Can the Indians bullpen survive without Andrew Miller?

The Cleveland Indians announced on Wednesday that they would be putting Andrew Miller on the 10-day DL for knee soreness. President of baseball operations Chris Antonetti told MLB Network Radio Miller had been battling the knee issue over the past month. He also noted that when he is available, he has a needed workload that does not allow him to give it the rest it would need in order to get past the issue.

The numbers he has been putting up in 2017 have alignment for the timetable that Antonetti laid out. As WFNY’s Josh Poloha noted, Miller has not been the same pitcher since late June. In that context, putting Miller on the shelf for a couple weeks before priming for an October run makes great sense.

In his first 27 appearances of the season, the left-handed reliever didn’t look human, boasting just a 0.29 ERA and striking out 47 hitters while surrendering just 14 hits in 31.1 innings. