Miller Helped Make Indians’ World Series Run Possible

The addition of Andrew Miller to the Cleveland Indians bullpen at the trade deadline marked a dramatic change from the normal operating procedures of the organization over the last several decades. With the club sending four minor league players to New York for Miller’s services, including prized top prospect outfielder Clint Frazier, the move came at a substantial cost to the farm system and to possible club finances in the future due to his sizable contract for a relief pitcher.

But in the end, the price the Indians paid to obtain the rights to the eleven-year pro bought the team the American League pennant and a trip to the World Series for the first time since 1997.

When the season began, the Indians bullpen was carried by Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw, just as it had been over the past several years. Complimentary pieces on the relief staff had shown various levels of effectiveness over the course of their careers, but in 2016, the bullpen was still an area of concern. The front office worked in the offseason to bring in some new arms to compete to strengthen the relief staff, but while they got contributions from the likes of new faces like Dan Otero and Joba Chamberlain, the group as a whole had not pitched as well as the club needed. Returning options like Zach McAllister and Jeff Manship filled out roles, but did not operate as shut down relievers. Shaw and Allen struggled at times, and other holes in the bullpen were filled by what felt at times like a never-ending carousel of candidates from Triple-A Columbus.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The arrival of the 31-year-old Miller allowed manager Terry Francona to redefine traditional reliever roles and his use of Miller in both the regular season and especially in the postseason may have altered how teams look to build bullpens in the future.

The hard-throwing left-hander had started the 2016 season as the closer for the New York Yankees with Aroldis Chapman suspended for the first 30 games of the season. He teamed with All-Star Dellin Betances to form a formidable 1-2 punch in the Bronx and over the course of the first month of the season, he went 1-0 with five saves and a perfect 0.00 ERA, striking out 15 and allowing just three hits and no walks over nine innings of work.

By the middle of May, he was back into a role in the eighth inning, earning holds in five straight appearances. He had six for the month to go with another win and a save while allowing just two earned runs in eleven and two-thirds innings. He limited opposing hitters to a .200 average and maintained a sub-1.00 WHIP while boasting an absurd 23-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

June was little different for Miller as he went 3-0 with a save and six more holds in relief while allowing three runs on six hits with two walks in 14 innings of work. He struck out 26 and held opposing batters to a .130 average for the month and was well on his way to being named to his first career All-Star team.

His second outing after the All-Star Game brought an end to a 28-game streak of striking out at least one batter in an appearance. He blew his second save of the season in his next outing, but he would return to the closer’s role in New York when the club dealt Chapman to the Chicago Cubs. He concluded his Yankees career with saves in back-to-back games against Houston on July 25 and 26 before he was traded to the Indians for Frazier, left-handed pitcher Justus Sheffield, and right-handed relievers Ben Heller and J.P. Feyereisen.

Cleveland appeared settled in the back end of the bullpen with Allen in the closer’s role and Shaw in the setup role, but Miller’s presence seemed to make everyone that much stronger around him. It may have stemmed from his unconventional use, as six times in his first month as an Indian, Francona used him in multiple innings of work. While wearing multiple hats for his former skipper from the pair’s time in Boston, Miller earned a win, three saves, and four holds in 12 August outings.

By comparison while in New York with manager Joe Girardi to start the year, he was used in such a capacity just three times through his first 44 appearances. He was 6-1 with nine saves and 16 holds with a 1.39 ERA and a 0.77 WHIP in those first four months of the season for the Yankees.

Francona followed the same recipe again in the final month and two days of the regular season schedule, using Miller five more times in multiple-inning appearances. He allowed rare runs in back-to-back trips from the bullpen on September 4 and 7, but he earned a hold in the latter contest. He vultured three more wins to close out his season and tacked on five more holds. He had the trust of his new “old” manager, as the Indians were 13-1 in games that he appeared in to close out the schedule. While representing Cleveland on the diamond, Miller was 4-0 with a 1.55 ERA and a 0.55 WHIP in 26 games, earning three saves in three chances while being credited with nine holds.

