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The (Very Simple) Case Against Jai Miller

August 17, 2011

Backup quarterbacks are most often the favorite players on a football team, simply because they could be better. Baseball has its parallel – the player mashing in Triple-A. This year the player mashing in Triple-A is Jai Miller and some, particularly in the comment threads on Athletics Nation want to begin a “Free Jai Miller” movement now. But we shouldn’t. We shouldn’t now, and we most likely shouldn’t ever.

Jai Miller first came to the Oakland Athletics organization on April 8, 2010 as a result of the Florida Marlins (the franchise that drafted him in the fourth round in 2003), designating him for assignment five days earlier and the A’s claiming him on waivers. At that time, the then-25 year old was referenced as follows by Tim Dierkes of MLBTradeRumors quoting Baseball America,

“Back in their ’08 Handbook, Baseball America said his doubters wonder if ‘Miller isn’t merely the next Reggie Abercrombie, a tools-laden player whose skills never fully transferred to the diamond.’  Two years later, they wrote that ‘some in the organization still see him as a late bloomer with Mike Cameron characteristics.”

Miller came to the A’s with little fanfare and promptly was sent to ply his trade in Sacramento. He spent 10 games in Sacramento, his line there? .118/.189/.118 striking out 19 times in 37 plate appearances. The date was April 22nd, and the A’s wanted to call up Matt Carson and had to add him to the 40-man roster, the now beloved-Miller was the odd-man out and for the second time in three weeks he was DFA’d. This time he was again claimed on waivers this time by the Kansas City Royals on April 26th and off to Omaha he went. With the O-Royals he would put up a .267/.340/.531 line and would strikeout 113 times in 350 plate appearances. For a moribund Kansas City Royals franchise he would brought up to the pros in August and play in 20 games, hitting .236/.300/.345 and striking out 23 times in 60 plate appearances.

You may notice, I bring up Miller’s striking out a bit here. He is prodigious with the strikeout. If the quintessential experience of seeing a Mark McGwire or Jose Canseco was to see them hit a bomb, the quintessential experience of seeing Jai Miller play is hearing the ump yell “strike three, you’re out!” When the A’s acquired him by signing him as a free-agent this past November, Miller had accrued 975 punchouts in 3275 plate appearances, a whopping 29.8% K% in the minor-leagues a crazy number. From a very good post at Minor League Ball,

“Traditional prospecting wisdom is supported strongly, as it’s abundantly clear that, ceteris paribus, high [minor-league] strikeout rates are not helpful in a prospect’s development.  It appears as though the success rates for prospect development drop sharply when strikeout rates hit about 22%.  Furthermore, minor league strikeout rates are strongly negatively related with both major league at-bats and OPS. ” (emphasis mine)

The danger zone is above 22% and Jai Miller screams past that at 29%. But that is when the A’s acquired him for the second time. Surely no one was clamoring to “Free Jai Miller” in April of 2010, so something must’ve changed since the A’s gave him as second go round. Some things have changed, in 92 games with the River Cats this year he has thus far belted 29 home runs. That gets him notice, but the same underlying problem exists, in those 92 games he has struck out 146 times in 392 plate appearances – that equals a shocking 37.2% K%. There is clearly a trade-off for his swinging for the fences. Amazingly his slash line is impressive at .281/.375/.618. To put it in perspective he has only 97 instances in 392 plate appearances where he doesn’t get a hit or strike out.  Nuts.

The assumption first of all that he somehow would not increase his K% moving up to facing Major League pitchers is preposterous. That same article also notes (saying this about the successfully developed prospects),

“it’s clear that players tend to increase their strikeout rates in the minors upon graduation to the majors by about 1%.”

Do we want a hitter in our lineup who strikes out 38.2% of the time? The worst hitter in baseball in this regard, Adam Dunn, “only” strikes out 35.9% of the time, followed by Mark Reynolds and Drew Stubbs (29.9%), so we aren’t just talking a little bit worse, we are talking crazy outlier world here.

Let’s say we can ignore this historic strikeout rate, and assume that the ability to hit is not tied to his apparent lack of pitch recognition and patience and that somehow he makes it work in the end. The Jai Miller we have seen in Sacramento is a player he has never been before, frankly he may have just adjusted to life as a 4A player because here is how he’s looked in his MiLB career excluding his initial season which was not a full year:

Year/Team/Level HR AB/HR
2004 Greensboro (A) 12 32.5
2005 Greensboro (A) 13 31.9
2006 Jupiter (A+) 0
2007 Carolina (AA) 14 29.0
2008 Albuquerque (AAA) 19 22.8
2009 New Orleans (AAA) 16 21.4
2010 Sac/Omaha (AAA) 18 19.2
2011 Sacramento 29 11.7

This season is out of nowhere. It is an aberration. When you compare all of Miller’s past seasons to this one nearly every number is completely out of whack. This year he has a .281 average, his MiLB career mark – .243. This year he has a .375 OBP, his MiLB career mark – .328. His AB/HR rate this year 11.7, his MiLB career mark, 30.8.

Best scenario with Jai Miller? We get a good home-run hitting toolsy guy who strikeouts nearly 40% of the time. How that could possibly be a good scenario is beyond me. Jai Miller is having a great year in Sacramento, and that is great for him. But he is not on the A’s 40-man roster, and you don’t designate someone else for assignment to make room for a guy who will strikeout nearly 40% of the time. Proof of that? The Marlins and A’s both designated him for assignment once for people who are far from All Stars and then the Royals just let him walk last November. He isn’t Nelson Cruz, or Michael Morse or even Brandon Allen. He is someone who could conceivably strike out 250 times if given a full-time job in Major League Baseball. I’m all for seeing that, but not in an A’s uniform.

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