At first glance, second-year High-A Lynchburg Hillcats first baseman Anthony Miller appears to be your stereotypical corner infielder. He is big, standing 6’5” tall, and weighing in at 240 lbs. You would be wrong in assuming he is a slow, classical power hitter.
“Defensively, he’s very good,” said Hillcats manager Rougie Odor. “He’s done a good job and just needs to continue to improve his at-bats, making sure he gets good pitches to hit.”
The 23-year-old product of Johnson County Community College was selected by Cleveland in the 18th round of the 2015 draft. Growing up a Royals fan, he followed players like Carlos Beltran, Mike Sweeney and David DeJesus. All three of these iconic Royals played through the Carolina League in the early 90’s, the same league in which Miller now toils.
Miller ended up at Johnson County Community College for several reasons. It was in the Kansas City area and close to home. Also, it was very affordable, and the other junior college in the Kansas City area that he had an interest in pulled his offer.
“They [Johnson County] had a really good coaching staff,” said Miller. “My dad actually played under the head coach that is there now, Kent Shelley. Kind of a cool situation.”
Family plays a strong role in Miller’s life. As a kid he got involved in baseball because of his family. His father was a pitcher and catcher in college, and his older brother also played baseball, so it was natural that Anthony would follow their lead. It also helped that the family owned a baseball field less than two miles from their home.
“My dad owned a construction company, so he built a baseball field down the road from my house,” said Miller. “I spent a lot of time there practicing and doing maintenance, like pulling weeds.”
That work ethic served him well in his second season at Johnson County. He mashed 26 home runs, driving in 79 teammates, and posting a .443 batting average leading his team to a 49-11 record on the season.
Getting drafted by the Indians organization was an unexpected benefit of such a strong season. He had heard rumors of possibly being drafted, but nothing concrete had been communicated to him before Cleveland called his name.
“I was excited because I heard a lot of great things about the organization, that it was very first class,” said Miller. “The people you get to work with are great, like Johnny Mac (John McDonald) and Travis Fryman. I’m lucky and blessed to be where I am with the Indians.”
Now in his fourth year in the organization, Miller has developed a balanced and steady approach to his development as a ball player. This was not always the case, particularly right after he was drafted.
“The first couple of years in pro ball I thought I had to hit a bunch of home runs, so I tried to manipulate my swing to hit home runs, which didn’t work for me,” said Miller.
Working with hitting coach Kevin Howard in 2017, and coach Justin Toole in 2018, Miller has begun to refine his approach at the plate. Rather than swinging for the fences, now he tries to be more patient, driving the ball to the middle of the field.
“Toolie’s been very good with trying to get my body in the right positions. Get my whole body engaged in my swing. Kevin was more about approach and staying through the ball,” said Miller.
Through the beginning of June, he had pushed his batting average to .260, with three home runs and 12 RBI in 28 games played. Like the Hillcats team in general, Miller has struggled through June and has only played in four of the teams’ ten games in the season’s second half, adding only a single RBI to his counting stats and seeing his average drop to .238.
Miller shares time with Lynchburg’s other big first baseman, Emmanuel Tapia. When Miller plays, Tapia usually slides into the designated hitter role, or gets a day off. This is because of Miller’s defensive prowess. In 272 chances this season, he has a .996 fielding percentage – 243 putouts, 28 assists, and 28 double plays. This makes him valuable, since a strong fielding first baseman gives the other infielders confidence and the opportunity to try and make difficult throws. It also helps that Miller is a lefty hitter who happens to throw right-handed.
“When I was younger, like T-ball age, I threw left-handed. One day my dad stopped me and gave me a right-handed glove so I could catch,” said Miller.
His father hoped Miller would turn to catching and he still likes to catch. When he is not in the game he dons the tools of ignorance and heads down to the bullpen to serve as a catcher for relievers warming up.
“It just happened that way,” he says about learning to throw with his non-dominant hand. “I was too young to realize what happened. I’m glad it did.”
Another plus for Miller are the opportunities he has had to join the Major League club for Spring Training games. Over the past three springs he has at least one game with the big club. The one that stands out most in his memory was his first one, a night game between the Indians and Cubs that was televised on ESPN.
“Everyone had all their stars playing. All those dudes sitting there in the dugout and you get to see Schwarber, Rizzo, and Kris Bryant hit,” recalled Miller. “Then in the next half inning you get to see Lindor, Encarnacion, and Santana hit. It’s pretty unreal.”
What Miller most fondly recalls is how gracious the big leaguers were. They treated the players over from the minor league complex just like any other team members. Even though Miller struck out in his only at-bat, the power of the memory and the experience more than makes up for that result.
The other memorable event for Miller was getting the opportunity to take the mound and pitch an inning earlier this season.
“The weather was like 40 degrees and raining. I was on the bench for eight innings, but it was fun at the same time,” recalled Miller. “Rougie told me not to do anything but lob fast balls in there.”
That was exactly what he did, and he pitched a single inning allowing only one hit to his opponents. Miller jokes that he can now compare notes with Hillcats’ 6’5” starting pitcher Sam Hentges.
When he is not busy at the ballpark, or during the offseason, he enjoys spending time with his family.
“I hunt a lot, and fish when I can, and play with my dog, a golden retriever,” says Miller.
With his steady, balanced mindset, he will continue to anchor the first base corner at Calvin Falwell Field this season. The hard work necessary to develop his skills, to improve, and to create further opportunities for himself as a professional baseball player is inherent in Miller’s attitude.
Photo: Lindsay Carico/Lynchburg Hillcats