Diamondbacks gave up a lot for Shelby Miller, but he just might be worth it

The window is open in Arizona. And if the Diamondbacks win, maybe all the talent they traded for Shelby Miller will be a mere footnote. Norm Hall/Getty Images

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- It was one of the most controversial trades in years: The Arizona Diamondbacks, who had signed Zack Greinke a few days before, acquired Shelby Miller from the Atlanta Braves for two minor leaguers -- shortstop Dansby Swanson, the first overall pick in the 2015 draft, and pitcher Aaron Blair -- plus speedy outfielder Ender Inciarte. The D-backs got a No. 2 starter to line up behind Greinke, but it cost them two top-40 prospects and a player who had more WAR in 2015 than Miller.

The criticism was severe across the board, from people in the game to bloggers analyzing the numbers. Miller was coming off a strong season with an awful Braves team, posting a 3.02 ERA and topping 200 innings for the first time. He has made 30-plus starts in each of his three major league seasons and is under team control for three more. Guys with his ability and service time aren't traded that often -- although it was the second straight offseason Miller was dealt, after going from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Braves for Jason Heyward. Still, everybody agreed: The Diamondbacks gave up way too much.

Miller knows about the reports and the negative assessments of the deal. "Obviously, you know they gave up a lot," he said after pitching five solid innings in Sunday's 9-3 win over the Cincinnati Reds. "The only thing I can do is be confident in myself, and when I get the ball every fifth day, go out there and compete as hard as I can. I have way more to worry about than what the Diamondbacks gave up."

Diamondbacks CEO Derrick Hall talked about the trade at the recent SABR Analytics Conference. He's aware that in this day of mega-contracts, having inexpensive young players is vital to any team's long-term success. He's aware of the perception that the D-backs got hosed.

"It is a unique model," he admitted. "It's not something we're going to do forever. That's two No. 1 picks we've moved, and that hurts. We've been an organization that prides ourselves in drafting and development."

But the Diamondbacks also believe they can win now, with MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt and 2015 breakout stars A.J. Pollock and David Peralta in their prime. "We challenge our baseball staff: This is your budget," Hall said. "They say this is our window to compete. We can't spend wildly in this market. They had to create some flexibility and move some big-ticket items."

The D-backs did give Greinke a $206.5 million contract, but one that still fit into the budget because of Goldschmidt's extremely team-friendly deal (he'll make less than $6 million this year) and the rest of the youth on one of the youngest teams in the league.

"These guys are showing up every single day," Miller said. "I'm super excited to be part of something like this. It's fun to watch. They play hard, they run the bases hard, they hit balls in the gaps, they play baseball."

Unprovoked, Miller brought up -- avert your eyes, sabermetricians -- team chemistry, although he didn't actually use the word. "I feel like the vibe in the clubhouse is amazing," he said. "I don't think a lot of teams have a great camaraderie like we do. They show up to the field and have fun, they're laughing, but when 7 o'clock comes around it's time to gear up and lock it in. I felt like that's what St. Louis did."

It's possible that everyone is underestimating Miller, attributing his success the past couple of seasons to some low BABIP totals. He ranked 47th among 78 qualified starters in strikeout rate, and that leads to the projection systems forecasting some significant regression (in tune with going to a better hitter's park): ZiPS projects a 3.65 ERA, Steamer a 4.06 ERA.

What the systems might miss, however, is that the 2016 version of Miller is a much different pitcher than the rookie who won 15 games for the Cardinals in 2013. Miller came up as a guy with a good four-seam fastball and curveball and an occasional changeup. He produced a 3.06 ERA, but some of the underlying metrics suggested he was hit harder than his ERA revealed. Miller ranked 16th in the majors in ERA that year but 46th in "well-hit average."

Sure enough, he was getting hit harder at the start of the 2014 season, with a 4.29 ERA in the first half. Adam Wainwright gave him some advice: "Waino was the guy who told me a four-seam fastball isn't going to cut it my entire career," Miller said.

Justin Masterson showed Miller his grip on his sinker. "We were in Philadelphia one time and A.J. Pierzynski was the catcher that day and I just started toying with the sinker with the grip Masterson showed me and I was getting a little bit of movement on it. I told A.J, 'Look, if this is decent, I want to start throwing it' and that game I was getting a lot of ground balls with it."

Miller's memory is spot on. In an Aug. 23 start in Philadelphia, Pierzynski caught, and the Brooks Baseball site reports that Miller threw his new sinker 40 percent of the time. Miller posted a 2.08 ERA over his final seven starts. The amazing thing is, he hadn't even worked on the sinker before unveiling it that day.

"Just to have another pitch in the batter's head is what I was getting at," Miller explained. "I picked it up and ran with it. I got super lucky. It's not my best pitch. I throw because I've built confidence in it. I was successful my rookie year, no doubt about that. I had a good year. As I started facing more guys, they were getting a lot of foul balls against the four-seamer because they were seeing it and it was just flat. When I started in mixing in that sinker I started getting more ground balls, more efficient, going deeper into games."

Indeed, his ground ball rate has increased from 41 percent as a rookie to 49 percent in 2015. His home runs allowed decreased from 22 in 2014 to 13 in 2015. Miller also increased the use of his cutter last year, from 6.1 percent of the time to 20.5 percent. Like a good sinker, a cutter isn't really a strikeout pitch but one designed to induce soft contact.

"I threw it a lot today," Miller said of Sunday's outing in which he gave up three unearned runs in the first inning (the rally started when Miller threw away Billy Hamilton's bunt attempt) and then cruised through the next four. "It's coming along. I'm trying to focus on my curveball and split. Develop a little bit of everything."

Before the Diamondbacks acquired Miller, Hall said, "We talked to the White Sox. We talked to the A's. We talked to the Rays. Every team wanted more than we gave up [for Miller]. Twenty-nine teams wanted A.J. Pollock. Just like last year, 29 teams wanted Paul Goldschmidt. Last year, we hung up when teams asked for Goldschmidt, and we did that this year with Pollock."

In other words: It's not easy to acquire a young, proven, healthy starting pitcher. The Diamondbacks ranked 11th in the National League in rotation ERA in 2015. They've added an ace and they've added a potential No. 2 in Miller, two guys who should give the club 400-plus innings, lessening the strain on the bullpen. The window is now in Arizona, and Miller's production will be vital as they battle the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants for NL West supremacy. And if they win, maybe what they gave up for Miller will be forgotten.