Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Atomic Instability

With so very little happening in Winter Haven, it seems that a blister in the Florida sun has caused much consternation in some circles as Atom Miller’s difficulties with a blister on his middle finger continue. The blister, which was first reported to be a hindrance to Miller in the Arizona Fall League (ironically just after these warm-up pitches, available via YouTube in the AFL game) sets Miller back again in his attempts to fulfill the promise that has been predicted for him after being a high draft pick and his break-out 2004 season in Lake County and Kinston.

Now, as a 23-year-old dealing with the annoyance of a recurrent blister (remember how Josh Beckett used to battle these in Florida) with an unfortunate history arm injuries (he has twice sustained elbow injuries in his young career) and finger tendon problems (ask Joel Zumaya if these can derail a season) in the past, it looks like Miller’s injury bug has crept up for another bite.

Before we go any further on this, let’s all agree that Miller is an extraordinary talent, a hard-throwing RHP with excellent K/BB and the “high ceiling” that scouts fantasize about. However, Miller has been truly healthy for only 2 of his 4 minor-league seasons (I’m not counting his ½ season as an 18-year-old in Burlington in 2003) since being signed by the Tribe.
When he was healthy – well, huzzah:
2004 (Age 19)
Lake County – 7-4, 3.36 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 10.48 K/9, 2.77 BB/9, 3.79 K/BB
Kinston – 3-2, 2.09 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 9.55 K/9, 2.49 BB/9, 3.83 K/BB
Combined – 10-6, 2.96 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 10.21 K/9, 2.69 BB/9, 3.80 K/BB

2006 (Age 21)
Akron – 15-6, 2.75 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 9.20 K/9, 2.52 BB/9, 3.65 K/BB
Buffalo – 0-0, 5.79 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, 7.71 K/9, 5.79 BB/9, 1.33 K/BB
Combined – 15-6, 2.83 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 9.11 K/9, 2.60 BB/9, 3.50 K/BB

The statistics posted by a 19-year-old pitching into Kinston remain Miller’s announcement to the baseball world that he was a force to be reckoned with. However, his 2005 was derailed by an elbow injury that limited him to 15 ineffective starts in Kinston and Mahoning Valley. He rebounded from the injury with a vengeance in 2006 (the Buffalo numbers for that year are, obviously, only one start) as Miller completely dominated the Eastern League as a 21-year-old Aero. At that point, it seemed that Miller would make his cursory starts in Buffalo in 2007 as a quick stop on the fast track to Cleveland.

Thought to be squarely in the mix as the 1st replacement starter from the minors in Winter Haven last year (Fausto who?), he strained a tendon on his troublesome right middle finger and got behind the proverbial 8-ball as The Faustastic One sparkled and later Aaron Laffey logged some substantial innings after receiving the phone call from the parent club to bolster the rotation while Miller stayed in Buffalo to find his groove.

But find his groove he never did, posting a 5-4 record in 2007 with Buffalo, accompanied by a 4.82 ERA and a 1.36 WHIP with K and BB rates consistent with his previous performance. Decent numbers, to be sure…especially for a 22-year-old in Buffalo; however, Miller only started 11 games while logging only 65 innings for the Herd. A troubling trend, however small the sample size, is that a healthy (and dominant) year for Miller is followed by one fraught with injury and recovery time.
Great 2004.
Non-existent 2005.
Phenomenal 2006.
Uneven 2007.

Now, what can we really learn from all of this?
Obviously, Atom Miller (when healthy) is a tremendous pitching prospect capable of dominating every time he takes the ball. But consistent health has eluded him and, short of calling this just dumb luck, there must be something to this. We are all aware that pitching is an extremely unnatural motion, but does Miller’s delivery have adverse effects on his arm and hand, more so than other pitchers?

Let me preface this by saying that I have absolutely no background in the medical field, have no insight into the physics of motion and their effect on the human body, and am not even going to pretend to know what ligaments and tendons do what in a person’s arm or hand. By way of an authoritative figure on things related to anatomy, my expertise probably falls in line with Austin Milbarge and Emmitt Fitzhume, attempting to perform an appendectomy. And…Doctor.

