Not all paths to success are identical. That is a message that was reinforced in unusual fashion for Andrew Miller during an unforgettable dinner conversation.
Miller, who starts for the Red Sox on Saturday night, is attempting to resurrect his career and unlock the tremendous potential that the baseball world has seen in him since he was a teenager. The 6-foot-7 left-hander elected to sign with the Red Sox this winter after forging a 15-26 record and 5.84 ERA in parts of five years with the Marlins and Tigers.
The early returns have been impressive. After chiseling a 2.47 ERA in 13 outings in Triple-A, Miller is 1-0 with a 3.09 ERA, 10 strikeouts and five walks in 11 2/3 innings spanning two starts with the Sox. He has shown impressive glimpses upon which he can build as he tries to leave behind the early-career struggles that reflected, in part, his rushed development. (Miller was pushed to the majors almost immediately after being drafted with the sixth overall pick in the 2006 draft.)
The left-hander is attempting something rare. The success stories of dramatic mid-career turnarounds by pitchers who struggle desperately with their command into their mid-20s are few. Even so, they exist, and Miller need look no further than a memorable dinner experience he had a few years ago to be reminded of that.
Though Miller struggled to a 6-10 record and 5.87 ERA in his first year with the Marlins in 2008 (the season after Florida had traded superstar first baseman Miguel Cabrera for the pitcher and outfielder Cameron Maybin), Florida owner Jeffrey Loria had taken a liking to the bright, affable left-hander, and would often seek him out to exchange pleasantries.
And so, in spring training of 2009, Loria approached Miller with an unexpected invitation: Loria and Marlins Assistant GM Dan Jennings (along with their wives) were planning on having dinner with legendary left-hander Sandy Koufax. They wanted Miller to join.
“Pretty unbelievable. It’s one of those opportunities, if someone offers it to you, you’re like, ‘Yeah, I’ll believe it when it happens,’” Miller recalled this spring. “I guess [Loria] had come to know Sandy Koufax from somewhere. He knew Sandy, was having dinner and invited me.
“It’s certainly not something you’re going to turn down. You’ll make room for it,” Miller mused. “It was a lot of fun. Getting to sit and talk baseball with Sandy Koufax, there’s not a lot better than that.”
Koufax, of course, forged a Hall of Fame career with the Brooklyn and then Los Angeles Dodgers in an injury-curtailed career from 1955-66, going 165-87 with a 2.76 ERA. Interestingly, as a Dodgers ‘bonus baby,’ he – like Miller – was rushed to the majors, never spending a day in the minors owing to his contract status.
And so, in retrospect, it is perhaps unsurprising to comprehend why it took Koufax some time to grow into one of the most dominant pitchers in the game. Through his first six pro seasons (all in the big leagues), he had a 36-40 record and 4.10 ERA. He’d shown glimpses of tremendous stuff and potential, though through his age 24 season, he’d struggled to harness his skills due to command issues (Koufax walked 5.3 batters per nine innings from 1955-60, third most in the majors).
But then, Koufax commenced a stretch as one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball history. Over the next six years, Koufax went 129-47 with a 2.19 ERA. He cut his walks by more than half (2.3 per nine innings), allowing his ridiculous stuff to overpower opposing hitters.
Mindful of that history, Miller was fascinated by the opportunity to have an audience with baseball royalty.
“His name is brought up in every conversation about left-handed pitchers. It was a fun, unique opportunity,” said Miller. “I’d seen a little bit [of video of Koufax pitching in a World Series], but what we would think of as good video footage is so different than what they had back then.
“The camera angles were just brutal. You could get a glimpse, but there were probably two cameras for the whole game, and this was the World Series. You’d see the mechanics – the big, high leg kick, the long arm action.It was certainly a different game, but what he did was incredible.
“You always hear ‘for a shorter period of time,’ but it was one of the most dominant stretches anybody has ever had. He’s still got pretty good numbers as far as longevity, too. I think people wish they just could have seen what would have happened if he’d pitched for 15 or 20 years at that peak. It would have been incredible.”
During that dinner, Koufax enthusiastically talked about the mechanics of pitching. He began sketching diagrams while discussing the aforementioned high leg kick, a pitcher’s balance point and the leverage that a pitcher can create in order to maximize the power of his stuff.
Koufax discussed the way in which he would practice spinning his legendary curveball, with a catcher’s glove turned upwards so that the pitch would plummet down into it. There was little question for Miller that he was dealing with a rare baseball mind, someone whose process and results were equally unconventional.
“It was incredible. He had a lot of theories on the way you’re supposed to put your foot on the rubber, the way you’re supposed to throw the ball,” noted Miller. “He puts things in a different perspective than you’d think of. I think a lot of it, it was probably one of those things where he was so much better than everyone else that he probably sees things differently.
“You always hear stories about someone asking a great hitter, ‘Well, what do you do?’ it doesn’t translate. The reason they’re a great hitter is because they can do it differently than everyone else.”
In some respects, Miller understood that he was getting a chance to peer behind the curtain of genius. He received insights into a thought process and pitching approach that was fascinating, and yet that was so far removed from his own as to be inapplicable.
Yet there was another side to the meeting from which Miller could benefit. The proximity to one of the legends of the game served as a reminder that it can sometimes take time for talent to manifest itself, and that while success does not almost occur immediately, it can arrive spectacularly for those who persist.
Certainly, it is a career path that Miller would be thrilled to imitate in some small way.
“You can use that stuff, use that to your advantage or as motivation and keep that in the back of your mind,” noted Miller. “Maybe it didn’t come easy for him either, it took a few year. But you’re talking about one of the greatest pitchers of all time – not one of the greatest left-handers of a certain era, but one of the greatest pitchers of all time. Obviously, we all strive to do that. I think he’s probably on a different level of talent than what I’ve got. [But] I’m certainly pushing for it.”
Yet regardless of whether Miller can enjoy a Koufaxian ascent, he can always claim something else from that night in the presence of a legend.
“It was really a lot of fun, one of those unique experiences,” said Miller. “How many people can say they’ve had dinner with Sandy Koufax?”