April 25, 2013
It began as a gimmick.
When Vanderbilt sophomore reliever Brian Miller and his younger brother, Cam, would play whiffle ball in the backyard, Brian would experiment with all different ways to keep his brother off balance at the plate. Like a mad scientist, he would continuously fidget with changing how he gripped the ball, how he flicked his wrist and where he released the ball.
Every once in a while, just to keep it fun, Brian would drop his arm angle and fire off a pitch sidearm. The whiffle ball appeared to dance in mid-flight; starting one way and quickly darting another.
The pitch was another wrinkle to an already potent arsenal, but it was viewed more as a joke than as something he took with any degree of seriousness. When he pitched in little league games, he threw the ball overhand, not sidearm.
But as he got older, Brian began working on different pitches to add to his repertoire. Among the pitches he experimented with was a slider. He tried throwing it overhand, but it wasn't moving like it was supposed to. The pitch became a riddle he could not solve.
So in his efforts to make his slider slide, he tried to throw it sidearm. The method was a success and the ball moved just like he had hoped it would. Soon, he was an overhead pitcher who threw his slider sidearmed. There was only one problem - it was not very conspicuous.
"It was super obvious every time I threw a slider," the Franklin, Tenn., native said.
He was tipping his slider and opposing batters knew what to expect.
That changed during his sophomore year at Independence High School when the right-hander made a decision that would dramatically impact his baseball future and forever brand him on the mound.
"I didn't really throw that hard and I wasn't really that great overhand, so I just started throwing sidearm and it felt natural to me, and I could control it."
The rest, as they say, is history and Miller has been throwing sidearm ever since. By becoming a sidearm pitcher, Miller joined a relatively small fraternity of pitchers, the most notable of which include Hall of Famers Walter Johnson and Dennis Eckersley. Others have gone on to have long professional careers by carving out a niche in the bullpen, but all in all, the craft remains relatively uncommon in baseball, especially at the high school and college level.
After making the transition from tossing overhand to sidearm, Miller almost immediately found success on the diamond. He was selected as his high school team's pitcher of the year his first full season of throwing sidearm and by the time he was a senior, he was the Mid-State Player of the Year.
Utilizing his sidearm motion, which he refers to as "whippy," Miller oftentimes left high school hitters befuddled by his deceptive delivery. The same has held true at the college level, where opposing batters still haven't stopped shaking their heads after facing Miller. "When I face guys for the first time, I get comments like, 'I couldn't even see it or I can't pick you up,'" said Miller.
The list of comments Miller and his teammates hear from opponents could go on and on and includes many words not suitable for print.
"I had never seen anything like that," recalled senior outfielder Mike Yastrzemski, as he pondered the first time he saw Miller pitch in practice.
Miller's sidearm release point gives the illusion to right-handed batters that he is throwing the ball right at them, and to left-handed batters, the ball rides in on their hands.
"When you face a guy like that, they typically have a lot of control issues," Yastrzemski said. "That is not in Brian's book. He is so consistent in his approach and every single one of his pitches he is confident with."
As a freshman at Vanderbilt in 2012, Miller appeared in a team-high 34 games and posted a 3.26 ERA, while striking out 49 batters and walking just 18 in 60.2 innings of work.
His sophomore season has been even better. He has successfully transitioned into becoming the team's closer, a role he cherishes and has thrived in. On Sunday, he tied a school record with his 11th save of the season. For his career, Miller has 16 saves, three shy of matching the school record held by Ryan Rote.
"It is definitely a fun position to have, just to get that last out of the game is a good feeling," said Miller of his closer duties. "It is kind of a rush feeling when that happens which is fun."
Miller has been nothing short of phenomenal this season. In addition to his saves total, he again leads the team with 22 appearances and has been nearly unhittable. In 37.2 innings pitched, he has a 0.72 ERA and opponents are batting .188 against him.
Miller's success has provided his teammates with an added sense of confidence when he takes the mound.
"The things that he has done for us have been incredible," Yastrzemski remarked. "He has a different heartbeat. He comes into pressure situations every time he steps onto the field and has grown used to that.
"So when he has done it once, done it twice, done it three times ... you hate to say that you expect it from him - you don't want to put the pressure on that kid at all - but it has gotten to the point where you don't even worry about it as a fielder."
Even though Miller has found his groove as the closer and is confident with his sidearm motion, it doesn't mean he has settled. He's very explorative with his approach and is constantly looking for ways he can get better.
"I'm always trying to find ways to manipulate the ball better," Miller said. "A changeup is something I experiment with quite a bit with different kinds of grips."
Many of Miller's pitches are still in the developmental phase and are not currently for public consumption. The experimentation is typically done during practice and his teammates are the unfortunate guinea pigs of Miller's wizardry.
"His leg kick could be over his head if he wanted to,"Yastrzemski said. "He used to do it for a little deception every now and then, just messing around with us. Some of his best stuff, he hasn't even shown yet. He works on stuff as a joke in practice and it is unbelievable how he can manipulate his arm at different angles and throw different pitches that no one has ever seen before."
Given Miller's gaudy numbers at this stage of his career, it is a scary thought for opponents that he is still just scratching the surface of things he can do on the mound. After all, it's been only five years since he switched to throwing sidearm - a delivery he once considered to be just a gimmick in backyard whiffle ball games. It's now become his signature pitching motion and has helped him transform into one of college baseball's most dominating closers.
"It is kind of funny to look back at how it begun," Miller reflected. "It is something that has earned me a scholarship somewhere and it is something that started off just being goofy."
It may have begun as a joke, but you can be assured that no opponents find it all that funny to face Miller. The deceptive delivery is unlike anything most have ever seen, as are the final results.