As Miller had evolved from a failed starting pitcher to a high quality back end reliever, his services earned him postseason opportunities. He worked seven and one-third innings of scoreless relief for the Baltimore Orioles in the ALDS and ALCS in 2014. He struck out a pair in a perfect inning in the AL Wild Card game while with the Yankees in 2015. That brief playoff experience may have proved valuable for the Indians, who would send him to the mound ten times in the postseason.

With a banged up starting rotation and a bullpen full of players with little to no previous playoff experience, Francona looked to Allen, Shaw, and Miller to help guide the team to the pennant. Miller worked two innings in Game 1 against Boston in the ALDS, striking out four while giving up a hit and a walk in earning the win. He helped the Indians clinch the series from the Red Sox at Fenway Park in Game 3, when he pitched two more innings, giving up another hit and a walk, but striking out three Sox hitters.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

He appeared in four of the five games in the ALCS against the Toronto Blue Jays, working multiple innings every time out. He struck out five of the six batters that he faced over the seventh and eighth innings of the Indians’ Game 1 2-0 win, allowing just one single. He struck out five more while facing six batters in two perfect innings in their Game 2 2-1 win. He got the save in Game 3 at Rogers Centre, giving up a single while striking out three in the 4-2 win. He helped bridge the short start of spot starter Ryan Merritt in Game 5, working parts of the sixth, seventh, and eighth innings while giving up one hit and striking out one in two and two-thirds innings of work on the way to being named the ALCS Most Valuable Player.

He remained one of Francona’s work horses in the World Series and one that the successful manager rode as long as he could. Miller gave up two hits and two walks, but struck out three, in two scoreless innings in Game 1. He earned the win in Game 3 after coming on in the fifth inning, striking out three of the four batters that he faced in an inning and a third. He was finally touched up in Game 4, when he allowed a solo homer to Dexter Fowler in the eighth inning to end his 24 1/3 inning scoreless streak in his playoff career while striking out two in two innings in the 7-2 victory over the Cubs. He pitched heavily in the middle innings again in Game 7 in relief of starter Corey Kluber, making another World Series start on short rest, and lasted two and one-third innings while giving up two runs on four hits with a walk and a strikeout as the Indians would fall in extras.

In his first career All-Star season, Miller went 10-1 with a 1.45 ERA and 0.69 WHIP in 70 trips in from the bullpen. It marked his third consecutive 100-strikeout season and the 123 he had in 2016 were a career high. His 74 1/3 innings tossed in the regular season were the most he had thrown since pitching 80 innings while working primarily as a starter with the Florida Marlins in 2009. His 13.67 strikeout-to-walk ratio was the best mark of his career and trailed only Los Angeles’ Clayton Kershaw (15.64) for the best rate in the Majors this past season.

There was some speculation after the season that the Indians may have likened Miller to a rental and would look to recoup some of the prospect cost and purge his remaining future salary by trying to move the reliever to a club in need of late inning or closer help. A team with a cost-conscious focus in the past normally would see the $9 million a season expense owed to Miller as a luxury. The Indians could have moved him to a club unwilling to spend top dollars on the biggest closers on the free agent market this winter – Chapman, who signed for a reported five years and $86 million to return to the Yankees, and Mark Melancon, who had signed with the San Francisco Giants on a four-year, $62 million deal just days before Chapman’s return to the Big Apple.

Instead, the Indians reminded the baseball viewing world that the time is here and the time is now for the organization to spend like a competitive ball club, one still suffering through the hangover that was a seven-game world championship series that came down to extra innings to secure.

So barring any unforeseen and dramatic action surrounding Miller this winter, the former first round pick of the 2006 draft will return to the back end of the Indians bullpen in year three of his four-year, $36 million contract that will keep him in town through the end of the 2018 season. Prior to that, he is tentatively scheduled to warm up for spring training and the season by working in some competitive action in the World Baseball Classic as a member of Team USA. He appears to be a primary candidate to be the closer on former big league manager Jim Leyland’s squad.

When the strikeout machine Miller returns from the tournament, he will rejoin one of the most dominant and feared relief pitching staffs in all of baseball and will be one of the biggest strengths of the Tribe team moving forward in its AL pennant defense in 2017.

Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

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