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After a breakout season, Colorado Rockies RHP Justin Miller is staying in his own lane in 2016

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Justin Miller had a busy 2015 bursting on to the scene, setting a franchise record, and earning the Colorado Rockies' trust. What's next?

If Justin Miller is feeling pressure heading into 2016, he's sure not showing it.
If Justin Miller is feeling pressure heading into 2016, he's sure not showing it.
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

It's all angels and demons, basically one big war happening on my left arm," Justin Miller tells me of his heavily-tattooed style. "I have ‘faith' down by my left wrist, and eventually my right side is going to be done too. On my right side, I'm going to have 'family,' because I support my family with my right arm."

"I've got a Bible verse on the inside of my left bicep. On my right arm I have a memorial tattoo for my grandpa when he passed away, and then I did add a new tattoo on my side this offseason."

Though he may never be as heavily inked as the late pitcher of the same name, Rockies relief pitcher Justin Miller has been busy this winter at the tattoo parlor, in the weight room, and on the field. The righty—who enjoyed quite the coming-out party for the Colorado Rockies last summer—has been working diligently ahead of spring training to take the next step in his professional baseball career.

And with such a strong year now on Miller's résumé, you'd expect him to be under the gun with high expectations this year, right? Add that the relief pitcher is out of minor league options and must earn a bullpen spot or else be exposed to waivers, and the pressure is on for the California native, isn't it?

If that's the case, somebody forgot to tell Miller.

"I'm not trying to do anything different or anything like that," he tells me of his approach to the new season after a surprising 2015 for the Rockies. "I'm just trying to stay in my own little lane and keep my head down and keep pounding the zone and see what happens."

It's cliché for a baseball player to talk about playing to his strengths, or mention keeping his head down, but the more you talk to Miller, the more you start to feel he just doesn't look at pressure the way most of us would were we in his situation.

That's not to say he hasn't put pressure on himself in the past; it just means Miller seems to have figured out how to conquer it, and the Rockies stand to benefit from his new mental approach.

"I think [in 2014] with Detroit, and then with Colorado, I put added pressure on myself to create a spot for me in the bullpen," Miller admits of his past. "This year I'm taking the attitude that I've pitched in Colorado, I've done well, and I'm just trying to keep building off of that in spring training."

"I've done well," I point out to Miller during our conversation, is a bit of an understatement. After starting the season in Double-A (more on that in a minute), the big righty pitched his way to the big leagues, and he was strong from the moment he arrived in Denver.

Throw out Adam Ottavino's injury-shortened season, and Miller had the lowest FIP (2.62), WHIP (0.960), and hits per nine innings (5.7), and the third-best strikeout rate (10.3 K/9) for the Rockies in 2015. Add 10.2 K/9 against just 6.4 H/9 and 2.8 BB/9 across two minor league levels over the summer, and Miller went wire to wire on a very strong season in some extremely hitter-friendly environments.

Image via Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Image via Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

It takes a village, it goes, and Miller's case is no different. The soft-spoken reliever was quicker to credit others than appreciate his own success, heaping praise on everyone from manager Walt Weiss, to bullpen coach Darren Holmes, and Darryl Scott, the Triple-A Albuquerque Isotopes' pitching coach.

"Working with Scott, who I worked with all offseason that year prior, and I'm also working with now, is a good thing," Miller says. "He's a real mellow guy, and he knows how to get the best out of people, as far as pitching wise."

Mellow seems to work in Miller's world; it's what attracted him to Weiss, too.

"I love playing for [Weiss]," Miller says. "He's a mellow guy, but you can tell he's intense, and he loves the game. He has a passion for it, and he's pulling for every one of his guys. He's not one of those managers that's going to have a player's meeting and go out yelling and screaming, and fire guys up. He talks to everybody calmly, but the words he uses, it puts a fire in guys. It pushed me to be a better player and a better person, and I'm sure it did it for other guys, too."

Being a better person may have been the end result of a successful summer, but it didn't exactly start that way for Miller in March. In fact, it's ironic—and a testament to Miller's perseverance—that a summer beginning with such disappointment ended on such a high note.

"I felt pretty good going into spring training, and I thought I had the opportunity to make the [Rockies] out of camp," Miller tells me of last spring. "A lot of guys were talking to me during this time saying how good I looked, and all that, so I thought I had a good chance."