All of that being said, watch the video of Miller throwing again while I put on my stethoscope and don a white coat.
Even with my amateur eye it’s easy to see that the windup looks smooth, the arm goes back, and suddenly Miller’s right arm uncoils violently as he releases the ball with most of the torque seemingly coming from his elbow. The delivery is deceptive as Miller’s arm doesn’t rear back very quickly, but seems to snap as it comes forward as the ball explodes out of his hand. The by-product is that the pitch is likely very difficult to pick up or (as is the case with Rafael Betancourt), the hitters’ timing is thrown off by the velocity of the ball, particularly after what seems to be a very easy and deliberate motion.

The other by-product of the delivery is that the strain on his elbow is very apparent, even to the casual observer and, after seeing the speed that his arm is moving forward to release the ball, one can plainly see how this quick motion could have an effect on his throwing hand, and particularly his fingers, as he releases the ball with his arm moving so quickly. The whipping action of his arm at his elbow creates a great deal of velocity with deception, but ultimately it doesn’t have the smooth delivery that would place less strain on the arm or hand.

For comparison’s sake, watch the delivery of another young fireballing RHP, the Yankees’ Phil Hughes. The fluidity of his motion, as he goes into his windup and progresses from the ball starting behind his head to it’s release point, don’t show any of the herky-jerky movement that Miller’s arm undergoes as he delivers the ball. Hughes’ right arm never bends at the unusual angle that Miller’s seems to at the elbow. Of course, Hughes missed a significant amount of time in 2007 with a hamstring injury, so no pitcher, regardless of the fluidity of his motion, is above injury. But the Indians would certainly rather have Miller be fighting off minor leg injuries, or even the ever-popular oblique strain, than multiple and recurring injuries to his pitching arm and hand.

Obviously, fluidity of motion and simple mechanics don’t guarantee that a pitcher will avoid injuries (ask Mark Prior – purported upon his arrival to MLB to have “perfect mechanics”) nor does an unorthodox delivery mean that a pitcher is destined for perpetual injuries, but it would seem that Miller’s arm motion would lead to an inordinate amount of arm trouble, and it really already has.

Interestingly, the hitch in Miller’s delivery is not all that dissimilar to that of Jensen Lewis who, after a move to the bullpen from his role as a starter (38 minor league starts over 2 seasons) at the beginning of 2007, thrived in his role as a reliever down the stretch for the Tribe. Whether the move was made to protect Jensen’s arm, if he lacked the number of pitches necessary to be a viable MLB starter, or it was simply a matter of someone making the suggestion that his stuff would translate well out of the bullpen will likely never be known. But it sets a precedent, as Lewis (like Rafael Perez before him) was a highly-thought-of pitcher whose transition to the bullpen helps the team in the present, not perhaps at some point in the future.

Of course, it remains entirely conceivable that Miller will overcome his blister problems and remain healthy right into the 2008 rotation, but the red flags are popping up. But maybe that will be where Miller ends up as a result of these lingering arm issues – in the bullpen. He is naturally more valuable to the team pitching six to seven innings every 5 games than he is pitching one or two innings every 3 or so games, but if the long-term effects of his motion are going to keep him battling injuries for the foreseeable future, you would think that the lighter, and perhaps steadier, workload of a relief pitcher suits Miller better than throwing 80 to 100 pitches at a time.

Ultimately, it becomes a question of how to best keep Miller healthy over where he is most valuable to the team. Sure, it would be great to pencil him into the rotation, but if he figures to constantly battling injuries or is risking a major arm injury, wouldn’t it be more prudent to have him contribute in some manner as opposed to constantly hoping that something doesn’t go “boink” in The Atomic One’s arm? His talent is certainly more useful on the mound than on the DL; so at a point in the very near future, if these injuries (and most importantly, remember that ALL have been related to his right arm and hand) continue to hinder his progress, the Indians will have to decide (probably at some point this year) whether to move Miller to the bullpen to allow him to contribute consistently.


Cy Slapnicka said...

well, if we are going to talk about things we know nothing about today, did anyone go to the debate yesterday? does those two jerk offs not realize that their campaign tactics do not affect any of us and we'd rather them talk about something that will impact us?

Cy Slapnicka said...

Pronk has a short interview with Dan Patrick in SI this week. Kinda disappointing, as it could've been funny.