Now in a super-utility role, Miller started at shortstop, left field and designated hitter, and he hit leadoff and in the No. 2 spot during this past homestand. He was named AL Player of the Week on Monday after hitting .429 with four home runs over six games.
BALTIMORE — Brad Miller never wavers. He’ll tell you without asking, even if the inference is hinted.
“I’m a shortstop,” he’ll say bluntly and abruptly in any conversation.
Regardless of present role or success, he believes it and isn’t afraid to say it.
Meanwhile, his manager says he thinks of Miller as the next Ben Zobrist — a super-utility player who maximizes the gifts of speed, athleticism and versatility.
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“My vision was real simple: This guy is a special player and has the ability to move all over the field because he’s very athletic,” Lloyd McClendon said. “He hasn’t disappointed to this point.”
But do their visions of the future need to be identical?
If anything, this past homestand showed the situation can work well, even with differing opinions. The thing that has elevated Miller to the big leagues and will keep him there is his bat.
It was on display this past week when Miller hit .429 (9 for 21) with four home runs, three doubles, six runs scored and five RBI over six games, earning him American League Player of the Week honors Monday.
Really, Miller’s best position is “hitter.” It has been that way since the Mariners selected him in the second round of the 2011 draft out of Clemson. Even then, while scouts debated whether he would make it as a shortstop or should be converted to outfield, there was a consensus he had the tools to hit at the major-league level.
The bat carried him through the minor leagues, despite the errors and fundamental flaws on defense. In 219 minor-league games, Miller hit .334 and had a .924 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage). The hope was the defense would catch up to the offense.
A year ago, Miller was mired in the worst slump of his professional career. After a solid rookie season in 2013 in which he hit .265 with a .737 OPS and after a monster spring in which he beat out Nick Franklin for the shortstop job, Miller was poised to build on his success.
But it didn’t happen. Pitchers had adjusted to him, and he struggled to adjust to those changes. He made changes to his stance, approach and swing. Nothing helped.
On May 30 of last year, Miller went 0 for 3 in a defeat against the Tigers. His batting average was at .158 with a .484 OPS. With 43 strikeouts, he was striking out nearly every third at-bat. By comparison, he’d struck out only 52 times in his 76 big-league games in 2013.
But in June, he hit .298 with an .867 OPS. A strong August and September in which he hit a combined .301 with an .894 OPS helped salvage the season. The up-and-down season at the plate was coupled with 19 errors in 107 games.
It’s why the Mariners considered moving Miller to the outfield in the offseason.
Miller won the opening-day shortstop competition this spring after Chris Taylor suffered a broken hand when he was hit by a pitch. Had Taylor won the job out of spring, it’s likely Miller would have started the season at Class AAA Tacoma and started learning outfield.
Instead, Miller started 23 of the first 25 games at shortstop. But after four errors by Miller, the organization called up Taylor and asked Miller to change his role.
McClendon didn’t think it was a gamble to make the move at the big-league level. Some players might not handle it well, but he believed Miller was mature enough.
“When you communicate, you talk about it, you let him know what your vision is and what you think ultimately is going to come of this and you get the player to buy into it,” McClendon said. “I don’t think there’s a lot of gamble at all.”
It still left Miller admittedly “frustrated.” And he said he still believes he is capable of being an everyday shortstop. But this is his role, and he’s tried to embrace it. During the past homestand, he started at shortstop, left field and designated hitter, and he hit leadoff and in the No. 2 spot.
“I think the biggest thing is just try to treat each opportunity as a new one and go out there and play, and really not try to read too much into where I’m hitting in the order or where I’m playing,” Miller said. “Just kind of go out there and go after it.”
It’s a consistent mindset in a role where few things are the same each day.
“You want to focus on your daily activities and putting in your work and kind of let the rest take care of itself,” he said. “Any time you’re worrying about things out of your control, it can take away from your performance. Just try to keep your head down and work and play.”
And Miller is going to play. With this recent hot stretch, it’s become apparent it’s impossible to keep him out of the lineup, particularly if there is a right-handed starting pitcher for the opponents.
There was some thought a few weeks ago that when Austin Jackson comes off the disabled list sometime this week that Miller might be sent to Tacoma for a week or two to play outfield on a daily basis. But that won’t happen now.
Could Miller win back the starting shortstop job? With Taylor struggling at the plate — he has a .129 (4 for 31) batting average — the Mariners could send him back to Tacoma. It would buy them some time from making a more drastic roster decision. But if Taylor stays, the Mariners would have to designate either Willie Bloomquist, Rickie Weeks, Justin Ruggiano or Dustin Ackley for assignment to make room for Jackson.