It didn't exactly work out that way.

Miller didn't only miss out on a big league roster spot, he was sent all the way down to Double-A New Britain—practically baseball purgatory for a pitcher who had been in the Majors the previous summer and felt he had the arsenal to stay at that level.

But rather than throw in the towel and complain over facing hitters in the Eastern League instead of the National League, a switch flipped in Miller.

"I went down to Double-A, and I wasn't too happy about it," he admits. "But me and my agent, we don't really like to talk a whole lot, we just like to let actions prove our words. So I sat down with the coaches, and they were like, ‘we need you to be a big leaguer in New Britain, and show these guys how to do it the right way.'"

"Actually it was a good thing. It was a blessing in disguise."

It was only a sojourn in Connecticut, but true to the coaching staff's hope, Miller acquitted himself well and was quickly promoted out of the Eastern League.

"I think I did that pretty well, and got compliments after the season for how I helped myself," Miller says of his time in New Britain. "I just kept my nose down, and put it to the grindstone, and didn't really look ahead, just kept looking day to day. It turned out to be a good season, all in all."

There he goes again, understating his performance: in six games with the Rock Cats, Miller allowed just one earned run over 10⅔ innings, striking out ten and giving up only seven hits—an auspicious beginning to what would quickly become by far the best season of his career.

★ ★ ★

Hoping to make the big league club out of spring training and then getting assigned to Double-A just sort of fits with the rest of Miller's career, it seems. A swingman at Fresno State University—he was part of the team that won the College World Series in 2008—”Miller was just a 16th round draft pick by the Rangers that summer.

"I was told the reason I got drafted by Texas was I came out of the bullpen once and my first three pitches were 93 mph," Miller tells me about the beginning of his career. "I was always a max effort guy. I wasn't going to give anything less than my max effort when I pitched, and I would do it as a starter. I would go as long as I could, for as hard as I could."

Texas saw enough in Miller to push him towards a late inning role in the minor leagues, and for a while, it worked. In those first four summers, Miller steadily moved up the ranks in the Rangers' minor league system.

He earned 23 saves along the way, enjoyed success in his hometown of Bakersfield for the club's High-A affiliate, and then utterly dominated Texas League hitters at Double-A Frisco in 2011, earning himself work in the prestigious Arizona Fall League that autumn.

That experience serves Miller well, even to this day.

"It's good to have that role early and you get comfortable throwing late in games, because sometimes that added pressure can get to guys," Miller says. "I've done it so many times now, it wasn't really that much of a shock to me. I'd been there so many times in the minor leagues, I just treat it as another inning, another night, no added pressure or anything."

But as it often goes for 16th round draft picks, Miller's career stalled out in the high minors. It started with an injury, and he sat out all of 2012. When he came back in 2013, the Rangers assigned him to Frisco again, and the result was the polar opposite of 2011. He allowed 11 runs in 16 innings, logging a 6.19 ERA and a 1.438 WHIP. A change of scenery to Triple-A Round Rock turned out even worse when he gave up 12 more earned runs in just 11 innings of work.

By the end of the season, he was out of a job.

Image via Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Image via Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

The Tigers picked him up that winter, and he did briefly break into the Majors for the first time with Detroit, even earning his first big league win. But while he threw very well at Triple-A Toledo—2-1 with five saves, a 1.81 ERA, and a 0.940 WHIP in 44 innings—he never received a sustained call-up to Detroit's bullpen. Looking for a better opportunity, he signed with Colorado last winter.

From day one, Miller knew he made the right decision.

"Walt Weiss made that really apparent last offseason," Miller says. "I was standing waiting to throw a bullpen at the spring training facility, and before I could even say my name, he already knew my name and was talking to me like I was just a regular old guy. That calmed everything down and made it apparent that everybody in this organization is approachable and you don't have to have any fear of going up to anybody."

★ ★ ★

But really, what changed?

Miller's breakout didn't come as a 23-year-old phenom developed in Colorado's strong farm system. He was already a 27-year-old, more or less in his final form, and starting a stint with his third organization in three years. How much can really change for a pitcher in that situation?

