No path to the major leagues is the same. Justin Miller, a 2008 16th round pick by the Texas Rangers, knows this as well as anyone.
Minor league relievers are seldom in your newsletter subscription, but Miller absolutely dominated in 2011 for Double-A Frisco in the Rangers system. He earned a spot on the 40-man roster but subsequently missed 2012 with Tommy John surgery.
His big league debut came with the Detroit Tigers on April 18, 2014. He then pitched with the Rockies in 2015 and 2016, also getting hitched to his wife, Pilar, in the latter year.
He spent 2017 in Triple-A Salt Lake within the Los Angeles Angels organization, but more importantly, had his first child in August.
This year came the breakthrough.
After joining the Washington Nationals organization in the off-season, he was called up on May 26 from Syracuse —where he was no match for opposing hitters— and began his current MLB stint in grand style.
Over his first eight appearances, he pitched 10.2 scoreless innings with 21 strikeouts. He allowed just two hits and didn’t walk a single batter.
Outing number four was a three inning, no-hit, five strikeout performance.
Recently, I chatted with Justin Miller about that start to this season, the oh so small baseball world and more.
What’s been the key to success this season?
“Probably just experience and my mental side of the game. After getting released for the first time halfway through the season (it) changes your perspective on things. I got back into my old way of things, hard work and the gym, fixing things and once I got signed with the Nationals it was just a different mental side of the game. Being more laid back and just controlling the things I can control and not worrying about the other stuff that’s outside of the field.”
Your start to this season was magnificent. Are you mentally aware when you’re in the midst of such a dominant performance?
“Not really (laughs). Not until it starts coming out in the media. I mean, good pitchers, good players, they can break down a moment into one pitch at a time. It’s the oldest saying in the book, one pitch at a time, all that kind of stuff. But the good guys, the guys that last a while can actually do that. They can slow the game down that much that it only really matters about that one little moment.
“I think that whole time, that 10 innings or however long it was, that’s all I was doing. I was talking to myself on the mound, it was pretty much just the same thing. Just attack guys, get ahead, just do the little things. A bunch of little things put together turned out to be a pretty big run.”
Now an established big leaguer, is there a turning point or big moment in your career you look back on?
“I didn’t think my career was done when the Angels released me. At that point I didn’t know, or I didn’t think it was going to happen that nobody was going to call me. My agent told me that after I signed with the Nationals. At that point I knew I still had it and I was going to be playing with somebody. I got hard in the gym, fixed some things and then also, having a child in August, like a month after I got released, that changes your perspective on life. Fighting not only for myself, but my family now to provide for them. It was a lot of hard work (but) it’s extra motivation.”
Tommy John in 2012...how hard was that after your big year in 2011?
“It was hard when you first get the news, but after the fact you’re not really focused on how hard it is a year from now down the road. You’re just worried about, ‘alright what do I do tomorrow for my rehab?’ and you just take it one day at a time. If you do that, it doesn’t seem like you’re out that long.”
It’s always a long road to the top for middle-round picks, was there anything in particular that was unique to you in the minors as a middle-round draft pick?
(laughs) “Yeah, in the off-season I had to get a job! I worked for my dad, I was a delivery guy. He’s a fundraising consultant. He does all the fundraising for schools and stuff like that. Whenever their product or prizes came in, I had to deliver it to the schools for them to distribute it and stuff like that. That’s what I did in the off-season until I started making decent money playing ball.”
Going from Texas to Detroit —where you made your MLB debut— to Colorado to Los Angeles to Washington...what are the pro’s and con’s of moving around like that from organization to organization?
“A con would be not knowing your job security (laughs). Not knowing what team you’re gonna be with. I’d say that this is by far the best team that I’ve been on. Going to Spring Training, going to extended, going to Triple-A and now the big leagues. Granted there’s a lot of Texas guys throughout (this organization.)
“Brad Holman, he was in the Texas organization, now he’s the Triple-A pitching coach. Tanner Roark was a Texas guy, I knew him. There’s a few guys that were in the Texas organization that are over here now. Also, Brandon Kintzler and I share an agent. We work out together and have talked a bunch over the years. He’s in the bullpen with me. It’s nice to have those people. Then I have Max Scherzer from Detroit, I knew him over there.
“Baseball’s a small world, a tight-knit community. You’re gonna run into people you know from all over the place, but it seems like here I know a lot more. It’s been nice.”