I’m a Mariners fan, but one of the joys of living 2,500 miles from Safeco Field is the chance to see top-flight college baseball. Wake Forest University is a stone’s throw (okay, if Ichiro’s throwing it) from my house, and Wake just happened to be hosting the University of North Carolina over the weekend, kicking off the ACC season by bringing the #4 team in the country to my backyard.
UNC is led by two of the best starting pitchers in the country: righty Daniel Bard and lefty Andrew Miller. Both have been in the national spotlight since their senior year in high school, and not much has changed in the past three years. The 2006 draft is headlined by a strong group of college pitchers, and no team in the country boasts a better pair than North Carolina. Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to watch both and compose some thoughts on a pair of players who should both be rich men this summer.
Saturday was Bard’s turn in the rotation. While he’s a legitimate prospect in his own right, he has played second fiddle to Miller throughout his career. I liked the fact that I got to see Bard before Miller, giving me a better chance to evaluate him on his own merits rather than comparing him to his more heavily hyped teammate.
Bard is listed at 6’4″ and 202 pounds, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the height was fudged by an inch or two. He’s not a big kid, but he’s tall enough to overcome the short pitcher stigma. He throws from a three-quarter arm slot with solid leg drive and okay mechanics. There’s some unnecessary head movement and his release points weren’t consistent, but he’s in college, so that’s to be expected. There wasn’t anything in his delivery that isn’t fixable, and he’s got the foundation of good enough mechanics.
He came out in the first inning pumping gas: 96, 97, 95, 96, 96, 96, 97, 97. Just a steady diet of four-seam fastballs. He clearly believes in the “establish your fastball” mantra. His command was shaky, mostly due to the aforementioned issues with his release point. He missed away a lot, and he appeared to be overthrowing. After a hit batter, Bard settled down and started blowing the ball past hitters, including Wake’s star third baseman Matt Antonelli. He busted out a slider that had some diving movement but wasn’t located particularly well. In college, though, an 84 MPH slider with movement after a 97 MPH fastball is good enough to miss bats, and Wake’s hitters were clearly overmatched.
Bard stuck with fastballs and sliders in the second inning as well, and not long after I mentioned to a friend that he’d have to show a third pitch eventually to show the scouts something, he broke out the curveball. It needs work. It doesn’t spin tightly, and he hung a good percentage of them up in the zone. The slider is clearly his go-to breaking ball, and the curve is to show a different look. On the plus side, he did a good job of keeping his arm slot the same on both the slider and the curve, which is a problem for many kids.
Bard’s command continued to come and go, but it didn’t really matter. Wake wasn’t going to hit him and he knew it. He fired more 96 MPH fastballs by the weak hitters in Wake’s lineup (and there are some really weak hitters there) and mixed in the slider for the punchouts. The rain began in the fourth inning and pretty much stuck around the rest of the game, but he did well pitching through it and threw strikes for the most part. He ended up hitting three batters, walking two and throwing a wild pitch, but you can get away with that when you only give up one hit. (Here’s the box score, if you’re interested.)
Sunday was Miller Time. Come on, you knew the joke was coming at some point. This stuff writes itself. The reports I’d read on Miller basically made him sound like a typical raw flamethrower; 6’6″, mid-90s fastball, control and secondary pitches need work. Chapel Hill’s own Matt Thornton, basically. So, going in, that’s what I was expecting to see.
Apparently, Andrew Miller is tired of hearing it, because he was pretty much the anti-Matt Thornton. He’s tall, yes, but not super lanky, and his delivery is actually a bit lower than three-quarters. I’d call it five-eighths, but it’s not exactly that either. He doesn’t drop down, but the arm comes out from his body, and his release is certainly in the left-hand batter’s box. He’s going to be murder on lefties with that release point.
Like Bard, he came out throwing fastballs, but unlike Bard, they were all two-seamers: 91, 92, 91, 88, 92, 90, 87. His command was off as well, hitting the second batter of the game and walking Antonelli to put a couple of men on. So Miller busted out a top-down slider that is just pretty much unfair. Coming from his arm slot, it bores in on right-handed hitters while having the bottom fall out, and ends up forcing an awful lot of fisted foul balls. He wasn’t using it as a knockout pitch, but it clearly could be.
As the game wore on Miller worked in a few four-seam fastballs, hitting 93 a couple times, 94 once, and 95 once, but mainly he stuck to the two-seam variety, getting a ton of choppers up the middle. While the box score won’t show it, he was a groundball machine. There was a lot of weak contact. The first hit he allowed was a slow roller that went about 40 feet up the line and died for an RBI infield single. (It was hit by the left fielder, who came into the game batting .147 with aluminum bats. I hope he’s going to class.)
Again like Bard, Miller clearly knew that Wake’s hitters weren’t going to be able to touch him, and he just focused on inducing contact and letting them get themselves out. While the DIPS theory has gained momentum at the major league level, it’s clearly not true in college. You watch guys like Andrew Miller knock the bat out of a kid’s hands and you know that he had everything to do with the weak ground ball.
Miller’s two-seam fastball was impressive, his slider lethal, and he varied the speed on his fastballs enough to keep hitters off balance even without a change-up. His command wasn’t great, but he’s clearly not Matt Thornton, or anything like a raw fireballer just getting by on velocity. This kid can pitch.
In the end, Bard and Miller lived up to the hype, pitching 14 innings and allowing only an unearned run (seriously, this run was unearned—two errors and the aforementioned 40-foot single) while just outclassing Wake Forest’s hitters. This wasn’t a competition as much as it was a showcase of superior talent. Wake’s not a great college team, but I’m not sure it would have mattered.
Bard and Miller are vastly different animals. Bard looked like the velocity guy who lights up the radar gun, consistently hitting 97 and showing a good enough slider to miss a lot of bats. Despite the advanced reports, however, Miller’s not a project getting by on arm strength; he’s got a variety of weapons at his disposal and he showed the better idea of how to pitch. Both have a ways to go; they aren’t polished, major league-ready pitchers. But they aren’t supposed to be; they are starting their junior year in college, and there is enough there to like to see why major league clubs are getting excited.
They’re going to be lumped into the same conversation quite a bit this year. You’ll hear Bard and Miller become a phrase much like Laverne and Shirley or Bert and Ernie, but in the end they’re going to be separated by the draft. At some point, teams are going to have to decide whether they prefer the right-hander with velocity or the left-hander with movement. I liked Miller’s package quite a bit more than Bard, but I wouldn’t cry if the Mariners selected Daniel Bard with the fifth pick in the draft either.