"I just stopped putting pressure on myself," Miller tells me matter-of-factly. "I've been playing this game for a while now, and I just stopped putting pressure on myself. Based on years prior, especially in 2011 with the Rangers, and how I was able to pitch and dominate some of the hitters, I just went back to that mentality of not thinking ahead and narrowing my focus to that one inning, or all the way down to one pitch at a time."

"If I narrow down my focus that much, I can get on a good run, and turn it into what could be a good season."

Image via Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Image via Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

It sounds so easy, right? Taking the pressure off, focusing on one pitch at a time—”again, it's cliché to hear a player use those words, but the more Miller speaks about his new outlook, the simpler a difficult game becomes. Of course, feeling appreciated in the organization doesn't hurt, either. When I ask Miller about his experience in Colorado compared to the past, he sounds content.

"I'm comfortable in Colorado with all the coaches and the players, and everybody's real approachable," Miller reiterates. "There's no fear involved. You can go up to anybody."

★ ★ ★

The tug-of-war between media members and the baseball players they cover will continue interminably; one side wants to quantify and discuss the action, the other just wants to move forward and improve it in the next contest. And so it goes when you analyze a player's past performance, too. You see the numbers and ask why; he sees the future and asks how.

Attempting to quantify something—anything—about Miller's success in 2015, I ask him about his significantly increased velocity compared to the year before in Detroit. To his credit, he didn't balk at my mention of FanGraphs; in fact, he could perfectly account for what made him throw harder in Denver last summer.

"In Colorado I was a little more closed off, and I had a lot more weight on my back leg," Miller tells me. "When I was with Detroit, I was more upright, they were trying to get me straight in line. But I can create more torque and more power doing kind of what [Adam] Ottavino does. He throws way across his body, but he explodes in his lower half. And when I was in Detroit I was more straight in line and it wasn't coming out the same, so I did change mechanically a little bit."

With his mechanical adjustment, Miller also has a new focus this winter to develop more leg strength in order to maintain that velocity and meet the demands of what he hopes is a full Major League season in 2016.

"That's my biggest goal this year, in the offseason, is to get my legs a lot stronger to where I can hold up for an entire season," Miller tells me, quickly amending his statement. "Hopefully it's an entire big league season, but we'll have to see what happens during the season. But yeah, as far as that, just getting bigger."

He isn't exactly starting from scratch, though. Despite just wrapping up the most single-season innings and appearances thus far in his professional career, a strong finish gave the reliever a great starting point for his offseason work.

"Last year, I didn't felt like I wore down at all," Miller reveals. "I actually started throwing the ball harder and harder as I got into September and a little bit into October."

It doesn't just stop at just FanGraphs and mechanical adjustments to account for the improved velocity, either. In fact, Miller's now former teammate, John Axford, deserves credit for the tattooed righty's breakout at Coors Field this winter—”and Miller wasn't happy to see Axford leave town when the latter signed a contract with the Oakland Athletics this winter.

"As far as Ax leaving, it's kind of tough," Miller admits. "He helped me out a lot, especially with my slider this year. I saw him throw in a game, he came in, and he was throwing his fastball like 98, and his slider at 90, 91. At that time, I was throwing my slider at like 85, 86, and I was like, ‘how the heck does this guy do this?' He told me what he did, and jumped my slider up from 85-86 to like 88-90, and it was still having good depth to it."

"He definitely helped me out with that, so I have to give props to him."

There goes Miller again, giving credit to everyone other than himself for last summer's breakout. But there's at least one thing Miller can keep for himself from last year, and it'll be his for a long, long time.

★ ★ ★

If nothing of consequence ever happens again in Miller's career—an unlikely proposition, to be sure—the righty already has his name tattooed in the record books: he's the Rockies' franchise record holder for most consecutive strikeouts, after he whiffed eight straight hitters during a hot streak last summer.

When I ask Miller about setting the record, his soft-spoken personality cracks for just a moment when pressed whether he thought it was cool to have his name now etched in history.

"The last strikeout I got was Nelson Cruz, and I know him a little bit from with the Rangers," Miller says. "It was kind of cool. I wasn't putting any pressure on myself. I was trying not to think about it because, I don't know, I'm superstitious. If it gets in your head and you start thinking about it, all of a sudden it doesn't go your way."

