Miller finishes off breakout campaign

FRISCO, Texas – Entering the 2011 campaign, right-hander Justin Miller hadn't remained healthy through a full season. Miller not only stayed healthy this past season, but he also improved as the year progressed. Lone Star Dugout features and interviews the 24-year-old prospect.

Justin Miller appeared to turn a corner and gain momentum during the second half of the 2010 season, when he was playing with High-A Bakersfield. While Miller has always shown good raw stuff, he was beginning to flash improved command to complement the plus velocity.

At the time, he chalked the improvement up to a mechanical adjustment.

"They tried to move my feet around a little bit, and I wasn't able to get back in line and get my arm in the right path," Miller said during spring training. "When I got back here to Arizona, I got straightened out a little bit more and got back to my old ways.

"This year, they've moved my hands up a little bit and it has kind of got me quicker to the plate. It helps me also stay back a little bit more, too."

Miller is perhaps best known for his time as a starting pitcher at Fresno State. He played a key role on the Bulldogs' incredible 2008 College World Series run and national championship. But the hurler says his current mechanics most resemble what he used at Bakersfield College in '07.

The changes appeared to help, as Miller recently finished off a breakout season with Double-A Frisco. In 48 relief appearances, he went 9-1 with 13 saves and a 1.81 earned-run average. He logged 69.2 innings and yielded only 46 hits while walking 24 and striking out 77.

The 24-year-old earned Texas League All-Star honors after an excellent first half, but he improved as the season progressed. Miller posted a 0.81 ERA in 24 second-half appearances, allowing only three total runs in 33.1 innings.

The second-half success was a welcome sight to Miller, who missed significant time due to injuries during his first two full seasons––in '09 and '10. As he explains in the following interview, he followed a strict workout and weight-lifting program over the offseason and entered the campaign in the best shape of his career.

Miller believes the hard work not only kept him healthy, but that it also contributed to his velocity spike this season. The 6-foot-3, 190-pound reliever displayed much-improved command of a fastball that sat between 93-96 mph and touched 97 with some consistency. He also bumped 98-99 mph a few times late in the season.

His 83-87 mph slider also showed progress. The breaking ball was at least a solid-average pitch that flashed plus, with more break and sharper bite than past years. It was certainly a key component in his strikeout rate, which practically improved with each month. During August and September, Miller fanned 23 batters (while yielding five hits) in 14.2 innings.

Due to the injuries and inconsistent command, Miller didn't reach Double-A until his third full season. His 2011 campaign was no-doubt a breakout performance, and he did it just in time––Miller is set to enter his first year of Rule 5 Draft eligibility (held at the Winter Meetings in December) this offseason.

While Miller may not project as a future major league closer, his fastball-slider combination is certainly major league-quality and he should eventually settle into a middle relief or setup role. The Rangers may have to protect Miller on the 40-man roster this offseason––his mixture of present stuff and upper-level results could make him an attractive option to a major league team.

Jason Cole: You started to turn things around last season, had a strong spring training, and obviously you have been excellent with Frisco this season. How much momentum did you have coming into this year?

Justin Miller: I really didn't think that much about last season––how I ended. Because I had some stuff that was going on in my family. I was just focusing on other things. I had a really good end to my season and carried it into the offseason. I had a great offseason workout plan with me and my dad. I was just staying focused and trying to put together something good for spring training.

Cole: What were some of those things you were doing over the offseason?

Miller: During the offseason, I was pretty much in the gym at least six days per week. I was just working on strengthening and building up muscle. I was working on my cardio, as well.

Cole: Your command has progressed with each year that you've been in the system. What has led to that improvement?

Miller: Just trying to get back to my old mechanics. When I first went into Fresno State, I had really good command coming out of my junior college. Then going to Fresno State, I ran into a few bumps in the road and they tried to tweak my mechanics here and there.

I've just been slowly but surely getting back to my old ways. I'm getting the ball, throwing the ball, and not thinking too much about it. I'm just letting my muscles work.

Cole: You were a starting pitcher pretty much all through college. Was there an adjustment period in terms of controlling the adrenaline and mechanics when you began coming out of the bullpen in pro ball?

Miller: There wasn't too much of a change for me. Because as a starter, I was considered a max-effort guy. I was always trying to give it everything I can and not give up any free base hits.

I was trying to throw as hard as I could––throw my best stuff. Once I got drafted, they put me in the ‘pen. They felt that was a better role for me because I was a max-effort guy. It has kind of been paying off.

Cole: How do you feel you've improved during your time in Double-A?

Miller: Mentally. I kind of developed the physical skills in the offseason. This year, it's a mental game. When you have a bad pitch or give up a seeing-eye base hit or a bloop single––it's just being able to gather your thoughts and focus. Once you get back on the rubber, it's thinking about the next pitch and executing the next pitch. Basically I've been a lot better mentally.

Cole: Is confidence a factor in that? This is definitely the longest sustained success you've had since being drafted.

Miller: I don't really look at it too much as confidence. Because once you start looking at it as confidence, then you get arrogant and things happen to you in a bad way. I just try to stay on an even keel and not think too much about my results––just focus on my next outing.

Cole: I know you've mixed in a changeup at times, and in the past you even threw a curveball here and there. Have you been pretty much fastball-slider all season?

Miller: Pretty much fastball-slider. I'll throw my changeup to lefties sometimes. Or if a righty keeps fouling stuff off, I'll throw a changeup in there every now and then. But it's mostly to left-handed hitters. I've started to develop it more and more this year.

Cole: When you work on the side with your pitching coach, have you had to work through anything mechanically this year?

Miller: Mechanically––not too much this year. I kind of straightened most of that stuff out in the offseason. This year, it has mostly been focusing on release points and where to look at the target, for the most part. Because wherever your eyes go, that's usually where the ball is going to go.

Cole: You're in Double-A for the first time this season. After spending a summer in Spokane followed by two seasons at home in Bakersfield, do you feel a lot more connected to the major league team now?

Miller: Yeah, a little bit more so. Plus the fact that whenever we get a rehab guy in here––we've had probably 10 different guys. We had Neftali, Tommy, Webb, Hamilton, Cruz, and all those guys. They come through and you just try to see how they go about their business. They're big league guys, and you want to imitate those guys and go about your business the way they go about theirs in the big leagues.

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