When the Indians acquired Andrew Miller from the New York Yankees, Terry Francona’s dream came true – his dream of having a bullpen filled with guys he can use in any situation, that is. Miller just happens to be one of the best relievers in the game, and he also is one of the most flexible. He’s already moved from closer to set-up man and back again all in one season. And with previous closer Cody Allen open to a role change, Tito can choose to use either whenever he wishes. All that matters is that they get people out when the game is on the line.
Getting critical outs is something Miller has been doing a lot of over the past few years. Since 2013, his first full season as a reliever, he’s appeared 215 times in the seventh inning or later. His ERA in those appearances? 1.88. His strikeout to walk ratio? 5.60. His strikeouts per nine innings? 14.9. Opposing hitters’ batting average? .164. So, yeah, it’s safe to say Miller is a fantastic pitcher late in games.
Like most great relievers, he succeeds with only two pitches: for him, a darting fastball and a devastating slider. Over the past few years he’s been using the fastball less and the slider more, increasing its usage all the way up to 61% this year. There’s a good reason for that. Among left-handed relievers, his slider has the fourth most horizontal movement, according to PITCHf/x data. Even with hitters expecting the pitch, they still swing and miss anyway because of its movement. What looks like a strike, ends up a ball, and what looks like a ball ends up a strike. That’s how on the slider, Miller has gotten batters to swing at more balls (53% swing rate) than strikes (51% swing rate). And because he uses the slider so much, his overall chase rate is fourth-best among relievers.
What makes Miller’s success even more amazing is his consistent location. Against lefties, he seemingly always throws his slider down and away and against righties, it’s down and in. Data from Brooks Baseball tells us 36% of his pitches are outside of that specific corner of the zone. So in addition to knowing what pitch he’s going to throw (probably the slider), opposing hitters also know where exactly he’s going to throw it. And he still manages to generate the sixth-highest swing and miss rate in the league and the fourth-lowest hard hit rate in the league. His slider is just that good.
Miller complements the slider with a fastball that he can locate anywhere. It sits in the mid-90s with some horizontal movement and is a dynamite pitch. His fastball doesn’t get the same number of whiffs as the slider, but that’s because it’s not supposed to. He uses it to change hitters’ eye levels and confuse opponents at the plate. Miller’s four-seamer heat map has no discernible pattern because he throws the pitch anywhere. That’s not to say he doesn’t know where it’s going. He knows exactly where it’s going, right into the catcher’s mitt for a strike. See, hitters don’t really swing at Miller’s fastball (35% swing rate). And because Miller locates well (55% of his fastballs are in the zone), they are taking strikes. He’s now up in the count and can use the slider to get the K. Or he got back in the count after missing on the first pitch and can use the slider to get the K. Either way, it normally ends up with the hitter walking back to the dugout.
With an asset like Miller sitting in the bullpen, the onus is on the manager to use him properly. Francona will be able to do that. In a press conference before Monday’s game he said, “The whole idea is to, when you have the game on the line, leverage situations, you want to use guys in the right spots. I think anybody that’s known me since I’ve been here knows that, a lot of times, I feel like the games are won and lost [in the] seventh and eighth with people on base… we’re going to leverage those guys the best we can.”
Pitching coach Mickey Callaway said basically the same thing on Sunday. He told reporters, “We’re not going to try and get guys saves and holds and things like that. We’re going to go out and try to win ballgames.”
It sounds like, going forward, the Tribe will not have a traditional closer. Francona is going to use one of his top three pitchers (Miller, Allen, or Bryan Shaw) whenever the game hangs in the balance – whether that’s in the seventh, eighth or ninth inning. Who wouldn’t choose to use their best pitcher when the game is on the line? Only someone who is chained to saves.
Francona is now free from that burden.
All I have to say is, Commissioner Manfred, please direct all pace of game complaints to Francona’s office – though you might have to hold because he’s probably too busy making a pitching change.
Photo: AP Photo/Ron Schwane
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