If the Cubs’ offseason was a fitful slumber, the signing of Ian Miller seemed at first like little more than a nudge that stopped a particularly annoying snoring bout for a few seconds. On the surface, it was just another in a long line of minor league deals meant to add potential depth with very little potential to add much salary. Except both the Cubs and Miller had plans that weren’t immediately obvious.
With an extra roster spot and an offense lacking edge in recent seasons, Theo Epstein was looking for someone who could add a new dimension. After being granted free agency, and with his 28th birthday bearing down on him, Miller knew he needed to make a strategic choice in order to best leverage his talent. He came into camp intent on making an impression, then did so by stealing eight bases (most in all of spring training) scoring 10 runs (second-most).
Always a speed merchant, Miller realized last season that he couldn’t make the next step by remaining a one-dimensional player. At the same time, he knew that his legs would be the best way to, uh, get his foot in the door. So he ran and hit and generally played like the kind of guy you’d want to have around as a solid defensive outfielder and baserunning threat, a player who could have a significant impact even in limited action.
But almost as soon as Miller began to establish himself, the MLB season was brought to a screeching halt by the COVID-19 pandemic. Now he’s just hanging out in Tempe, trying to flatten the curve and doing what he can to stay in shape for his next opportunity.
That’s where Cubs Insider caught up with him, which wasn’t easy given his speed, to talk about the whirlwind of the last few months and how he’s approaching what could still be a pivotal season.
Cubs Insider: Everything’s been turned upside down over the last few weeks and there’s really no access to gyms or training facilities, so what have you been doing to stay in shape since the shutdown?
Ian Miller: Right before the complex got shut down, we were going in and getting our work and kind of just waiting to see and hear what the plan of action would be in terms of this coronavirus. So when it was announced that they were going to be shutting down the complex and the move was going to be shutting everything down, we were able to grab some equipment from the weight room.
And so we were able to take some equipment home. I was able to take some bands and some cones for some sprint work, kettlebells, basically just some equipment that my fiancée and I would be able to utilize in some home workouts [while] staying quarantined to just stay in shape. Our strength and conditioning coach Shane (Wallen) reached out to me and I let him know what kind of equipment I had available to me and he kind of put together some workouts throughout these next four weeks. It’s kind of like a four-week workout program and then we’ll take it from there.
But we’ve been busy, my fiancée and I. She’s my workout partner right now and we work out in our small Tempe apartment and we do what we can. And then about three days a week we’ll go out to a park or somewhere where we can walk around and stay away from everybody and keep our distance from everybody. I’ll get some sprint work in and we have a jump rope if we wanna do some conditioning type stuff and I’ll take some swings here and there when I can.
Obviously our first priority is to be safe and flatten the curve, as everybody is saying, so we’re being smart. I’m just trying to stay ready if for any reason tomorrow we were told from the commissioner that the season’s gonna start here in two weeks or something. Not that it would, just that if it were the case, I want to be as ready as possible. So I’m keeping my legs in shape and my body in shape and keeping my mind sharp.
CI: The last several months for you have really been something else. You started out your seventh season in the Mariners organization, then you were traded to the Twins in August and spent a few weeks in Triple-A. You were called up in September for your MLB debut, then became a free agent and signed with the Cubs. You get to camp, tear it up by leading all of spring training in steals, then the season is postponed. Is your head still spinning and how have you been able to handle all of that from a psychological standpoint?
IM: In terms of psychologically and staying locked in mentally…You know, I’m a 28-year-old speed guy — just turned 28 at the start of spring training — it was no secret that I needed to come in and have a good spring training. The way that I saw it, I was coming in and I was finally going to be able to make a couple of bucks in Triple-A. I’ve never really made money before being under my seven-year minor league contract.
And then going up in September with the Twins, I was able to put a couple of bucks away, but that went towards getting a ring for my longtime girlfriend and putting some money towards a wedding. A lot of things needed to happen this year for my career to kind of prove not only to others but to myself that I belonged and that this is going to happen.
So I really did a good job of kind of switching my mental side of things off because baseball is a game of failure and you tend to overthink a lot of things. I’m not going to sit here and lie to you and tell you that I’m not one of those guys. I’ll be the first to sit back at the end of the day and kind of just replay the good and the bad and overthink stuff.
Coming into spring training I really just wanted to just show what I could do physically. I wanted to be able to score runs in unconventional ways, whether it’s a stolen base or moving up on a ground ball or making something happen with an error and advancing a base or two. It was really all about just showing that I could help the Chicago Cubs win a baseball game, whether it’s April 1st or it’s in October.
