The discussion happened in early June in the press box of Cheney Stadium.
It was about two weeks after Brad Miller had been promoted to Triple-A Tacoma. During that time, he dominated Pacific Coast League pitching.
But Miller also committed six errors.
The lack of consistent fielding at shortstop was something that was usually mentioned shortly after his limitless potential was praised.
Amidst the pregame debate, a Rainiers staffer said, “I don’t know everything it takes to be a good defensive shortstop in the big leagues, but Brad Miller seems like a guy that is going to do everything he can do to become one.”
Now it’s August, and Miller is the Mariners’ shortstop. But questions about his ability to handle the defensive responsibilities have arisen the past few weeks.
He’s committed three errors in his past eight games at shortstop and could have been charged with two more. There also have been a few mental mistakes and regrettable decisions.
People within the Seattle organization knew there would
be mistakes. It happens with rookies playing one of the toughest positions. And no one seems the least bit concerned.
Because it’s Brad Miller and he is going to do everything he can to become a good defensive shortstop.
“There’s no way not to love Brad Miller unless you aren’t watching the game and seeing what he brings,” fellow shortstop Brendan Ryan said. “He’s giving it his all every night. Defensively, he asks questions, he learns, he wants to get better and he knows he has room to get better. It speaks to his humility and hunger. I think that’s what you want to see as a teammate and a coach. This guy is willing and wants to improve.”
Acting manager Robby Thompson, who coaches the infielders, has no complaints about Miller’s commitment to improving or his understanding of what’s needed to be consistent.
“Effort isn’t a problem for Brad Miller,” Thompson said with a grin. “It’s never been a problem.”
While the effort is there, the experience isn’t. This is his third year of professional baseball. He played just 26 games with the Rainiers before being called up. Conversely, Ryan played almost six pro seasons before earning an everyday job with the Cardinals.
“You have to find a way to make that routine play every single time no matter what because that’s what big-league managers want at this level,” Ryan said. “That’s what it took for me to get a chance with Tony La Russa in St. Louis.”
Ryan was not and is not as gifted offensively as Miller. It was Miller’s bat that forced the Mariners to call him up sooner than expected.
He’s hitting .257 with seven doubles, four triples, two homers and 18 RBI in 35 games while taking over the leadoff duties.
Still, Miller lives by the credo of most shortstops – defense first.
“My job, first and foremost, as a shortstop is in the field and being consistent for my pitcher,” Miller said. “I want to make every play. They work their tail off to get that ground ball and I want to cash it in.”
To do that, Miller needs to clean up his footwork. It’s something he’s tried to polish since being drafted in the second round out of Clemson in 2011.
“It’s getting a little better,” Thompson said. “Brad needs to clean up some of his angles to the ball. Sometimes he takes the wrong route to the ball so he has to figure that out.”
Fielding ground balls is as much about a player’s footwork as his hands.
“You dictate the hop with your footwork on most balls,” Ryan said.
Ryan’s impeccable footwork made him a standout defensively. He’s not supremely athletic, but there are no wasted steps.
It wasn’t something that came natural. It was all taught and built into him by Cardinals third base coach Jose Oquendo, who twice led National League second basemen in fielding percentage.
“It was all footwork,” Ryan said. “It was precision footwork and putting yourself in the right positions.”
There are times when Miller’s footwork is solid and everything follows. It looks clean and professional.
But there are times when it looks awkward and choppy. He can get away with it at times and still make plays, but usually it’s when he finds himself struggling to make a play.
“It’s never finished,” Miller said. “No matter how hard you work, you still have to go out and do it every day.”
But there comes a time after hours of ground balls when that footwork becomes second nature.
“And once you’ve got it, you never let go of it,” Ryan said. “It becomes like breathing. It just happens and you don’t think about it.”
Ryan offers unsolicited advice, but tries “not to overdo it.” Usually, Miller is already asking him or Thompson questions.
“For me, I’m not where I want to be as far as my game so I want to take advantage of all my resources,” Miller said. “I have a former Gold Glove second baseman in Robby and I have one of the best fielding shortstops in all of baseball as one of my teammates. I want to take in everything they can give me.”
Much of it is simple, figuring out what happened and why.
“It’s more about the process,” Ryan said. “What we were thinking before the pitch, what we were thinking on the ground ball and what we did with our feet? We look at it and play it back in our mind.”
Miller then takes that information, stores it and keeps trying to improve.
But it’s important that he doesn’t become passive in the field. He refuses to lose the controlled aggression that got him to the big leagues.
“You make a decision out there and you live with it,” Miller said. “Learn it. And make the right decision going forward. You’ll see something new every day. The biggest thing is trusting yourself. If you over-think it or get too analytical, it will slow you down. If you make a mistake, if you do it the right way with the right conviction then hey, it happens.”
HIT OR FIELD?
Brad Miller, since taking over at shortstop for Brendan Ryan, has provided a spark offensively while having some defensive struggles. A closer look at how they compare this season:
Brad Miller, Brendan Ryan
Games: 35, 79
Avg./OBP/SLG.: 257/.333/.407, .188/.252/.258
Errors 5, 9
Fielding percentage: .957, .972