Mark Prior, Jason Marquis, Jayson Nix, Brian Jordan. These names make up an esteemed class of MLB draftees who have made a profound impact on the game after they were selected with the last pick of the first round of their respective drafts. After being drafted in that same slot last season, outfielder Brian Miller took a huge leap towards joining that group.
Reading up on Brian Miller’s background you might learn that after going undrafted he made the North Carolina Tarheels as a true walk on. However, as Miller tells us, it wasn’t exactly like that.
“It was actually a little different than a typical walk on situation. I ended up doing a workout for one of the assistant coaches at Carolina in the early summer, then they offered me,” Miller explained. “They added me to their class as a late addition because they were going to lose a lot of high school commits to the MLB draft. So I was technically a preferred walk on. I didn’t have to do a tryout during the year or any of that stuff to “make” the team.”
Despite not having to go through a formal try out though, Miller still had to prove himself worthy of cracking one of the nation’s best baseball programs. That would happen a little later that summer when he was amongst nearly 50 players trying to crack a 25-man roster.
“We had like 44 guys on the team in the fall, and had to cut it down to 35 by the end of the fall,” Miller said. “The whole fall felt like my actual tryout.”
Miller made the team as the Tarheels’ starting center fielder and proceeded to hit .288/.375/.326 as a freshman. He stole 10 bags in 12 attempts and was second on the team in K/BB% with a lowly 0.84 marker (16/19). A native of Raleigh, North Carolina, Miller often spent time on the other side of the fence at Boshamer Stadium, dreaming of pulling on the Carolina blue and white. Now, that dream was a pleasant reality, even if not in the way Miller envisioned it.
“North Carolina was everything I could’ve asked for as a baseball program and school as a whole,” Miller said. “I’ve been a huge UNC fan since I was very little so it was definitely a dream come true being able to go there. Growing up going to games and being around campus a lot I sort of formed my own image about what it would be like to go there, but then when I actually fulfilled that dream I realized the experience was a lot different than I had expected… in a good way!”
After his solid rookie campaign, Miller took his talents to the Coastal Plain League where he placed second in BA (.389) and led the league in OBP (.476) via its most hits (77) and also racked up a league-most 38 steals. He parlayed that to his sophomore year at UNC, where he absolutely exploded, hitting .345/.440/.469. His batting average ranked amongst the top 15 in the ACC, his 21 steals (in 26 chances) ranked fourth in the conference and his 56 runs scored ranked 10th. The 19-year-old continued to exhibit excellent plate vision, posting a 0.85 K/BB, a nearly identical mark to that of his rookie year and in almost 100 more ABs. During that breakout year, Miller started to become acclimated with the close-knit fabric that binds that UNC Baseball program together. According to Miller, it was a major catalyst in his success.
“There’s a huge feeling of comfort at UNC knowing that you’re a part of such a tradition of winning and excellence on and off the court/field. I think all of my teammates and peers would agree with that feeling. I can say very confidently that if I hadn’t played ball at UNC I would be no where near the player I am today,” Miller said. “The knowledge, resources, and facilities that we have access to helped me grow tremendously as a player in all areas of my game.”
After a .327/.369/.387 showcase in the 2016 Cape Cod League, Miller’s comfortability and compatibility with the UNC program continued to show true in his junior season last year when he hit .343/.422/.502. The biggest addition to his game here was a surplus of power as he slammed seven homers after managing just two in his first two seasons at the collegiate level. Once again, the emphatically patient Miller walked more than he struck out (38/35 BB/K), and he continued to be a menace on the basepaths where he added another 24 steals in 30 chances. He appeared on multiple ACC leaderboards including BA (11th), total bases (136, 9th), steals (2nd), hits (93, 2nd) and runs (61, 5th). All of it came in 271 ABs, most in the league. Miller was a key contributor to the Tarheels’ 23-7 record, their division title and their #11 ranking in the nation. Indeed, Miller and the rest of his UNC teammates did big things that year, but if you ask any of them, including Brian, they will tell you they weren’t the least bit surprised in themselves. According to Miller, the team is accustomed to success and counts on it day in and day out. According to Miller, this attitude had a profound impact on his career.
“The ideology surrounding the program is just to win and compete,” Miller said. “We expect to win and once I was surrounded by other players and coaches that embodied that mindset it really helped me improve as a baseball player.”
Enter Draft day 2017. Miller, by way of his five-tool type junior year, entered projected to go off the board in the second round only to hear the Marlins, with their competitive balance pick, call his name in the first round, 36th overall. Yes, the same Brian Miller that went unrecruited out of high school had become a first round draft pick. However, while he admits it was exciting hearing his name get called so early in the draft, Miller says his draft stock wasn’t really a concern while he was playing for UNC. Instead, Miller had his sights set on making his friends and family proud.
