The sport of baseball can be cruel to some who play it. Players sometimes get credit for things they don’t deserve, while others take the blame for a team’s failures. Lisa Carney has a look at Atlanta Braves losing pitcher Shelby Miller, and the unfortunate season he’s had.
Win as a team, lose as a team– a mantra for most professional sports. Yet in the team sport of baseball, game after game, one man gets statistically tagged and distinguished from the rest. Who might that be? That’s right, none other than numero uno, the pitcher. He alone can look at the box score and know exactly who got labeled on paper as most responsible for his team’s good day or bad. A batter whiffs with the bases loaded in the 7th and it’s hidden in a 2-4 line. Pitch just well enough to lose and everybody knows all about it.
This isn’t much of a burden for elite pitchers. Of course it feels great to have a career filled with box scores littered with W after W. The occasional L or lack of any designation is merely a hiccup. Some pitchers enjoy a more balanced smattering with a heavy favor to the W’s. Others fearfully watch the L’s appear with more frequency and in creeps questions of their job security.
Which brings us to Shelby Miller. As of September 14, it had been 120 days since the talented, young Atlanta Braves pitcher saw a W next to his name. That’s a total of twenty-one appearances. He may not have even minded at first. That last W came stocked with afterglow because it was a gem that saw Miller come within one out of a no-hitter against the Marlins. And while not all twenty-one of his box scores that followed came with L’s, the majority of the missing W’s were the result of many times, just barely, hardly missing, so close you can smell it, pitching just well enough to lose. That’s gotta sting. In fact, it probably stings a lot.
In a game of nuances and trends, this unlikely alchemy provides two things: poetic moments and heated discussions. One popular debate is whether a team is better off with a pitcher who sports a low ERA or a high win total. It’s a lot like the proverbial chicken versus egg. Each side passionately argues their position but no one has ever proven their point. Shelby Miller has become this season’s Exhibit A for all that lives in the controversy.
As of September 14, Miller was tenth in ERA among the fifty-eight Major League pitchers with 160 or more innings. The forty-eight pitchers with higher ERA’s all have at least as many wins as Miller and nobody on the list has fewer. Fans of pitchers who win will point to this and say, “See, this proves it. Low ERA or not, just give me the guy who puts up W’s.” Makes sense. Among that group of forty-eight pitchers with more wins, eighteen are pitching for playoff contending teams.
But then there are those who retort, “Give me the guy with the talent. He just needs a team built around him that can provide offensive and defensive support.” This argument too, has validity because the most likely culprit to Miller’s frustrating stretch is that he’s dead last in run support average per start and he’s lost six games without giving up more than a run. It’s hard to ask a pitcher to give you more. It also gives credence to the “win as a team, lose as a team” concept, making it even sadder that Miller is the only one branded in the box score.
‘‘The only thing I can explain is the way Shelby has behaved through all this, the way he’s gone out and battled through everything we’ve asked him to do, and he doesn’t flinch,’’ Gonzalez said. ‘‘I hope that continues.’’
So what came first, the chicken or the egg? Who do you want on your team, the winner or the ERA master? Shelby Miller knows what it means to lose. Judge him for that and you miss out on the talent and heart that really defines him. Justin Verlander lost seventeen games in 2008. The next year he made the acquaintance of the guy who holds the record for most losses in a career? You may have heard of him.
Make no mistake, Shelby Miller’s future is bright. Unfortunately for him, it’s just taking its sweet time getting here.