How Ian Miller has handled MLB’s shutdown and emerged as a potential weapon for Cubs
Ian Miller and Kyle Schwarber sat together inside the Cubs video room on Thursday, March 12 at Sloan Park. The two left-handed hitters were reviewing each other’s swings when the team’s traveling secretary walked into the room and broke the news: MLB had just canceled Spring Training and postponed Opening Day due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We were just kind of in shock,” Miller said last week via phone.
Before the Cubs shut down and deep cleaned their facilities, a select group of players who planned to stay in Arizona sorted through workout equipment to take into quarantine from the team’s weight room. Miller — who had a small one-bed, one-bath AirBnb booked with his wife, Alyssa, in downtown Tempe — joined in the rationing. He took a few kettlebells, dumbbell weights and resistance bands to supplement what would become his home workouts for longer than expected.
Miller is moving into a larger, cheaper AirBnb with his wife on May 15 in the Scottsdale area, just over two months after the pandemic that has shaken the world shut down his sport. His strong spring vaulted him into consideration for a major league roster spot before the league came to a halt. His recent growth as a player has allowed him to manage his expectations in quarantine and grow into his role with his new team even off the field.
And he knows one thing for certain when baseball comes back: “I’ll be ready.”
Besides Miller’s speed, his shoulder-length brown hair was a defining characteristic of his minor league days. He played over 100 games last season with the Seattle Mariners Triple-A club, the Tacoma Rainiers, before the Twins acquired him last August. The Rainiers’ manager at the time, Daren Brown, coached Miller for over 250 games across parts of three seasons and developed a strong relationship with the former Wagner College outfielder.
Miller started the 2019 season off in a bit of a funk, batting only .222 in April. In early May he walked into Brown’s office and slapped a ponytail of his hair down on his manager’s desk. Brown took Miller’s hair and hung it above the door to his office for about a week like a mistletoe.
“He said he was a new man,” Brown said last week by phone. “As a manager, you don’t expect to have a ponytail full of hair thrown on your desk and you don’t expect a guy to walk in and say he needs to go and find his tooth. [Miller] was part of two of those stories.”
During Miller’s first home game at Wagner College as a freshman, he missed a ball warming up in left field. It cracked his two front teeth and cost him a piece of his lip. He ran into complications years later and had to have one of the teeth removed. During the 2016 season with the Jackson Generals with Brown as his manager, he played with a fake tooth, a look he admits now he was not confident displaying.
Miller sheepishly walked into his manager’s office right before batting practice late in the season and asked if the team’s bus driver could take him back to the hotel they had just checked out of. He smiled and showed his manager a missing front tooth. Brown let him go back and retrieve his fake tooth to spare him the humiliation.
Beyond the memorable laughs, Brown also witnessed Miller’s maturation as a player. Miller stole 92 bases in just over 238 games between 2016 and 2017 with a 92 percent success rate. The Mariners presented him with their Minor League Hitter of the Year award in 2017 at Safeco Field after he batted .307 between Double-A and Triple-A.
Miller was 26 years old, right in the window where he knew he should be debuting at Safeco Field, not accepting an award. He couldn’t stop comparing himself to other players.
“I was going up there for 4 at-bats a night and just worrying about stuff that doesn’t matter,” Miller said. “It’s really about focusing on what you can control.”
Miller’s performance took a step back in 2018 as his stolen base success rate fell below 80 percent and his wRC+ was 22 percent below league average. But he rebounded in 2019 with his first double-digit home run reason and a stolen base success rate above 85 percent. The Mariners traded him to the Twins in August. After another month at Triple-A, he debuted as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement in Minnesota. His first major league hit came in Detroit on Sept. 26.
The 28-year-old batted .382 with a .462 OBP in 34 Spring Training at-bats earlier this year before the shutdown. He stole 8 bases, leading both the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues before Spring Training was canceled. When asked whether he would be able to handle the emotional swing from his first hit last summer and a successful spring to the present uncertainty around baseball if it occurred before his recent development, his answer is simple: “Absolutely not.”
“Ian knows himself, I think that’s a big thing that he’s done in the last two years,” Brown said. “He knows what he can do to help you win every day, and he doesn’t try to do more than that.”
Miller is training four days a week in Arizona with his loaner equipment from the Sloan Park weight room. The other three days he and Alyssa go for a walk or a hike focused on conditioning. Integrating sprint work is a vital part of keeping his main asset to the Cubs in prime shape for whenever Spring Training 2.0 might start.
“When I’m doing my sprint work, I am at Wrigley Field in the 9th inning working on a stolen base in a key situation,” Miller said. “I am throwing myself into those situations as often as I can.”
Although Miller only signed a minor league contract with the Cubs in mid-December, the organization has made him feel at home. He is in constant communication with the team’s head major league strength and conditioning coach and nutritionist. Third base coach Will Venable is moderating a group chat among the Cubs outfielders. Miller has even gone out of his way to text Jason Heyward about his approach, defense and mindset.
“My goal was to be the best Ian Miller I could be and show the league what I could do, speed-wise, in weird ways, ways people have never seen before,” Miller said. “I went into battle every single day willing to die with that approach.”
Miller’s speed-first skillset is one the Cubs have lacked in recent years. In each of the last three seasons, the club has finished in the bottom seven of the league in stolen bases. While the league as a whole has turned away from stolen bases, the break-even point for stolen base success rate sits around 75 percent. Miller has eclipsed that mark consistently in his career. He has also played well defensively in the outfield per metrics from Fangraphs and Baseball Savant.
If Miller can maintain a league-average OBP at the major league level with his speed and defense, the Cubs could give manager David Ross a dynamic tool to impact games in a variety of ways. If rosters expand beyond the expected 26-man iterations agreed upon this winter during the shortened 2020 season, Miller could be presented with an opportunity.
“If a game is going to happen tomorrow, I’d be chomping at the bit,” Miller said. “Bottom of the 9th, two outs, I’d steal a base if I had to.”
Follow Ian on Twitter: @8rellimnai