As far as bullpens are concerned, the less you hear about them the better. Or, that was overwhelming thought process a few years ago. Today’s MLB landscape proves to be a different terrain. With the influx of analytical pressure, managers have slowly relinquished a few strongholds on bullpen management. Terry Francona’s usage of Andrew Miller in the 2016 playoffs is the pristine example.
Sure, a depleted starting rotation with only three reliable arms played a significant role in Andrew Miller’s usage last October, but it still carried the weight of the analytics movement – using your best reliever in the most important situations. Miller pitched 10 times over 14 games, totaling 19.1 innings pitched. This accounted for 29.4% of the Indians bullpen’s innings in the postseason. If you throw Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw into the equation, the trio accounted for 67.5% of the bullpen’s innings. Having a healthy lead member of the bullpen will be of chief concern heading into this year’s postseason.
Since his September 14 return from a trip to the disabled list, Andrew Miller has not allowed a run over 4.2 innings pitched. The run total is not important, though. The Indians are presumably most concerned with identifying the traits that make Andrew Miller downright unhittable at times. Primarily, they want to see the radar gun hit 95 miles per hour, command of the strike zone, and plus stuff.
A 2012 campaign in Boston was the birthplace for the reliever version of Andrew Miller. That’s when his average fastball velocity spiked several miles per hour, as one could reasonably expect. In each relief season since 2012, Miller’s average fastball typically sits in the 95-96 miles per hour range. This season has been a different story.
The difference between pre-2017 and 2017 velocity averages is marginal, but that is because Miller was healthy most of the year. He hit the disabled list for the first time following an August 1 outing against the Boston Red Sox with a knee injury. Following that first disabled list stint, fastball velocity has been noticeably subpar by Miller standards. The small uptick on the far right side of the graph (below) represents a glimmer of hope.
Miller’s average fastball over appearance is creeping back towards that 95 miles per hour threshold. It is a little worrisome he is sitting around 93 each time out, but that could be simply a result of extended time off and working his way back into shape.
Command of the Strike Zone
The most noticeable issue with Miller’s last couple appearances is on the command side. In his dominant 2016 season, Miller only walked 1.09 hitters per nine innings. That figure has ballooned up to a mark over three in 2017, in part due to a surge of walks allowed since the injury issues materialized.
The odd part of walk surge is it is accompanied by a higher percentage of pitches in the strike zone. A possible explanation for this phenomenon could be something as simple as command issues. A higher number of pitches in the strike zone does not exactly lend itself to poor control, but another data point is important for contextual purposes. Predictably, Miller is allowing more contact while living in the strike zone. Hitters are fouling off more putaway pitches instead of whiffing, which leads to more pitches and more baserunners via the free pass.
The biggest Miller-is-Miller sign is, of course, the sweeping slider. There were times before Saturday’s appearance in Seattle where it was apparent that something was missing on that pitch. That it just didn’t have its normal bite. After walking two Mariners to load the bases, Miller morphed back into his normal self. The slider seemed to be darting. An elevated fastball induced a swinging punch out.
There is no simple way to objectively detect whether a pitcher has “it” or not. One qualifier might be how many swings and misses the pitcher is inducing, or whiff rate. Whiff rate is Miller’s specialty, at a rate of 16-18%. Throughout the injury struggles, he routinely turned in appearances without missing bats. Over the last 56 pitches, though, he has induced 12 whiffs, or 21.4%, which is outstanding. Like with velocity, his last two outings have shown the swinging strike rate is attempting to creep back towards prime Miller.
The subjective aspect did not leave much to be desired on Saturday, either. Despite a pair of walks, he mowed several hitters down and even looked to have regained that Andrew Miller swagger when walking off of the mound.
When watching Miller’s appearances over the final week of the season, keep these things in mind: the fastball should hover around 95 miles per hour. Walks should be kept to a minimum, but missing the zone is permittable as long as he is inducing whiffs at a plus rate.
Despite the injuries, Andrew Miller looks to be trending in the correct direction just in time for another historic October.