My thought process coming into it in terms of the psychological aspect, I just shut my brain off. I wanted to show up every day and prove that I was the best version of myself, Ian Miller, not trying to be anybody else. There are some really good coaches on this staff, man, I haven’t met anybody in the locker room or in the coaching staff that you know isn’t there for his guys.
Will Venable, our outfield coach, really did a great job of kind of pulling aside the first day of early workouts — I think it was probably early February, late January. He was basically just saying, “Hey, man, we know what you can do. You come as advertised, you’re kinda fast and you play defense. Just do that, you don’t have to be anything but yourself.”
Rossy sat me down early in our players meeting the first day of spring and said, “You’re not coming in here to hit .400 and take Jason Heyward‘s spot. Come in here and be the best version of yourself, don’t put any pressure on yourself at the plate, make plays in the outfield and run fast…You’re gonna get caught stealing, keep going. Just test the limits, show us what you can do.”
So it was really easy to just go out and have fun. There was no psychological aspect of things and the mental game kind of stayed out of it. Being in the minor leagues for seven years, you learn to kind of not stress out about things that you can’t control. I think that that took me a couple of years, uh, a good seven years to figure that out.
Obviously there’s some stuff going on in the world that’s a little bigger than baseball and just being able to kind of let go and if you can’t control it, don’t stress too much about it. I did everything I could in spring training and that’s out of my hands and I’m just going to trust the hard work I put in the offseason.
CI: You already address this to an extent, but I wanted to dig in a little deeper on the idea of your mindset coming into camp. The Cubs aren’t a team that ran a lot the last couple seasons and they’ve been known for picking up speed guys late in the season before. Between that and the extra roster spot being added for 2020, did you see this as an opportunity to really take advantage of what you do well?
IM: Yeah, this offseason when I was going through the free-agent process, my agent, Jeff Randazzo with Ballengee, was awesome. We sat down and we had to put our heads together and it came down to what I do well. If I come off the bench, I might have a higher value in the National League. The pitchers are hitting, you can double switch. Speed might be more valuable off the bench in the National League.
So when I was fortunate enough to sign with the Cubs, I just wanted to show that I could come off the bench. If it’s a 7-0 ball game, whether we’re up or down, or if it’s a 3-3 ballgame in the 8th; whatever it is, I could I can get the job done. I just wanted to come in and show that you know I could do the little things right. I wasn’t there to try to show that I can hit .400. It’s really playing the game within the game. I know what kind of player I am, I wanted to come in here and prove that I could be valuable off the bench and we’ll go from there.
CI: Speed has always been a part of your game. You had 93 steals in three college seasons and then another 219 over those seven minor league seasons before leading all of spring training this year. But stealing basis isn’t just a matter of being really fast, though that certainly helps. Are you going up there thinking green light every time, or what is your philosophy when it comes to running?
IM: I absolutely have a calculated philosophy. There are three counts for me that — if I have the green light, which I did this spring training — I’m dead set going. Maybe I won’t say those counts right now, just to get that out here and give away my secrets, but there definitely are counts where the pitcher has to worry about throwing a strike.
I’m sure you can think of what counts those are. The pitcher doesn’t want to fall behind in the count 1-0, so I’ll just leave it at that. Basically, there are counts where I’m extremely active and I’m looking to go. It comes down to the scouting report you got. The scouting reports in the big leagues of the pitchers are absolutely insane: What percentage he’s going to throw this pitch and what count. Those are things I’m looking at.
It also comes down to who’s behind me. I’m hitting eight or nine and spring training, so the leadoff guy is probably hitting next and a lot of the time that’s Kris Bryant. Well, if he’s going to get a fastball first pitch and if that’s a strike, he’s probably gonna crush it. So the pitcher might be looking to get ahead with a get-me-over breaking ball or something. There’s a good chance the pitcher’s focusing on pitching to Kris, so I’m going to take advantage of that and I’m going to get on second base as quickly as possible.
The quickest I can get the second based on the stolen based or passed ball or something, the better. It comes down to who’s catching, what he can do, is the picture a slide step guy or not. And I have different mindsets if it’s a starter or a bullpen guy. The starters are usually a little bit more crafty, they can hold runners on a little bit better. Bullpen guys are usually flame-throwers that really aren’t worried about the runners too much, at least in my experience.
We have a pretty good system and I’ve been pretty successful so far. I’m precise, I’ll take calculated risks that I think I can be 80% or higher success rate on. There’s a there’s obviously plan behind it, I’m not just running. I’ve really just been about stealing when it’s smart, not just running to run.
