Young infielder has grip on old-school ways

ryan.divish@thenewstribune.comMarch 3, 2013 

PEORIA, Ariz. — With a mixture of pride and sheepishness, Brad Miller stuck out his hands for inspection.

“They are gross,” Seattle’s shortstop prospect said grinning.

Gross to some people, perhaps, but to others there is a blue-collar beauty in the craggy collection of calluses, blisters and scars on his palms.

They are a working man’s hands.

But Miller’s mangled mitts didn’t come from slinging shovels of dirt or operating heavy equipment.

No, they came from hours of hitting baseballs without batting gloves.

In this day of gaudy gloves of every color and style, Miller goes without — bare hands and a smile.

“I really like the feel of it,” he said. “I’ve never really used them. Everybody told me once you get into pro ball you are going to have to start using them, but I like the feel. I just feel more connected with the bat.”

The no-gloves look seems fitting for Miller. From the bare hands on the bat to the absence of wrist bands and jewelry to the high socks he wears, Miller is old school. There is no pretension to his game.

“I admire it,” said Chris Gwynn, Mariners director of minor league operations. “It doesn’t make the player. But when you look at the complete package and then you kind of get to all of it — he’s a throwback guy”

The term “throwback” gets thrown around a lot, probably

more than deserved. But watch Miller attack the game with energy and joy and it’s fitting. It’s not tough to envision him playing in the early 1960s with a dust-covered, baggy wool uniform and his hardened hands around an old ash bat.

In all his years of baseball, Miller wore batting gloves for just a short period of time – a 15-game stretch during his freshman year at Clemson in 2009.

“We had these cool batting gloves,” he said. “They were these sweet white and purple gloves. So I was going to wear them.”

It didn’t feel the same.

“After 15 games, I was batting like .200,” he said. “I was like all right, I’m going to go back.”

He has stayed that way ever since. It didn’t matter that the Mariners’ second-round pick in 2011 switched to the skin-searing friction that comes from swinging wooden bats. Pain be damned, he wasn’t changing.

“No gloves, nope,” he said.

Without gloves, he put together a monster first full season in the minors. In 137 games between Class A High Desert and Double-A Jackson, Miller hit .334 (186-for-557) with 40 doubles, seven triples, 15 homers and 68 RBI. He posted a .410 on-base percentage and a .510 slugging percentage, while stealing 23 bases.

“I think the coolest part for me was getting to play so many games,” he said. “I got to play in close to 140 games. That was awesome. Just being able to get on the field and learn through all of it. That’s a lot of innings at shortstop, a lot of at-bats and a lot of time on the field.”

The first full professional season can seem like a marathon for young players. Many will wilt in the heat of August.

Not Miller. He kept succeeding and soaking up experience.

“That was the best thing for me, … just learning how to play every day, learning how to control everything and get out there no matter how you were doing and get your work in,” he said.

If there was one knock on Miller’s season, it was in the field. He committed 36 errors at shortstop.

But Gwynn thinks there were reasons for the struggle.

“A lot of it was the field,” Gwynn said. “A lot of them were fielding. The High Desert infield was not a great place to field and then you can lose your confidence. The guys there worked with him and got him to relax and just play.”

Otherwise, Gwynn was quite pleased with Miller’s first full season.

“He plays hard,” Gwynn said. “He plays every day. He has leadership skills. He’s hungry. He’s an athletic kid. He loves to play, He’s smart.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean Miller will be in Seattle this season. He’s far from a finished work.

“He still has a lot to learn,” Gwynn said.

As with most middle infielders in the Seattle organization, Miller knows he will also have to play some second and third base this season – most likely at Jackson.

“You need the ability to play everywhere,” Miller said. “We are all shortstops but the ability for us to play second or play third is huge. I think it makes you a better shortstop, you understand where a second baseman wants the ball, you appreciate what he’s doing over there. You get a feel for the whole field.”

It’s that attitude that impresses Gwynn and many others who are responsible for developing talent for the Mariners.

“Knowing Brad for a year now, I’m confident in him,” Gwynn said. “He’s a good a player and he’s going to contribute, sooner than some people think.”

After his first season of success and an invitation to the major league team’s spring training camp, don’t expect Miller to change. He will still play the same way. There won’t be any wrists bands or accessories. There certainly won’t be any batting gloves. There will just be an effort and a joy on the field that harkens back to black and white days.

“They’ll see a player that’s going all out,” Miller said. “They’ll see a guy (who) can do whatever you need, an all-around player who will do anything to get the job done. Hopefully, they will see a guy who you can tell enjoys what he’s doing and he’s leaving it all on the field.”

SPRING TRAINING RECAP

MARINERS 9, DODGERS 5 (at Peoria Stadium)

The facts: Those unstoppable Mariners just keep dominating Cactus League play. What does it mean toward the regular season? Absolutely nothing. Still, the team won its eighth game in a row — a spring club record. Once again, the offense prevailed as Seattle scored nine runs on 12 hits. With Franklin Gutierrez’s third home run of the spring and Mike Zunino’s first homer, the Mariners now have 20 dingers in nine games — the most in the Cactus League.

Play of the game: Perhaps there were bigger plays in the game but for the Mariners organization, seeing Zunino club a hanging sinker from Chris Capuano well over the fence in left center was huge. Zunino is the club’s top position player prospect and is expected to be the everyday catcher in the near future. After going hitless in his first nine plate appearances, Zunino hit the homer and added a sharp single to left field.

Who was hot: Gutierrez, the oft-injured center fielder, is fully healthy this spring and looking like the player the Mariners signed to a three-year contract extension after the 2009 season. He crushed a fastball from Capuano to left-center to tie the game at 3-all in the third inning. An inning later, he sent another ball to the left-center gap for a two-run double. “I’m not looking for homers,” he said. “I’m just seeing the ball well right now.”

Who was not: Reliever Chance Ruffin had a tough outing. Given a six-run lead, he struggled in his one inning of work, giving up two runs on four hits and a walk. He was able to end the ninth inning before further damage by getting Alex Castellanos to ground into a game-ending double play.

Quotable: “There is something going on at this spring training. Everybody is hitting homers. It’s something contagious when everybody is hitting. It’s just fun.” — Gutierrez.

Extra innings: Felix Hernandez will throw another live batting practice session today, and then make his Cactus League debut Thursday, when the Mariners will split the squad for road games at Kansas City and Oakland. Expect Hernandez to face Kansas City since he will face the A’s on opening day. … Alex Liddi (Italy), Michael Saunders (Canada) and Oliver Perez (Mexico) will report to their respective nations’ teams for the World Baseball Classic today. All three teams are practicing in the Phoenix area. … Carlos Triunfel went 2-for-3 on the day and executed a nice hit-and-run play in the sixth inning. … Catcher John Hicks continues to impress. He ripped a double to the right-center gap against former Mariners closer Brandon League to score a pair of runs.

On tap: The Mariners will travel to Surprise today to face the Texas Rangers. Left-hander Joe Saunders will make his second appearance and first start of the spring. Also scheduled to pitch are Josh Kinney, Carson Smith and Bobby LaFromboise. Texas will start right-hander Justin Grimm. First pitch is set for 12:05 p.m. The game will be broadcast on 710-AM.

Ryan Divish: 253-597-8483 ryan.divish@thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/mariners @RyanDivish ryan.divish@thenewstribune.com

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