PEORIA, Ariz. — Most professional baseball players’ trophy case from high school is full of one accolade after another. Then again, most don’t come from a small Wisconsin town that didn’t really have a high school baseball program.
“I played baseball in high school, but just not for my high school,” said Owen Miller, 22, the starting shortstop as the Amarillo Sod Poodles open their inaugural season as the San Diego Padres’ Double-A affiliate Thursday night.
“My team was a select team that played in the summer that traveled around a lot. Since I’m from a small town we got to face better competition and we were able to be seen by some colleges.”
Miller, by some accounts, was initially considered more of a basketball player coming out of high school where he was the school all-time leading scorer. But he always saw himself as a baseball player. So, he went to Illinois State and played three years for the Redbirds, posting a career slash line of .345/.383/.511 before San Diego drafted him in the third round last summer.
Miller hit the ground running as a professional, posting a .835 OPS in 49 games with the Tri-City Dust Devils. That earned him an opportunity to join the Low-A Fort Wayne TinCaps, where improved to .863 against better competition. He finished the regular season with a combined .336/.386/.460 before joining the San Antonio Missions for the Texas League playoffs, where he had nine hits in eight post-season games.
“The first time I saw him was in the first game of the playoffs,” said Phillip Wellman, who managed last year’s Missions and will helm the Sod Poodles this season. “He hit really well for us and represented himself really well with the bat. He made all the plays that he needed to at shortstop.
“For a kid coming up from Low-A ball to Double-A, he wasn’t at all intimidated or bothered by the pitching. He swung the bat as he belongs there.”
Miller has a very relaxed approach at the plate. One of his teammates joked to another during a spring training at-bat that he is “grind, grind, line drive; grind, grind, line drive.” He can seemingly barrel the baseball to all fields.
“Yeah, that just comes with playing a lot of games over time,” Miller said of his relaxed nature at the plate. “In college during my freshman and sophomore year, I struck out a lot. But during my junior year, I was really able to calm down and see more pitches in the box and not worry about striking out.”
In his last year with the Redbirds, Miller improved his batting average by over 50 points and posted the best on-base and power numbers of his collegiate career. He set a school single-season record with 88 hits in 52 games.
“It really helped me to cut down my strikeouts and in my first year of pro ball, it helped me to have a pretty good contact rate. I like to think of myself as a guy who likes to put the ball in play and I would rather take that single the other way than a strikeout.
“I have a pretty good middle approach and I can hit multiple pitches. If there is a ball inside, it’s more of a reaction and I will pull it then.”
As with most people that post a batting average of .336 in their first pro season, the Padres were impressed.
“Owen has a very short swing,” the Padres’ Senior Director of Player Development Sam Geaney said in an end-of-season interview. “He was very much how our scouts described him and he hit from the start.
“He’s a very advanced kid and should move quickly.”
So far in his first spring training, the Padres really haven’t tried to change much.
“Right now, we are in the mode of let’s keep doing what we are doing,” said Chris Kemp, the Padres’ Field Coordinator and Director of International Scouting about the team’s plan. “He’s had success, he’s had a good camp, he works counts, uses the whole field, he takes his walks – so offensively we are just trying to keep him in that good spot and stay out of the way.”
San Diego plans to give Miller most of his starts at shortstop, but he will also see time at second and third base. With the signing of free agent superstar third baseman Manny Machado and the emergence of super-prospect Fernando Tatis, Jr. at shortstop on the big league level, the path to Petco Park has narrowed.
Then again if Miller keeps hitting the way he has, something will break.
“I really don’t pay that much attention to statistics or worry about what numbers I will get to,” said Miller. ‘I really don’t see baseball that way.
“As long as I am having competitive at-bats and staying in ball games, the numbers will come. For me, the most important thing is to come to the ballpark every day with a smile on my face.
“If I can do that, I’m going to be all right.”