CI: A steal isn’t the only way to get an extra base and you’ve put up your share of doubles and triples. Are you consciously thinking of that when you put the ball in play, trying to stretch every hit for one more base each time?
IM: Absolutely. As soon as the ball gets into the outfield, I will run as fast as humanly possible down first base and take that turn to second. I’m going for a double on a ground ball up the middle that gets through the infield to centerfield. I’m going for two until he stops me, I’m looking for a double every time the ball gets to the outfield.
There’s a chance to the outfielder makes a mistake, maybe a bobble or something, and I’m trying to force the issue here. I’m trying to make them make mistakes. I wanted to show that I can — like we talked about, unconventional — score runs in weird ways. That’s something that I bring to the table, I just play as hard as humanly possible. I’m the type of dude that’ll slide headfirst into first base.
Obviously that’s not ideal, but that’s just how I was raised in the game. I’m always looking to take the extra base, regardless of whether it’s a stolen base or forcing the issue on going to second.
CI: You hit one home run in college and seven over your first six minor league seasons. That’s eight homers in 3,126 plate appearances in nine years. Then you hit 11 home runs in 445 plate appearances for Triple-A Tacoma last year. Even accounting for the juiced ball they were using in the Pacific Coast League, that’s quite a jump. Was that a matter of intent on your part or what was behind that power surge?
IM: Every one of those home runs and doubles and triples was intentional. Going into 2019, there were no power numbers or anything. That offseason, I went from playing 110-120 games in Triple-A to the Arizona Fall League. Right when that was done I went straight to Mexico, played two months there, then came right into spring training. So I didn’t have an opportunity to work out. I didn’t have an opportunity to kind of have an offseason, catch my breath. I just was baseball 24-7.
I really, really, really wanted to show in 2019 that I could bang. I wanted to show that I could drive the baseball. I wanted to show that I’m not just a slap the ball in the six-hole and run as fast as humanly possible [hitter]. Because a lot of those times, if Javy Báez is playing shortstop and you a ground ball to him, that’s an out. It doesn’t matter if you’re Billy Hamilton or if you’re Miguel Cabrera. Usually if you had a ground ball in the big leagues and it doesn’t get through the infield, it’s an out.
I proved my whole minor league career that I could run. Everybody that knows who I am or what I do knows that I can steal a base on command. That’s the reputation that I proved for myself, but that was my main focus for six years in the minor leagues. This past year I wanted to show that I could drive the baseball, I wasn’t just a one-dimensional player.
It’s not that I was trying to hit home runs, I was just trying to hit the ball through the centerfield wall, if that makes sense. I wanted to try to line out to the centerfielder every single pitch, regardless of the count. I think my walks went up a little bit, I think my strikeouts went down a little bit, and my extra-base hits went up a little bit. My miss-hits had a better chance of being hits and I had a lot better exit velo.
I was able to get on base a little bit more and I was able to score more runs. I really just wanted to prove this past year to 29 other teams if possible that I could hit. I slumped a little bit in the second half of the minor league season, but the extra-base hits were there and the Twins took a chance on me. That was definitely intentional and it was definitely an approach thing, going to bat every night with that plan.
Ed. note: Miller’s offensive numbers indeed increased across the board. His 10.1% walk rate with Tacoma was the highest of his career and his 18.2% strikeout rate was lower than in his two previous Triple-A campaigns. His .179 ISO was easily the highest of his career, and both his .269 average and .351 OBP were solid. As for the XBH numbers, he added 27 doubles and five triples to the 11 homers.
CI: Did you get a chance to use the hitting lab and work with Rachel Folden or any of the other hitting staff on some of the more advanced analysis of your swing? And beyond that, how do you view all of the advanced data that goes into coaching now? Some players want all the information they can get their hands on, but you had mentioned earlier that you kind of wanted to take your mind out of it to an extent.
IM: Talking with Rachel and Val (Chris Valaika), the minor league hitting coordinator, pretty early in January, we went in the lab and we were figuring some stuff out. They presented to me my swing, they broke it down scientifically, and showed what I was doing well and what I could do better. They gave me some drills to do to attack the weaknesses.
It wasn’t so much like micromanaging every little aspect of every little detail. They explained it in a way that I understood and gave me tips and drills to utilize everything possible to improve on the things that I wasn’t doing well and maintain the things I was doing well. It really wasn’t on a day-to-day basis, breaking everything down and driving ourselves crazy, because a lot of negative things can come out of that when you’re overthinking things. I’ve done that.