Eight straight strikeouts must be an eternity in the Major Leagues, and even Miller bought in just a little bit during the hot streak. After all, how could you not?

"All of a sudden, more and more of the spotlight started getting on me," Miller admits. "Of course the next outing, I had [Mark] Trumbo 0-2, or 1-2, and he winds up popping out. I was like, ‘Ah, crap.'"

"But approach wise, I was just attacking guys, I wasn't trying to fear anybody out there. Just throwing my pitches in the zone, and whatever happens happens," he adds. "The first guy I got was Wil Myers. He hit a slider 500 feet, but just foul, and I said OK I can't do that again. So I built off that, and things just lined up accordingly."

★ ★ ★

Even after a franchise record and a monster summer, that spotlight isn't exactly something Miller relishes. That doesn't mean he wouldn't want late inning opportunities in Denver and the attention it would bring—”his history proves he's more than capable to pitch late in close games—”but his personality lends itself to laying low, and letting his stuff do the talking.

"I'm not a big Twitter guy, not big on social media stuff, so I don't really try to pay attention to that stuff too much," Miller tells me of his off-the-radar approach. "But it's kind of tough when your dad is always looking up stuff, and he has little words here and there, so he kind of tells me what's going on. My agent as well, he'll let me know what's going on."

Miller's dad and agent are likely going to have a lot more to report back to the big righty when the season begins.

Rockies fans, too, should be optimistic that the team has found a high-quality bullpen arm.

Just don't expect Miller to look that far into the future.

"I'm expecting to make the team," Miller tells me of his goals going into spring training. "But like I say I'm not going to put any extra pressure on myself. I'm just going to go out there, be who I am, pitch, and see what happens."

With no pressure, no fear, more velocity and a wrinkle in his slider, it looks like the big reliever has a plan in place for a late inning bullpen job in 2016. That's all well and good, and it'll benefit the Rockies if he can maintain his form from last summer. But his under-the-radar approach may not work for very long if he gets on another good run—and with the way Justin Miller has thus far made adjustments in his career, you never know what ace is up his tattooed sleeve for the summer.

★ ★ ★

Image via Rich Pilling/Getty Images

Image via Rich Pilling/Getty Images

More from Justin Miller

On tattoo pain: "Definitely my elbow. It's not fun getting the elbow tattooed, and my left one is all black. When I do my right side, there's going to be a big void around my right elbow."

On his biggest adjustment to the Majors: "The one thing in the big leagues compared to the minor leagues, when you're on the road, you don't really have much time from batting practice to the start of the game. In the minor leagues, you have like an hour until the game starts after BP, no matter if you're on the road or at home. And when you're in the big leagues, you've got to get in there, shower, eat, change, all this stuff within 20-30 minutes before you have to be out there for the national anthem. So that's one thing you have to adjust to. If you've got a special routine, you've got to shorten it."

On bullpen specialization: "At the big league level, the bullpen is such a key and such a weapon, especially with what Kansas City has done the last two years. Those three guys in the back, if a starter gets to the sixth inning, game over with those guys they have coming out of the pen. And a lot more people are starting to do that."

On Jason Motte: "Talking with my agent who has had guys who have played with Jason Motte, they said he's a great guy, and we'd love to have him there. We don't know too much about Chad Qualls, but I'm sure he's going to be a great guy, too."

On Darren Holmes: "He's great in the bullpen. For a guy who's pitched in Coors Field, and had success at Coors Field, to have him in the bullpen not only to pick his brain, but when you're up and getting ready to go in the game, he's giving you little pointers here and there, boosting your confidence, telling you, ‘hey, you've got this pitch, and you can get this guy with this and this,' and it definitely helps out. It's another piece to our armor down there."

On his approach at Coors Field: "I think it's all mental. If guys dwell on the altitude, and 'oh I can't make a mistake or this ball is going to get hit 500 feet,' they'll put it somewhere over the plate. But if I take that mental aspect out of the game and just throw my pitches and don't worry about it, it doesn't come into play for me. I just zone that part out, and say it's any other ballpark, these are big league hitters, and I'm going to attack them with the pitches I have and try not to fear anybody."

[Note: Miller told me at the end of our interview that he will be at Rockies Fan Fest this weekend, and he's looking forward to being in Denver and visiting with fans. Go say hello!]