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Summer success helps Missouri pitcher build mentality

Monday, January 27, 2014 | 6:18 p.m. CST
This March 2012 photos shows MU pitcher John Miles as a freshman pitching against a High Point University batter. Miles spent the summer playing with the New England Collegiate Baseball League, improving his confidence as a pitcher.

COLUMBIA — When John Miles was pitching for the Vermont Mountaineers of the New England Collegiate Baseball League last summer, he built. 

He built a mindset, the obstinate belief of superiority over the hitter.

And he built pitching mounds at Montpelier Recreation Field. 

Miles spent a couple weeks going through an estimated 50 bags of clay to build the mounds in the bullpen and on the field to nearly professional quality. 

"That's me earning my baseball karma points," he said."Working on the mound, making sure they're up to par and hopefully it'll carry over into the game."

The quality of Miles' groundskeeping work translated to his performance on the mound, and then some. He set a league record by holding opposing hitters to a .135 batting average, had a 1.20 ERA and started on the hill during the all-star game for the high-level summer league, which features prospects from colleges across the country.

Now he's hoping the mentality that helped him put up those numbers can lead to similar results this spring for the Tigers. Although all of Miles' innings last year at Missouri came in relief, he will likely be in the mix this spring as a starting pitcher, a role in which he showed promise during his freshman year.

As a sophomore relief pitcher last year, Miles led Missouri with a 2.35 ERA, but he allowed plenty of hits — 33 in 23 innings — and was unsatisfied with his mental approach during the season.

After some rough performances early on, Miles started to overthink the physical aspect of his game, he said. When he struggled to execute his pitches, he lost his aggressive mentality.

"I just kind of mentally caved in," he said.

Heading into summer, Miles pared down his mental approach. He concentrated on throwing strikes, getting outs and reminding himself that he was better than whomever he was facing. 

He didn't experiment with new pitches and grips or make significant mechanical tweaks, as many players use the summer league to do. Against both righties and lefties, he mainly worked with two-seam fastballs and a changeup, the one taught to him by former Missouri pitcher Danny Hill, where he holds the ball with a four-seam grip and throws it off his ring and pinkie fingers.  

"I was really able to subtract and add with that," Miles said about the changeup. "I was also really able to move distance vertically with it, and it's worked wonders for me. It's turned into a great pitch."

The development of that pitch nicely complemented a bump in velocity on his fastball, which Miles said sat in the low 90s in his later starts for the Mountaineers.

Miles' results backed up the confidence he commitment to restoring. He started with two hitless relief outings of three innings each and then allowed just two hits in six innings in his first two starts of the season.

He didn't strike out many hitters, but he limited walks, pitched to batters' weaknesses and was consistently economical in his outings. The State University of New York in Cortland head coach Joe Brown, Miles' coach with the Mountaineers, remembers Miles as being a confident, consistent pitcher – not one with eye-popping velocity but the ability to command all of his pitches, especially on the inside part of the plate.

"He was cerebral, but not overanalytical," Brown said.

"Smart enough, but it didn't paralyze him in his actions, so he fed off the hitters' aggressiveness. And he didn't necessarily care to chase strikeouts, and I think, consequently, that's what helped him get you four, five, six innings throwing a very low number of pitches."   

The numbers Miles put up come with the glaring caveat that they were not against Southeastern Conference competition. Although the New England league is considered to provide good competition as far as summer leagues go, Miles didn't consistently face the caliber of hitters he saw in conference play last season where he allowed 13 hits in 10 2/3 innings pitched. 

Still, it's one thing for Miles to have unwavering confidence that he's better than any hitter he sees, but it's another to get results to back up that confidence. 

"Pitching is 85 percent confidence," Miles said. "It's who you believe you are on the mound (that) is going to dictate the outcome of your outing."

The time for physical adjustments will surely come this season, but those aren't going to be the ones that get to him.

"If I have troubles, ... my troubles are going to come because I wasn't mentally tough enough, and I was floundering between the ears," Miles said.


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