I’ve never been a person to use that technology just because I really wasn’t educated on it and I really know a lot about it. I thought coming up that it was eyewash, it was kind of stupid, I didn’t respect that aspect of it. But in 2019, I’m 27 years old with the Mariners and I think I just hit .260, again, with no extra-base hits and a couple bases.
I came to the Mariners hitting staff, who were awesome, and I said, “Hey, guys, it’s going to my third go-round at Triple-A and I’m not producing any different results. I need help, please help me. I’m an open book. I think I got here based off speed, but speed isn’t gonna just produce all those results. So I’m all in on the technology aspect and I’m all ears this, my career is in your hands.” And the Mariners were really good at that, with the hitting aspect, and obviously I produced a little bit and then coming over here with the Cubs it’s the same thing.
Every source of technology is available and if you want it it’s there for you. Rachel’s great at it, Val’s great at it. There are endless possibilities here to help you out with your swing, it’s really about what you value and how you want to attack it. There’s some players that are old-school and they don’t wanna hear that stuff, and I get that because I used to be like that.
But I needed help, and with this new wave of technology coming in the game, I was at a pivotal year in my career where I really needed to produce and needed to try something new.
CI: After spending several years in the Mariners organization and experiencing six different spring training camps there, this was your first camp with a new team. What was it like coming to Sloan Park for the first time as a Cub and getting familiar with a whole new group of teammates and coaches?
IM: Yeah, you spend to spend a long time with an organization, you get to know guys and build relationships like I did with the Mariners. And you find comfort in those relationships, in those friendships that you build. That’s your safe place.
Coming to Sloan Park you know in years past and facing the Cubs, it’s intimidating. I’ve never played at Wrigley, but I heard the fans are crazy, they’re loyal, and you see that in. When you show up to a spring training game on Tuesday at 1pm and it’s standing room only and there’s 10,000 fans that are wearing Cubs colors. You get off the bus you’re walking to that away locker room and there’s fans just up there on the rails just watching you get off the bus, you’re like ‘Wow, this is different. This is a different animal.”
Coming here, man, I was excited. You know the players, you know the stars that are over here. Obviously you’ve got Jon Lester and Hayward and Báez and all those guys, but they are the most humble human beings and the nicest human beings ever. There was no awkwardness or “Hey, Mr. Heyward, I’m Ian Miller. Nice to meet you.”
I was welcomed in with open arms. They were just extremely humble, extremely nice and outgoing and it really just made me kind of feel like I was home almost. And the coaching staff — I touched on that earlier — they’re all amazing people and they care. Everybody here cares. Not that they didn’t where I was at before, but the Cubs just brought me in and they made me feel like I was part of the family.
The fans are unbelievable already. Everybody’s talking about Cubs baseball online and on Twitter, on the news, and it was just an unreal experience to be a part of this family in spring training. There was no break-in period where I had to get used to everybody, it was awesome. I felt comfortable as soon as I got into the locker room and it really made it easy to just go out there and play my game.
CI: Okay, we’ve hit just about every aspect of your baseball career, so let’s finish with the important stuff. Chicago is known for its pizza and everybody has their opinion on which one is the best. Philly is known for cheesesteaks and there are some famous spots like Geno’s or Pat’s or Tony Luke’s, but what is your recommendation when people ask you about the best spot?
IM: I got one place and it’s by far the best cheesesteak I’ve ever had, also hoagies or any type of Italian sandwich that I’ve ever had. It’s called Phil and Jim’s. My old man grew up in Chester and I think the address for Phil and Jim’s is in Brookhaven, Pennsylvania. That is my family’s go-to and that’s what I recommend to everybody when I had the opportunity.
Phil and Jim’s Delicatessen is the full name, but that’s the best cheesesteak that I’ve had in Philly. I do not get the Cheez Whiz, no, it’s with American and it’s absolutely incredible. It might be a little different from what people are used to coming to Philly getting cheesesteaks, but Phil and Jim’s blows my mind every time. Every time I’m back in the area, I make a pit stop there.
And now I’m hungry.
In going back through and listening to our conversation again for the sake of putting his piece together, I came away with even more respect for the way Miller has worked on his game. I’m sure that’s the case with many other players, but the humility and self-awareness he displayed can be applied to just about any endeavor.
It was also great to hear about his experience at Cubs camp and coming in as an outsider, particularly one who wasn’t a big-time free agent who everyone already knew. Just lots of great stuff in here all the way around and I’m rooting for Miller even more now than I was back when spring training was still underway. If you’re interested in following Miller on social media, you can check him out on Twitter or Instagram.
Thanks for spending a little more time with us than usual, I hope you enjoy these more expansive Q&A pieces.