Miller looking for playoff run before draft

BROWNWOOD, Texas -- Scotty Nichols, baseball coach at Class 3A Brownwood (Texas), said it's just a coincidence that renovations underway at Morris Southall Field have resulted in plenty of standing room right behind home plate. It has nothing to do with creating space for the dozens of pro scouts who converge on Brownwood Lions games when senior right-hander Shelby Miller pitches.

It's estimated 40 or 50 of them, with every major league club present, came to watch Miller's first home pitching performance of the season. Paparazzi with radar guns instead of cameras. All aimed at the big kid considered the best right-handed high school pitcher available in this June's pro draft.

Oh, yeah -- that was at a scrimmage.

"All [of the scouts] right in his line of sight," Nichols said. "It was a pretty nerve-wracking deal."

At least a dozen or so scouts have become the norm on days when Miller pitches in this town of about 20,000 located in what's known as Texas' "Big Country."

"I tend to not realize it as much as I used to," said Miller, who is 6-foot-4 and about 206 pounds. "At the beginning of the season, I had control problems [because of them]. Trying to throw the ball too hard. Now, I don't even notice them."

The Lions dropped from 4A this season and have swept through District 2-3A with 10 straight wins. Miller is one of only three seniors on the team; two sophomores in their first year of varsity play complete the starting staff. He didn't pitch much in pre-district play, and the Lions are only 13-9 overall. But since debuting this season, Miller has a record of 6-1 with an ERA of 2.18 and 90 strikeouts in 45 innings.

When University Interscholastic League baseball in Texas resumes next week after the 10-day sports hiatus to minimize the potential spread of the H1N1 virus, Brownwood will finish its regular season before receiving a first-round playoff bye. Its postseason opener will be May 26.

Because of the hiatus, the UIL compressed the early playoff rounds from five weeks into three by making two of the rounds one-game eliminations. It took some pressure off Nichols. Brownwood's second-round opener is automatically one game. Normally, the coaches would negotiate whether a round would be one game or a best-of-three series. And Brownwood's chances of advancing increase with a "series" that's confined to Miller pitching.

"Whether Shelby pitches the series after that depends on how much he throws in that first game," Nichols said. "He could pitch that second game [in the third round, when best-of-threes will be allowed]."

A handful of scouts showed up last season, when Miller threw three consecutive no-hitters and led Brownwood to a second consecutive playoff berth. In the game before the no-hit streak began, he tossed a one-hitter.

"Gave up a homer to the No. 9 man," Miller said, shaking his head in disgust. "I think I threw a changeup, and he kind of got a hold of it."

That was when Miller's fastball was consistently reaching the low 90s. This season, he has hit 97 mph in play, 98 mph a couple of times between innings.

Fellow senior Parker Taylor has played alongside Miller since youth baseball days and said he doesn't need a gun to know how hard his friend is throwing.

"You can tell the difference between the 94s and the 98s," said Taylor, a first baseman. "I can tell how fast it is because I've been there for so long. It's so much faster the last two years. Ever since we were little, he's been able to throw the ball faster than every other kid. But he still can't strike me out."

Taylor is amazed at Miller's natural abilities.

"We both probably haven't worked out since football season, but Shelby's arm still keeps getting stronger. Every day, he throws at least 40 pitches. Coaches make him do bullpen every day. He's always working that arm out, even though he's not in the weight room literally working out."

Besides his heater, Miller also has a 12-to-6 curveball that usually reaches the mid-70s. He said that this season, he has tried to work on his mechanics and, at the suggestion of scouts, his changeup.

As a high school senior, Miller can either go pro immediately this summer through the draft or decide not to sign with the pro organization that picks him and instead play college baseball. Players in that situation often accept athletic scholarships before the draft takes place and then are eligible to be drafted again after their junior and senior years in college.

Miller already has signed with Texas A&M. It was the choice of schools that surprised teammates and friends because he long had been a University of Texas fan. But he said he liked A&M's coaches and was sold on the place when attending an Aggies home football game in which they upset Texas in 2007.

The draft is about a month away. Nearly every major league organization has visited the Miller home only a few blocks from the high school. Shelby and his father, Mitch, said they really haven't yet discussed specifics of what would lead to Shelby go pro.

Most mock drafts have Miller being picked around No. 10. That probably would mean a financial offer that would be difficult to turn down. Likewise, it's doubtful a major league club would use a draft pick that high on a player who wouldn't sign.

"Right now, I'm going to college," Miller said. "I don't know the future. I'd love to go top 10 or wherever I go. I don't know what it's going to take."

The family is being advised by Gavin Wright and Peter Vescovo from Select Sports Group in Houston. Wright was Miller's coach last year with a summer team called the Austin Slam.

Mitch, who works for the Brownwood Fire Department, and wife Stacy are letting Shelby make the decision.

"It's kind of unbelievable that it's your son doing it," Mitch said. "We've mostly left it up to him. If it's there and he wants to do it and it's worth skipping college right now, then I think that's what he'll do."

Taylor, who is headed to Arkansas-Pine Bluff to play wide receiver on a football scholarship, has an opinion on the subject.

"But I don't think he really needs my advice," Taylor said. "I would tell him to just go to the pros 'cause you're going to have enough money, if you get hurt, you can go back to college."

Taylor and Miller have been teammates in football, too. Miller played this past fall with the possibility of signing a multimillion-dollar baseball contract just down the road.

Brownwood High has no fall baseball program but does have one of the richest high school football traditions in the state, even by Texas standards. The high school didn't even field a baseball team until the mid-'80s.

Miller was an all-district receiver and all-state punter in the fall.

Mitch said Shelby made the decision to play one last year of football late last summer while they were in California with the Slam.

"I tried to talk him out of it," Mitch said. "But being his senior year, he grew up with these kids. These senior boys, they've pretty much been on the same team in everything since they were 8 years old."

Miller has one more big decision to make in June, but not before finishing his senior season with a run at a state title.

Jeff Miller is a freelance writer in Texas and can be reached at miller.jeff55@gmail.com.