Closing Time: Justin Miller and plausible upside

Justin Miller turns 31 on Wednesday. The Washington right-hander is just seven-percent owned in Yahoo leagues, one of those semi-anonymous relievers who doesn’t close (at least, not yet). He’s been largely ignored in the fantasy baseball writing and tout industry.

I tried to push the conversation with a series of weekend tweets. But it’s time for a more overt, specific approach.

Miller’s career to this point is that of a journeyman. He was drafted in the 47th round out of high school and the 16th round out of Fresno State. You didn’t see him touted on any scouting clipboards. He bounced around with modest traction; Texas, Detroit, Colorado, Anaheim.

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Miller spent all of last year in the minors. His career ERA is 3.35 in the bush leagues, 4.53 over 97.1 MLB innings. He recorded a lone save, which no one remembers, with the Rockies two years ago. Expectations were low when the Nationals signed him before this season. I didn’t rank Miller, draft Miller, or even think about Miller once this spring.

And here’s where the story completely flips.

Miller started the year by mowing down Triple-A hitters. Okay, he’s 30, way too old for the league, but still, the numbers were electric. He collected 13.2 scoreless innings, allowed just three hits, walked only three men (one intentional). He struck out 23 of the 46 batters he faced.

I don’t care what your pedigree is, that stuff will get you promoted. And Miller’s actually been better in his Washington stint, brief as it still is. Check out his nine innings thus far: 1 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 17 K. He’s faced 28 MLB hitters this year and stuck out 17 of them!

I don’t know what Justin Miller has figured out, but something’s going on here. Batters get paid, too, but he’s dominating them. If you add his Triple-A and MLB stats from 2018, we’re looking at this: 22.2 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 3 BB, 40 K. And that’s 40 strikeouts against 74 batters faced. These are backyard, Wiffle Ball, Sidd Finch numbers.

You want to go advanced with the stats? Miller has a negative FIP. He’s been so dominant, an ERA of 0.00 is unfair to him. Put that in your alphabet soup.

Miller has lucked into five overall wins (including three in Washington), and perhaps more are on the way as the team starts to press him into high-leverage situations. The Nats are happy with closer Sean Doolittle, but Brandon Kintzler just went on the disabled list. Miller has earned the right to work in more critical spots. Still, wins are extremely fickle, prone to luck and circumstance. Any good roto player understands that.

It’s easy to throw cold water on the Miller story. He was never a rated prospect. He’s been mediocre for a decade. In some leagues, non-closing relievers don’t make a significant impact (that’s especially true in head-to-head formats). And you can find inexpensive shutdown relievers on many big league clubs. If you miss out on this bus, maybe another one is coming in 10 minutes.

And maybe the league will adjust to Miller, now that it has some tape on him, and a reason to care. There hasn’t been a major change to his pitch mix, and his velocity is the same as it’s generally been. It appears his big fix has come with a delivery adjustment; basically, mechanical stuff. And yes, the totality of his 2018 run is still a small sample.

Nonetheless, when we see plausible upside with any fantasy commodity, we want to act. It’s not that Miller is guaranteed to be a knockout guy all year — just that it’s possible he might be. Plausible upside has shown itself. And the magnitude of his sample might kick in the special rules of signature significance. That’s one Bill James principle that should be tattooed on your arm. Sometimes a small sample can be accepted if the results resonate to a notable level.

I grabbed Miller in five of my critical leagues over the weekend. I snapped him up in the Yahoo Friends & Family League on Saturday, then made four FAAB bids for him — all uncontested — on Sunday. In all of those leagues, a ratio-smoothing reliever has value. And maybe Miller could get some save chances down the line, if Doolittle slumps or gets injured.

It’s entirely possible Miller’s pixie dust will fly away, the league will figure him out, something will veer this story off the road. Maybe today’s hot topic turns into a brief hold and the inevitable drop. Nothing’s guaranteed here. I’m not telling you to cut established players of value for a journeyman reliever who’s not closing.

But if you have some flexibility on the back of your roster, this is the type of player I’m always looking to add. Plausible upside rules my fantasy life. We don’t need to hit on all of these picks, just a few of them.

Scratch that lottery ticket with me. It’s Miller Time.

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