the ball. Sometimes he takes the wrong route to the ball so he has to figure that out.”
Contrary to popular belief, fielding ground balls is as much about a player’s footwork as their hands.
“You dictate the hop with your footwork on most balls,” Ryan said.
Ryan’s impeccable footwork made him into such a good shortstop. He’s not supremely athletic, but there are no wasted steps. It wasn’t something that came natural. It was all taught and built into him by Cardinals third base coach Jose Oquendo.
“It was all footwork,” Ryan said. “It was precision footwork and putting yourself in the right positions.”
There are times when Miller’s footwork is solid and everything follows. It looks clean and professional. But there are times when it looks awkward and choppy. He can get away with it at times and still make plays, but usually it’s when he finds himself struggling to make a play.
“It’s never finished,” he said. “No matter how hard you work, you still have to go out and do it every day.”
But there comes a time after all those hours of ground balls where that footwork becomes second nature. That it doesn’t feel forced.
“And once you’ve got it, you never let go of it,” Ryan said. “It becomes like breathing. It just happens and you don’t think about it.”
Another aspect is anticipation. Ryan can sound like a fielding savant when he discusses what goes into every pitch.
1. Know the hitter.
2. Know what pitch is going to be thrown
3. Anticipate what the hitter might do with that pitch if he makes contacy
4. Know what you need to do with the ball if it comes to you.
That’s every pitch.
“You have to do it,” Ryan said.
And Miller understands it.
“You have to be on it every pitch,” Miller said. “Because the one time you don’t, the ball is going to find you. That’s the biggest thing to consistency is having that consistent focus.”
Ryan offers unsolicited advice, but tries “not to overdo it.” Usually, Miller is already there asking him questions along with Thompson as well.
“For me, I’m not where I want to be as far as my game so I want to take advantage of all my resources,” he said. “I have a former gold glove second baseman in Robby and I have one of the best fielding shortstops in all of baseball as one of my teammates. I want to take in everything they can give me.”
Much of it is pretty simple, verifying what happened and why.
“It’s more about the process,” Ryan said. “What we were thinking before the pitch, what we were thinking on the ground ball and what we did with out feet. We look at it and play it back in our mind.”
Miller then takes that information, stores it and moves forward to make sure it doesn’t happen again. But it’s important that he doesn’t become passive in the field. He refuses to lose his controlled aggression that got him to the big league.
“You make a decision out there and you live with it,” he said. “Learn it. And make the right decision going forward. You’ll see something new every day. The biggest thing is trusting yourself. If you overthink it or get to analytical, it will slow you down. If you make a mistake, you make mistake, if you do it the right way with the right conviction then, hey, it happens.”