Why Is Mason Miller So High?

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Did you load up the auction calculator a few weeks ago and see Mason Miller listed as the 20th-best starter? Load it up again today, and you’ll only see Miller on the relievers page. That’s because Miller’s 2024 role is hard to pin down. Last year, the year Miller made his debut, the young right-hander in Oakland started six games and appeared in relief in four. As a starter, he recorded a 3.70 ERA and as a reliever, 4.00. So after only 33.1 IP in 2023 without a clear role defined, what’s a fantasy manager to do?

The news reel solved this conundrum for us once rumblings came out of Oakland that suggested Miller may be the closer in 2024. Projection systems then backed off of projected starts and added a few saves. It was a necessary adjustment:

Certainly, the A’s could use someone in the closer role. Trevor May has retired after recording 21 saves for the Athletics in his farewell tour of 2023 and the last time a reliever recorded more than 30 saves in Oakland was 2018’s Blake Treinen. Rather than even think about spending money or beefing up the back end of the bullpen through a trade, the A’s have considered internal options, potentially deciding on a guy with impressive stuff.

Yes, you have to bring down the innings pitched qualifier to a 30 IP minimum, but that allows Miller to show up in good company. In 2023, Mason Miller had the 21st-fastest average fastball within that qualifier, measured by PitchInfo’s vFA. The Stuff+ measurement on his four-seamer was an eye-popping 136, not to mention the grades on his cutter (117, 14th), and his overall 125 Stuff+, good for 27th. That’s the kind of stuff that can make hitters go cross-legged. Miller’s stats certainly read “closer potential” to me. But, health is an issue for the young righty, and when your player page reads:

Prospects TLDR: Miller has huge stuff and has been hurt a lot.

right at the very top, fantasy managers should set up red flags on their draft board. Looking for a little more detail on these injuries I read Miller’s 2022 prospect report, written by Tess Taruskin:

As we noted in our previous write-up, his delivery is quite violent, so much so that after just 21.1 big league innings across four starts, he landed back on the IL with a mild UCL sprain; his return date is unclear as of now, though he’s recently begun throwing again.

He did return from that early 2023 injury and threw 12 more innings, three as a starter/opener and the other nine in long relief. In that stretch during September, Miller maintained a high K/9 (12.00) that has so many intrigued, but his BB/9 was a nerve-racking 6.75. The league average BB/9 among relievers sat at 3.69 in 2023, so Miller finished out the year with some control issues.

With a pitcher like Miller, walking a lot of batters while also striking out a lot of batters can make for some wonky numbers. Consider the league average (relievers) K-BB% in 2023 which finished at 14.0%. Miller finished the year at 15.8% which speaks much more to his high strikeout rate (27.3%) than it does to a low walk rate (11.5%). In 2024, Steamer expects both of those metrics to be better, predicting a 33.9% K% and a 9.3% BB%, which helps to aid a projected 3.78 ERA and 1.20 WHIP. Now, you can start to see why Miller was so high in the starting pitcher rankings. Bring those ratios on top of starter-projected innings, and you’ve got a blend of Blake Snell (31.5 K%, 13.3 BB%) and Spencer Strider (36.8 K%, 7.6 BB%).

That’s not what we have with Miller in 2023 due to his injury risk, but these projected ratios argue that the potential is there. Now that he’s being treated as a reliever, he’s projected for only 68 innings. Is that enough to expect a positive value return in 2024? As of now, Miller is a mixing pot of incredible ratios, an unknown role, out-of-this-world stuff, injury risk, and $17.30 (projected) of value.

In the past two seasons, there have only been a handful of pitchers who returned positive value in the season after posting 35 or fewer IP in the prior season and most of those pitchers dealt with some kind of injury in the prior season:

Starting Pitcher Value After a Sub-30IP Season
Name Season Dollars Previous Season’s IP
Spencer Strider 2022 $23.33 2.1
Kyle Wright 2022 $16.95 6.1
Tyler Glasnow 2023 $16.36 6.2
Joe Ryan 2022 $9.14 26.2
Luis Severino 2022 $8.73 6.0
Dustin May 2023 $6.38 30.0
Edward Cabrera 2022 $4.02 26.1
Chris Sale 2023 $1.15 5.2
Matt Bush 2022 $1.00 4.0

Except for Strider, Ryan, and Bush, all of these pitchers’ low previous season’s IP were due to injury. But Strider is a good example of a pitcher who returned great value the year after only 2.1 MLB innings. The $23 he earned in 2022 made him the 19th-best pitcher. So, there is some precedent for Mason Miller’s high expectations.

But we can’t view Miller as a starter for 2024 even if we want him to be one. That’s not how it works. So, how many pitchers come back as relievers and post positive value after throwing 35 or fewer IPs in the prior season?

Relief Pitcher Value After a Sub-30IP Season
Name Season Dollars Previous Season’s IP
Ryan Pressly 2023 $10.29 48.1
Michael King 2023 $1.00 51.0
David Bednar 2023 $2.53 51.2
Erik Swanson 2023 $2.60 53.2
Devin Williams 2022 $2.71 54.0
Matt Barnes 2022 $4.55 54.2

None. You have to bring the previous season’s IP limits up to find value. This is mostly because, for one, it’s rare for a pitcher to jump into a closer or setup role without much prior experience. For another, most of the value calculated for relievers by our auction calculator comes from saves. Here are a few exceptions from the 2023 season:

Relief Pitcher’s with Non-Save Value
Name mW mSV mERA mWHIP mSO PTS aPOS Dollars
Shawn Armstrong -$8.21 -$2.59 $6.03 $5.27 -$5.68 -$5.17 $14.31 $10.14
Colin Poche $4.19 -$2.20 $3.67 $0.18 -$5.11 $0.73 $5.69 $7.42
Hector Neris -$2.57 -$1.82 $6.44 $1.56 -$3.80 -$0.19 $5.69 $6.50

Armstrong, of course, was given a huge points adjustment thanks to his starting pitcher role, but he was only really used as an opener, going no more than 3 innings pitched in any one start, of which there were six in total. Poche and Neris occupied setup roles while keeping impressive ratios. In Poche’s case, he vultured a few wins and brought his value up in unpredictable ways. This is somewhat of a cherry-picked list, but these pitchers are rare examples of relievers who were not full-time closers in 2023 but still returned decent value.

If you’ve come to the end of this article and still don’t know whether or not you should draft Mason Miller, then I’m with you. Here are some quick points:

  • Some projection systems/sites may list Miller as a starting pitcher. I don’t think that’s the case.
  • As more news comes out of Oakland, pay close attention to how much closer talk continues.
  • Oakland won’t be providing a ton of save opportunities, so if he does move into a full-time closer role, his value goes down. He’s only projected to record 18 saves but there must be some wide error bars on that projection.
  • He may continue in the role he was in last year, similar to a Shawn Armstrong type, where he’s opening/starting and appearing in relief.
  • His ratios project to be excellent, but a significant lowering of his BB% by Steamer should be viewed with suspicion.
  • This dude has insane stuff, can he control it?
  • He’s an injury risk.

If all else fails, at least you can load up Miller’s Topps Now MLB The Show card and feel what it’s like to through a vicious wipeout slider that moves like a man who borrowed his cousin’s ninja motorcycle and went for his first drive on the capital beltway during rush hour.





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montrealmember
3 months ago

If Mason Miller can stay healthy he can be a solid closer for Oakland. Hopefully switching from starter to reliever will help his arm. They really need him in the rotation but health comes first.