DETROIT -- On the third and final day of the MLB Draft, having scoured the Big 12 and ACC for college talent, the Tigers finally went Bananas.
That’s only slightly deceptive.
Joe Miller pitched four seasons at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was enrolled at the prestigious Wharton School of Business. He was an all-Ivy League selection this spring after leading the league with 91 strikeouts and 74 1/3 innings pitched. But it was a scramble of innings in summer ball following two pandemic-shortened Ivy League seasons and a delayed Cape Cod League that crossed his career path with one of the most intriguing experiments in baseball, the Savannah Bananas.
“I mean, it’s different,” Miller said. “I think going from anywhere to pitching for the Bananas is different. But my time in Savannah was awesome. I really enjoyed it, and it was a ton of fun, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. I had a great time, and I think it was a big part in getting me to where I am now, and I’m very thankful for the opportunity to go there.”
The Bananas, as chronicled by MLB.com’s Michael Clair last month, have become famous for Banana Ball, a new version of the sport with alternate rules such as no bunting, no walks, batters can steal first base, and batter retired if a fan catches a foul ball. But the Bananas also field a traditional baseball team of college players each year playing summer ball in the Coastal Plains League. Miller, who played with a different CPL team after his freshman season in 2019, ended up in Savannah last summer on the recommendation of a Penn teammate when the Cape delayed its season until late June.
Miller jumped front and center into the team’s famous entertainment efforts, from choreographed player dances to promotions. But when he took the mound, he became the team’s ace, to the point that his starts became known as Joe Miller Day.
“If you asked guys on my team, they thought I was going to hate it and I was not going to do anything there,” Miller said. “But it’s manageable with the college team. I would never have to do too much dancing or anything the days that I pitched. The days I knew I wasn’t throwing, I would get to the field early, get all my work in and then it was like, maybe you’ll go learn a dance and I’ll have to do it during the fourth inning or whatever.”
“But it was crazy, because at school, we didn’t get a ton of fans. So then, I’m pitching there in front of like four, five thousand people, and it’s like a different kind of couple thousand. Like, there’s music playing in between pitches, people are singing, it’s super loud. So I think it makes it fun and enjoyable. I enjoy pitching in that environment, just because it made me appreciate the game and appreciate being there. And I think that helped me have a little more success as well.”
Miller went 6-0 in 10 games with a 1.50 ERA. He allowed 26 hits over 42 innings with 17 walks and 71 strikeouts on his way to earning CPL Pitcher of the Year honors. The Bananas, in turn, dominated the league with a 36-8 record, before winning the playoffs. Along the way, Miller learned a lot about the business of baseball.
“Jesse Cole, he’s the owner, and he’s a genius in how he runs it, just like his creativity with things and his drive,” Miller said. “I know every day he goes for a run and then makes a list of five or 10 new ideas for us to do. You could be anyone, anywhere for the organization, and if you come up to him and say, ‘Hey, I think we should try this out,’ he’ll be like, yeah, let’s do it.”
Of all the craziest dances, he said, one sticks out that went viral.
“There was an old lady that came in and danced or whatever on me,” Miller laughed. “I had to sit on a chair on the first-base line, and she had a sash on and was dancing. It wasn’t too PG, honestly.”
The momentum of pitching again and winning carried Miller into the Ivy League season this spring, catching the attention of Major League clubs, including the Tigers. Once the third and final day of the Draft began Tuesday afternoon, Detroit snagged him with its 11th-round selection. He’s listed at just 5-foot-10, but brings an appealing arsenal.
“He’s up to 93 [miles per hour]. He’s got a slider and a curveball,” Tigers amateur scouting director Scott Pleis said. “He’s been on our radar for a long time. We just had to wait for the right spot to get him.”
Said Miller: “I think the two biggest things for me in why I've been successful lately have been my offspeed, especially my slider. Over the summer season and over the college season this year, that was my thing, just kind of throwing a lot of offspeed, spinning the ball well, just making that play off my fastball and just enjoying the game and going out and competing.”
While the Tigers became known for using top picks on pitchers in four consecutive Drafts, including top overall pick Casey Mize in 2018, they’ve had recent success with college pitchers in later rounds. Beau Brieske, Detroit’s 27th-round pick in 2019 out of Colorado State-Pueblo, ranks second on the Tigers in starts and innings pitched this year behind Tarik Skubal, Detroit’s ninth-round pick in 2018 from Seattle University. Garrett Hill, the Tigers’ 26th-round selection in 2018 from San Diego State, has made two starts for Detroit this month and will make another when the Tigers start their second half Thursday with a doubleheader at Oakland.
Given that success, it was notable that after the Tigers went heavy on hitters in the first 10 rounds of this year’s Draft, they used nine of their 10 picks in Day 3 on pitchers. It wasn’t entirely by design; Pleis admits they had some guys at the top of their board picked just ahead of their slot multiple times Tuesday. Still, they went looking for guys who could project.
“It seems like the further you get down the Draft, there’s always interesting stories here and there,” Pleis said. “Our area guys do a great job knowing these guys. We’ve been very good about getting quality kids in here. We’ve talked about makeup a bunch of times here. That’s a big part for us.”