PEORIA, Ariz. — Bryce Miller remembers the moment in detail.
It was Tuesday, April 12, 2022, and he was sitting in a hotel in the Portland suburbs, waiting for the bus to take him and the rest of the Everett AquaSox to Ron Tonkin Field for a game against the Hillsboro Hops that evening.
With time to kill and not starting for another four days, he watched the Seattle Mariners take on the White Sox in Chicago’s home opener at Guaranteed Rate Field. Watching the big-league club play isn’t required for the organization’s minor-leaguers, but it is recommended. But this day provided some additional motivation for viewing.
It was the major-league debut of hard-throwing right-hander Matt Brash, who had beaten out George Kirby for the No. 5 spot in the starting rotation.
Possessing a similarly average frame that still manages to produce power pitches, including a fastball that touched triple digits, Miller knew that Brash started the 2021 season in High-A Everett, moved to Double-A Arkansas at midseason and was on the opening-day roster and pitching in the big leagues in 2022.
Brash’s accelerated path offered Miller incentive in the early stages of his minor-league season.
As he watched the broadcast, they ran a video segment in which Brash described the grip on his nasty “sweep” slider that was making MLB hitters look silly.
“They zoomed in on his grip, and I was like, ‘I’ll try that tomorrow,’” Miller said with a smile.
Brash calls it a “hook” grip on the slider because of how he bends his middle finger around the horseshoe seam of a baseball.
The next day, while playing catch with Everett pitching coach Matt Pierpont, Miller decided to try out Brash’s sweeping slider grip without mentioning it.
“I just threw it at him, and he was like, ‘What was that?’” Miller recalled. “And he said we were going to work on it.”
The plan was for Miller to test out the slider in his next outing. He already had what he called a “gyro” slider, which he’d thrown since his days at Texas A&M. That pitch, which is more “velo driven,” has a harsh downward break and is thrown in the high 80s. But the “sweeper” slider would offer hitters a different plane and pitch shape completely different from his high-90s fastballs up in the zone, the gyro slider down in the zone and his sinking changeup.
Miller tossed 5.2 innings against the Hops on April 16, allowing two runs on four hits with no walks and six strikeouts.
The “sweeper” proved effective against right-handed hitters for swings and misses and even worked well in getting in on the hands of left-handed hitters.
“I’ve gotten comps (comparisons) to Brash,” he said. “His slider is a little harder. But whenever I throw it right, it’s pretty good. I just have to keep pushing velo on it and keep it around 82-84 mph.”
Invited to his first MLB spring training, Miller approached Brash about the slider for more tips and tricks to finding consistent success and velocity.
“I told him, ‘Yeah, I watched you start and stole one of your pitches from you,’” Miller said.
When Brash showed him his slider grip up close, Miller was amazed. Brash’s middle finger bends around the horseshoe of the seam and his index finger stays sort of straight, leaving a gap in the shape of a football between the two digits.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with his finger, but his finger bends around it and my finger doesn’t want to do that,” Miller said. “So I can’t really do it exactly like him.”
Brash laughed at the finger comment. He’s heard it before.
“My middle finger tends to wrap on the seam more than other guys,” he said. “I don’t know if I have a long finger or it’s just because I’ve been doing it my whole life. When I show guys my grip, a lot of them can like kind of get it, but they don’t get the same pressure that I do.”
Armed with four pitches and the prior offseason of training to pitch a full minor-league season, Miller made 27 starts in 2022, posting a 7-4 record with a 3.16 earned-run average. He threw 133 2/3 innings, striking out 163 batters with 46 walks.
“Going into last season, it was a big question mark as to whether or not I could start and whether I could be durable through a season because the most I’d thrown in a season was my senior year at A&M was like 67 innings,” he said.
Indeed, when the Mariners took Miller in the fourth round of the 2021 draft he was projected to be a reliever because of his slight frame. He was a reliever up until that senior season.
What’s become clear in recent years is that the Mariners know how to scout and develop pitching at all levels. Miller credits the mixture of training programs, use of technology like TrackMan and Rapsodo to evaluate and improve pitches and his willingness to try new things such as adding a pitch have pushed him forward.
“Honestly, as soon as I got here, we dove more into the analytics of everything,” he said. “We had access to that stuff at A&M and we just never really got too far into it. When I got here, it was presented to me, and I was able to implement it into my pitching. It’s helped me out a lot.”
The Mariners helped Miller understand how good his pitches were when they were put in the right location. The fastball needed to be up. The sliders needed to be down. And strikes were his friend.
“I learned that my pitches are all above average, and I just have to put them where they’re supposed to go,” he said. “I didn’t have to be as perfect as I thought I needed to be in college. The main thing is just getting it over the plate and getting it to the top of the zone, fastball-wise.”
Miller’s plus stuff and his performance in 2022 pushed him into the top 100 prospect list of every major outlet.
“I’ve had a weird path to here and always kind of felt like I had more, that I could do more,” he said. “It’s just finally starting to come together and it’s starting to be more recognized. I’m putting everything together and becoming more of a pitcher on the mound instead of just a thrower like I was pretty much all through college.”
If the Mariners need a spot starter early in the season, Miller will likely be the first pitcher to be called upon. If the rotation remains healthy, similar to a year ago, then he certainly could be a midseason option to provide help in the bullpen, where he’d join Brash.
The Mariners are certain he will be able to handle it.
“He’s from Texas,” manager Scott Servais said. “You’re not gonna speed him up and I don’t think there’s a whole lot that’s gonna slow him down. I’ve already seen a lot of good things from him.”
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