Justin Miller signed a minor league deal with the Washington Nationals last January and he tossed 13 2⁄3 scoreless, walking three and striking out 23 at Triple-A Syracuse, before he was called up to work out of the bullpen in the majors for the first time since 2016.
Miller tossed 10 2⁄3 scoreless to start his time in the Nats’ bullpen, striking out 21 of the 34 batters he faced over that stretch before he finally gave up a run in his ninth appearance.
“Honestly, I don’t know how we got him, but I’m glad he’s here, and he’s doing really well, and he fits our needs,” Nats’ skipper Davey Martinez told reporters after Miller tossed 1 2⁄3 scoreless in a 5-4 win over the New York Yankees on June 13th.
In those first nine games, the 31-year-old right-hander put up a 0.77 ERA, a .083/.079/.194 line against, no walks, and 22 Ks in 11 2⁄3 IP.
Martinez talked about the deception in Miller’s delivery as at least part of the reason the right-hander was enjoying success early in his return to the majors, noting that turning around with his back to the mound as he got going made him extremely hard to pick up.
“If you’re standing up there — I kind of wanted to see from a hitter’s angle what he does,” Martinez explained, “... and he’s got his back turned towards you as a right-handed hitter and the ball comes out of nowhere, so I think that’s a part of it.
Over his next 10 appearances, however, after he’d finally given up a run, Miller struggled, giving up runs in six of ten outings, eight runs total (6.00 ERA), with eight walks, 13 Ks, and a .292/.393/.542 line against in 12 innings.
Martinez talked after Miller threw a clean inning of relief work in a July 6th outing against Miami, about what he saw from the veteran reliever that night that was different from the appearances in which he’d struggled.
The previous night, Miller had given up a walk and a double to the only batters he faced and had both runners come around to score after Kelvin Herrera took over on the mound.
“I talked to him today a little bit and just told him relax and have fun, and you’re a big part of our bullpen and you’ve done great,” Martinez said. “So just go out there relax and have fun and try to keep that ball down. I said you’re really good when you’re down and I showed him the percentages of his fastballs and swings and misses, and he appreciated that and he was really good tonight.”
“Of course I’m not happy with myself,” Miller said when asked about his struggles and that conversation with his manager.
“Yesterday’s outing I go out there give up a double and a tough at bat but wind up walking him when I think I could have had him. I think I had him 1-2 and he winds up working a walk, and then Kelvin comes in, but hey, that’s the nature of the beast, just part of the game, part of being in the bullpen.”
Working whatever innings he was asked to work was part of the gig as well, Miller said, when asked if it was difficult not having a defined role.
“That’s what I signed up for,” he said. “I didn’t sign a contract to be a seventh, eighth, or ninth-inning guy.”
Miller finished the first half with a 3.58 ERA, nine walks, 41 Ks, and a .220/.279/.390 line against in 27 2⁄3 IP, then put up a 3.65 ERA, eight walks, 19 Ks, and a .215/.291/.452 line against in 24 2⁄3 IP in the second-half of the season to finish the year with a 3.61 ERA, 17 walks, 60 Ks, and a .218/.285/.420 line against in 51 games and 52 1⁄3 IP.
Along the way, Miller picked up two saves, three years after he’d first closed out a game in the majors for the Colorado Rockies.
“He’s a consummate professional,” Martinez said after Miller tossed a 12-pitch, 1-2-3 ninth in Citizens Bank Park on August 27th.
“He’s a pro. He really is. And he’s done things that he never imagined and gave us two innings, three innings, came in in big situations, high-leverage, like tonight.
“And got big outs for us, so I’m really proud of what he’s done. He battled his way back, that just tells you what kind of guy he really is.”
Working predominantly with a fastball (65.3%) and slider (27.2%), Miller held hitters to a .208 AVG on his four-seamer and a .242 AVG on his breaking ball, striking out 46 batters with his fastball (94 MPH AVG), and 13 with the slider (86 MPH).
Miller finished with service time in the majors just short of Super Two status (2.128 with the cutoff 2.134), so he doesn’t qualify for arbitration, and he should be a relatively cheap arm in the Nationals’ bullpen in 2019.