Considering Miller and VandenHurk for the pen

The Marlins are once again digging through the scraps of other teams, looking to find bullpen gems. I like this yearly tradition in part because it means signings like the ones given to Fernando Rodney or Brandon Lyon this year will never be made by our front office.

While I’m not questioning their ever-continuing quest to pick up some spare arms for the pen, I do want to point out that the Marlins actually have a surplus of starting arms that can be used in the bullpen this season. Though there appears to be a race for the last three slots on the Marlins’ staff, for all intents and purposes it would appear two of those slots are likely locked up. Barring injury or a freakishly bad Spring Training, the Marlins are almost certainly going to give two of those slots to Anibal Sanchez and Chris Volstad.

This would leave us one slot for three remaining pitchers. Of the three, Sean West is least likely to see major league playing time outside of an injury. My guess is that the team will let him stew in Triple-A a while longer before promoting him to the rotation possibly next year. This leaves us two options, one of which should head to the pen: Rick VandeHurk and Andrew Miller. Let’s delve a bit into those two.

Tale of the Tape

Rick VandenHurk Name Andrew Miller
RHP Handedness LHP
25 in May Age 25 in May
154 1/3 IP 261 2/3
5.95 ERA 5.50
5.20 FIP 4.50
21.6% K%* 17.4%
10.1% UIBB%* 10.9%
12.4% HR/FB% 8.9%
27.6% GB% 48.1%

*Stat taken only as starters

That table speaks volumes about those two pitchers so far early into their careers. And it’s amazing how close in age they are; Miller is one day older than VandenHurk. It is only fitting that they be compared as starters and as potential relievers.

Age aside, however, the two pitchers could not be any more different. The only other very similar characteristic between them is their above-average walk rate; both pitchers are at around 10 – 11%. Almost everything else is a frighteningly polar opposite.

The Guy with the Stuff

In VandenHurk’s limited major league time, he’s displayed quite a few interesting characteristics.

- He has legitimate strikeout stuff

- He has a curveball over which he has no control (hence the walks)

- He cannot induce a ground ball to save his life

- As a result, he allows a lot of home runs.

The numbers definitely back that up. A strikeout rate of around 20% is very similar to the rate posted by Johnson this season. But at the same time, part of that strikeout prowess may have gone the way of his curveball. As I mentioned last season, VandenHurk abandoned the curveball in favor of a slider over which he has better control. I also mentioned in that post that the slider seemed to be more effective at inducing grounders, which could help VandenHurk’s awful fly ball problems.

There is some cause for concern with regards to VandenHurk. The use of the slider means that, against opposite handed hitters, VandenHurk will be entirely dependent on his fastball and changeup. With his fastball not rating particularly well, his changeup quality is going to be important. If his change is weak (something I have not yet addressed), it could open up a big platoon split. That and the ongoing home run/fly ball problems are certainly harrowing.

The top prospect

Miller has been a big disappointment when watching him pitch. Either he does not have strikeout stuff or he simply cannot locate it effectively. Either way, it has led to a sub-2 K/BB ratio, which is typically a problem for major league pitchers. In addition, it seems Miller has not been able to stop balls from leaking into the outfield; Miller’s career BABIP is an anomalously high .328, much greater than the typically expected .300 average for pitchers. This has been going on for quite some time. I won’t say that it’s a certainty that Miller lacks the BABIP skill that keeps him in line with most pitchers, but it is perhaps something to watch for. If this “problem” doesn’t regress sufficiently to the mean soon, Miller may not get a chance to prove he’s just like most other MLB pitchers in this regard.

The one thing that seems to be keeping Miller’s career afloat is his home run rate. According to FanGraphs, Miller has given up 48% of his BIP as ground balls over his career. Of the 30% of BIP that went as fly balls, only 9% of them left the park as well. All this has led to Miller boasting above-average FIP totals of 4.00 and 4.45 the last two seasons, even as he produced ERA’s of 5.87 and 4.84 respectively in those same seasons. Even with a regressed HR/FB% (regressed to 11.0%), Miller’s 2008 and 2009 seasons yielded xFIP’s of 4.51 and 4.59, slightly below average in the National League.

What role fits each player?

When considering this question, I thought of a few things. Starters and relievers need to be able to do different things. Furthermore, relievers have the edge in that they do not have to go long into games, and thus are allowed to “go all out,” so to speak. Relievers will see more high-leverage situations, but they’ll also be able to be leveraged more effectively than starters.

All of these factors went into my consideration. Ultimately, in my opinion, it would be best if the team sided with the choice of Andrew Miller as starter and Rick VandenHurk as reliever. As I mentioned above, VandenHurk may have platoon issues, but out of the bullpen those issues can be managed more carefully; Fredi Gonzalez can pick and choose when to use VandenHurk, perhaps like a ROOGY. A move to the pen could increase his already very good strikeout rates and potentially mute the effect of his control problems. The issue of home runs is still pretty scary, but as we know, relievers are very random in their allowance of home runs. In the amount of time a reliever pitches in a given season, this luck can manifest in very good or very bad ways. A lucky season in home runs by a reliever who clocks in at 10 strikeouts and four walks per nine innings would be very valuable to the team, and VandenHurk is more likely to produce that sort of line than Miller would be. The downside here is that, if the home runs continue to flow, you would expect more disastrous results.

For Miller, placing him in the rotation was more of an afterthought of placing VandenHurk in the pen. Moving Miller to the pen would likely be less beneficial because his stuff is lacking as it is. The only major benefit of moving Miller to the pen is that it would also provide the Marlins with another lefty, something the team is currently lacking (Renyel Pinto is the only bullpen lefty). Meanwhile, if Miller can regress to a more MLB-typical BABIP, the ground balls and home run suppression over a larger amount of innings could be more useful in run prevention.

Of course, these are just guesses, and it remains to be seen what the Marlins will actually do. Keep in mind that VandenHurk in particular is out of options, so the team would have to risk him in waivers to put him back in the minor leagues. Miller himself only has one option left, so if the Marlins felt the need to carry a “true” reliever over either of these two, Miller could be sent to the minors if he is not the starter. It should be something of interest to follow.

Topics: Andrew Miller, Miami Marlins, Rick VandenHurk

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