‘We lucked out.’ How Bobby Miller became the Dodgers’ newest pitching sensation

Two starts into his major league career, Bobby Miller was already looking for a change.

Weeks earlier, the Dodgers’ top-ranked pitching prospect had made a superb major league debut, holding the high-powered Atlanta Braves to one run in five innings.

Days later, the right-hander had looked even better, going six innings in another one-run outing against the rebuilding Washington Nationals in late May.

For a former late first-round draft pick with only eight starts in triple A, Miller had already surpassed initially modest expectations. Unleashing 100-mph fastballs from his 6-foot-5 frame, he was already on track to becoming the club’s latest rookie sensation.

Yet, he noticed an area for improvement — an opportunity to accelerate his ever-evolving development process, and add a little more polish to his rapidly improving game.

In his first two starts, the 24-year-old struck out just nine batters in 11 innings. While his sinking two-seam fastball was inducing soft contact and easy outs, he was seeking a complementary weapon to put more batters away.

“I know going into every game, guys are gonna be ready for my fastball,” said Miller, whose high-velocity heater has long overshadowed his secondary pitches. “I want to get to where they have to respect my other stuff too.”

So, in a bullpen session before his third outing, he and the Dodgers pitching coaches tinkered with a new slider shape.

With a simple grip adjustment, Miller started throwing the pitch harder and with slightly less bend, hoping it would be more difficult for opponents to distinguish out of his hand.

The results in two starts since: A pair of consecutive, scoreless six-inning gems against the star-studded New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies, with Miller collecting seven strikeouts in each.

The takeaway for Dodgers brass: Despite an imperfect minor league track record, Miller’s skill set is plenty equipped for instant MLB success.

“For him, everyone sees 100 and [thinks], ‘Oh man, just pump heaters,’ ” assistant pitching coach Connor McGuiness said. “But, he has so many weapons … It’s almost like calling a video game.”

Through four starts over three weeks, Miller’s numbers are video game-like, as well.

He is 3-0 with just two earned runs in 23 innings, numbers the Dodgers haven’t seen from a debuting pitcher since Kenta Maeda in 2016 and Fernando Valenzuela’s legendary 1981 season before that.

He has become an integral piece of the team’s banged-up rotation, leading the club in wins and innings pitched since his call-up on May 23.

“Obviously, this is as good as we could have asked for,” president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. “We knew the premium stuff was in place. But you never really know with a young player until they get up and have success and failure.”

Said Billy Gasparino, the Dodgers’ vice president of amateur scouting: “I think ‘emerge’ is a great word. I think he is still evolving. But honestly, it’s been a step forward in the major leagues.”

Dodgers pitcher Bobby Miller walks through the dugout before a game against the New York Yankees.

Dodgers pitcher Bobby Miller (70) walks through the dugout before a game against the New York Yankees at Dodger Stadium on June 4. (Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

Three-and-a-half years ago, Miller’s path to rookie stardom required a more serendipitous first step, his rise with the Dodgers beginning in a nondescript college scrimmage.

Entering his junior season at Louisville, Miller was seen as an intriguing, high-potential prospect — but not a strong contender to be drafted in the first round.

“There were several areas where he needed improvement,” Gasparino recalled of a pitcher who even then had a lively fastball, but lacked command and consistency with his secondary pitches.

“He was a big body, big arm,” added Dodgers area scout Marty Lamb. “But he wasn’t a huge name.”

Things quickly changed, however, when Lamb went to watch Louisville play a preseason intrasquad game with Miller on the mound.

A longtime member of the Dodgers scouting operation, Lamb had been involved in the selections of Walker Buehler, Will Smith and numerous other future big leaguers. He was used to seeing young players make big, unexpected strides.

Yet, the growth Miller displayed that day still struck him. His fastball velocity was up to the high 90s. More than that, he flashed an array of improved breaking and offspeed pitches neither Lamb nor much of the scouting industry — which was split on Miller’s future as either a reliever or starter — knew he possessed.

“He was lights out,” Lamb said. “Just a different guy than I’d seen coming up.”

So much so, the veteran scout feared just one thing.

“If he [does this] the whole year,” Lamb recalled, worried Miller’s stock might rise too high for the Dodgers’ late-round selection, “we don’t sniff him” in the draft.

“I think he is still evolving. But honestly, it’s been a step forward in the major leagues.”

Dodgers vice president of amateur scouting Billy Gasparino, on Bobby Miller

Alas, things played out differently.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced an early cancelation of Miller’s junior campaign, halting the season just as his stock was starting to gain steam.

Lamb never saw Miller pitch again in person, but lobbied for his potential as a future star in the making.

And in the end, not only did the Dodgers ultimately draft the prospect — “we lucked out,” Lamb said with a smile — but have since watched him round out as their latest pitching success story.

“He’s a fundamentally different pitcher from when we got him to where he is now,” Dodgers minor league pitching director Rob Hill said. “For as talented as he is, he doesn’t always get enough credit for how many changes he has made.”

That process started when Miller reported to the Dodgers alternate training site at USC during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, tasked immediately with figuring out which weapons would suit him best.

He started toying with a curveball. He transformed his slider into more of a power pitch. He further refined his changeup, long his best secondary option. He worked to make his fastball command, both with his four-seamer and sinker, more consistent.

“I remember he got there, and how quickly he made adjustments,” Gasparino said. “It would be like, ‘Hey, try this.’ And he would have it within like two pitches.”

It translated to success in his first minor league season in 2021. Miller dominated in high A, with a 1.91 ERA in 14 games. By the end of the year, national evaluators started taking notice, making him a consensus top-100 prospect across all of baseball.

The 2022 season was more of a challenge.

Dodgers rookie pitcher Bobby Miller is shown against the Atlanta Braves.

Dodgers rookie Bobby Miller watches the action during a game against the Braves on May 24 in Atlanta. (John Bazemore / Associated Press)

Despite putting on muscle and adding more velocity to his fastball, which started eclipsing 100 mph regularly for the first time in his life, Miller’s focus on development overshadowed his need to simply execute against older, more skilled upper-level hitters.

In double-A Tulsa, he posted a 4.45 ERA in 20 games. A late-season promotion to triple-A Oklahoma City didn’t go much better, with Miller absorbing a 5.65 ERA in four starts before missing time at the end of the season.

“It’s a blessing to have that many quality pitches,” Gasparino said. “But when you’re young, and still finding who you are, it can be hard to figure out when to use them.”

Miller agreed, acknowledging he sometimes tried doing too much with his rapidly expanding arsenal. More than once in the minors, he would make a mistake and ask himself, “Why did I just throw that pitch?”

The answer, of course, was obvious.

“I found myself some days just so eager to get to the big leagues,” Miller said. “I was thinking about other stuff, not in the right headspace.”

Since debuting in the majors, all those issues have quickly faded away.

He has reveled in the Dodgers’ meticulous game-planning process. He has channeled his adrenaline and kept his poise on the mound.

“We knew we had something special coming out of the draft,” McGuiness said. “But to see him do this — the mound presence, the ability to handle the game plan, communicate and work with everyone — he’s been a huge asset.”

Granted, it’s only been a small sample, but already Miller is affirming his highly touted potential, steadily proving all his stuff can play against MLB opposition.

After blossoming into the well-rounded starter the Dodgers had envisioned, he is basking in the glow of his sudden breakthrough moment.

“It’s not about development anymore,” manager Dave Roberts said. “And I think that he’s embraced that.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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