Despite circumstances, Dodgers believe ‘this is the right time’ for Bobby Miller’s debut

Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Bobby Miller throws to the plate during the first inning.
Dodgers pitcher Bobby Miller throws during a Freeway Series game on April 5, 2022. Miller will make his MLB debut on Tuesday against the Braves. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

This certainly isn’t what the Dodgers had in mind for Bobby Miller’s big-league debut.

The club’s top pitching prospect has only eight career triple A outings, including just four this season after starting his season late. His stuff is still somewhat a work in progress, too, trying to find the right complement of secondary pitches to pair with his near-triple-digit fastball.

As recently as last Thursday, as the Dodgers looked for a replacement for the injured Dustin May, manager Dave Roberts even indicated the 24-year-old right-hander wasn’t quite yet an option for a call up to the majors.

Alas, after another injury to Julio Urías over the weekend, the team was forced to change course suddenly, summoning Miller after all to make his first career start Tuesday night on the road against the powerhouse Atlanta Braves.

“I think that we’ve all been looking forward to him making his Dodgers, his major league debut,” Roberts said Monday, after chatting with Miller on the eve of his landmark outing. “[I told him] just be himself. … Just enjoy the moment. You’ve earned it. You belong here. And go compete.”

There’s no doubt Miller’s talent has the potential to eventually translate to the majors; that the former first-round pick, who is ranked second in the Dodgers farm system and a top-20 prospect overall by MLB Pipeline, has as high a ceiling as almost any young pitcher in the sport.

The question leading up to Tuesday night, however, is whether Miller’s stuff is MLB-ready right now — and what his first performance in the show might suggest about the trajectory of his immediate future.

“You can try to put together a soft landing, but I think that this is the right time for Bobby,” Roberts said, acknowledging that although his call-up came earlier than the team might have expected, “we just felt that the time is now, given all the circumstances.”

When asked about Miller’s readiness in recent days, evaluators within the Dodgers organization and elsewhere around the industry have offered similar takes.

Miller’s debut might feel a little rushed. But at the same time, he’s nearing the point of his young career where the last bits of polish need to be applied to his game.

“There’s no questioning his ability to be super nasty,” said one rival scout who was granted anonymity to speak freely. “It’s just, how is it going to come together?”

That’s a point the Dodgers have pondered ever since taking Miller 29th overall out of the University of Louisville in 2020.

All along, his high-velocity fastball has been his most heralded pitch. But over three minor-league seasons, Miller has worked with the club to develop the rest of his arsenal, refining a preexisting changeup and slider while adding a curveball and two-seamer to boot.

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

It hasn’t always come with sterling results.

After dominating in high A in 2021 with a 1.91 ERA in 14 outings, Miller was more inconsistent in 23 career double A appearances, posting a 4.49 ERA despite 131 strikeouts in just over 100 innings.

He was promoted to triple A for the first time at the end of last year, finishing the campaign strong with four straight starts of three runs or fewer (including a six-inning, two-run 14-strikeout gem last September).

But after shoulder troubles ended his season early, and delayed his start to 2023, his results began suffering again this year — he had an 8.64 ERA in his first three outings — before an encouraging six-inning, one-run gem in his most recent start last week.

“The difference was, he was able to land his off-speed [pitches in the zone] early in the count, and they had to respect that,” triple A manager Travis Barbary said. “That’s been something he has really focused on. Get ahead with the soft stuff, which creates more swing and miss later in the count.”

That’s a key scouts have also emphasized ahead of Miller’s Tuesday debut.

His fastball lights up the radar gun, but it doesn’t have elite movement or life, capable of being squared up if not either commanded precisely (something that hasn’t always been one of Miller’s strengths) or sequenced well with his other pitches well.

“If he’s making pitches and mixing his stuff, he’s plenty good to pitch in the big leagues right now,” another scout said. “But I do think he needs his changeup, he needs his breaking ball and needs to locate a little bit.”

It could all make Tuesday a bigger test of Miller’s composure, as he gets a baptism by fire against an experienced Braves lineup in a hostile road environment.

That’s why Roberts’ message to the pitcher Monday was about mentality, reminding him, “Don’t try to throw 110. Just throw 100. And then it’ll be there.”

“Naivety is bliss,” Roberts added. “Obviously it’s hard not to walk into Truist Park and you see the third deck, you know your family and friends are coming, and there’s those butterflies. That should happen. But to make the moment even bigger — everybody handles it differently — I don’t know, I’m sure it’s hard not to feel the gravity of this moment.”

Regardless of how Miller looks Tuesday, this first MLB stint might not last long. Urías is expected back at the start of next month. And with a couple off days on the horizon, the Dodgers might only need to fill that rotation void one more time before then.

Still, the flame-throwing prospect could be a big part of the Dodgers plans later this year, and remains a critical cog in their long-term future.

They might not be giving him the easiest initial big-league assignment. And it’s coming sooner than almost anyone likely expected.

But, it’s coming nonetheless, making Tuesday night’s game the biggest juncture of Miller’s young career yet.

“I have the utmost confidence in Bobby going out there and handling himself,” Hill said. “We’ll see what happens. I feel like no one is ever fully ready [for their debut]. But no better time than now, in my opinion.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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