The mess that was the Colorado Rockies bullpen in 2015 had few bright spots, but one of them was right-hander Justin Miller.
The 28-year-old was signed as a minor league free agent from the Tigers, with whom he had a 5.11 ERA in 12⅓ innings in 2014, in the offseason and did not make his Rockies debut until June 17. Miller made 34 appearances for the Rockies, pitching 33⅓ innings despite being shuffled between Colorado and Triple-A Albuquerque several times throughout the season.
"Every time I got sent down, they didn't want to send me down necessarily -- Walt [Weiss] said I was pitching good -- it was just that I was the guy with options and that's part of the role that you play when you're in the bullpen," Miller said.
In those 33⅓ innings, Miller posted a 4.05 ERA to go with a 0.96 WHIP and 2.62 FIP, walking 11 and striking out 38. Of the 15 runs Miller allowed, 10 game in just three appearances. In his other 31 appearances, Miller sported an ERA of just 1.54 in 29⅔ innings of work.
Most notable about Miller's performance in 2015 was that he struck out more than 10 batters per nine innings, the only Rockies reliever to do so while walking fewer than four per nine innings. Of particular note was a stretch in September that saw Miller strike out eight consecutive hitters over three appearances. He was also second among the Rockies bullpen with a 13.5 swinging strike percentage, behind only southpaw Boone Logan. Miller said he did not do anything special to miss as many bats as he did, but credited consistency of approach for his success.
"I try not to change anything," Miller said. "The mentality I have worked in the minor leagues so I just try to do the same thing here."
For what it's worth, Miller also struck out more than 10 batters per nine innings in 38 minor league innings in 2015.
Miller also succeeded in not allowing inherited runners to score. He took over games with a total of 14 runners on base this season and just two crossed home plate.
"You kind of don't want to go in the game in those situations," Miller said. "Because you want your teammate and your buddy to get out of the trouble he put himself in. But I try to do the same thing I always do, which is pound the strike zone."
With his success in 2015, strong peripheral numbers and fastball that reaches into the mid-90s, there has been talk of Miller closing some games for the Rockies in 2016, at least until Adam Ottavino returns from Tommy John surgery midseason. Miller does have 34 saves to his name in the minors and earned his first big league save on September 2 against Arizona.
"Early on in the season when 'Ax' (John Axford) was going through some trouble and [Rafael] Betancourt and Tommy [Kahnle] were here, Walt talked to all three of us about maybe filling the role for a little while to give him a break but that was the only time they mentioned anything like that," Miller said.
Miller also noted that he would welcome the closer's role if given the opportunity next season, but is more focused on sustaining success at the major league level.
"All I care about is that they're going to give me the ball when they give me the ball," Miller said.