“Getting picked in the first round was pretty cool, but it’s not really a goal I had all along because I just wanted to play for a team that valued me and gave me a chance to succeed,” Miller said. “There are a lot of very very good baseball players that didn’t get picked that high and will have great careers. Your junior year there’s so much noise out there about you as a player or where you might get picked. I was very blessed to have great friends and family around me that helped me tune all of that out and just play as hard as I could for my school.”
Upon being selected, the Marlins forwent sending Miller to short season Batavia and instead sent him to full season A in Greensboro. This was music to Miller’s ears as it was a short 80 mile trek from his home in Greensboro and an even shorter 50 mile hike from Chapel Hill, meaning he would continue to be surrounded by his friends and family and could keep reaping the benefits of his college coaches’ expertise.
“Being close to home was such a blessing,” Miller said. “Having my parents and other family/friends at a lot of games was a really cool environment to start my career in.”
Feeding off the in-person support of his family and friends, Miller, despite being over a year younger than the average South Atlantic League player, started his big league career by slashing .322/.385/.416. He tore up the basepaths, stealing 21 bags in 27 attempts and scored 42 runs, quickly solidifying himself as the Grasshoppers’ leadoff hitter. Though he admits there was a noticeable leap in the opposition’s skill level that he had to adjust accordingly, Miller credits the successful start to his big league career to the time he spent facing some of baseball’s top rising stars in the ACC such as fellow 2017 first rounder Brendan McKay (Tampa Bay) and 2016 second rounder Connor Jones (St Louis) and picking the brains of his star rotational teammates, Astros’ 2017 first rounder Jacob Bukauskas who owned a 3.06 K/BB at UNC and Cardinals’ 2016 third rounder Zac Gallen who posted a 3.67 K/BB in Tarheel blue.
“The competition level was definitely a step up from college ball but I think the ACC helped prepare me for mostly everything I faced this past season in Greensboro,” Miller said. “I wasn’t really familiar with many pitchers or players in the SAL, so it took a little bit of time to adjust to how different teams and pitchers like to throw. There are some really good players in the SAL and it was fun being able to compete against them all for a few months.”
A contact-or-bust singles swinger, Miller uses his plus-plus jets to collect extra bases. He exhibits fantastic plate vision and patience via a knowledge of the strike zone well beyond his years, allowing him to work at least deep and usually favorable counts. Miller’s swing is one of the quickest in Miami’s system. Using his excellent vision, he is able to wait out the break of a pitch and follow it all the way to the back of the glove. When he engages, Miller’s swing flashes through the zone straight and narrow. His split stance allows him to step both in and out to his contact point and allows him to barrel up virtually any pitch on either side of the zone. All of that sounds and is great. But if you ask Miller himself, his mechanics are so soundly second-nature that he isn’t concerned with them. Instead, he approaches his at-bats with a very simple, refined attitude.
“My approach is pretty simple in the box. I just try to be on time and hit a ball hard up the middle of the field. I think always staying to the middle of the field puts me in a good position to succeed because it helps me hit any pitch at any location in the strike zone,” Miller said. “Also, when I mishit a ball I have a good chance of beating it out with my speed because the middle guys have to move the most and sometimes make far throws on the run.”
Where Miller wants to do the most of his offensive damage and where he believes he can disrupt the game most advantageously is on the bathpaths.
“When I’m on the bases I’m always trying to steal,” Miller said. “I always want the defense to be on their toes and feel pressured, which can also help my teammate in the box get a better pitch to hit if the pitcher and catcher is concerned with throwing me out.”
Miller uses that same speed to cover ridiculous ground in the outfield, making him one of the best range defenders in the system, rivaling the likes of teammate Aaron Knapp and former/future teammate Corey Bird. If the Marlins’ current system is rich with one thing it’s speedy, top of the order outfielders. However, due to left-handedness, his pre-pro pedigree and his untenable patience and the fantastic beginning to his career, Miller may have the highest leg up on all of them. While the recently turned 22-year-old only competed in 57 games worth of affiliated action last year and while he will have to prove that he can endure a full season’s worth of games, due to his coming virtually out of nowhere, turning into a first round draft pick, skipping short season ball and becoming one of the Greensboro Grasshoppers’ most valuable players, Brian Miller earns our Minor League Player of the Year Award. We expect this will be the first of many times you hear his name this coming year. He should start the season in Greensboro (after a possible spring training invite) but with continued success, could move up to A+ Jupiter by the midseason mark.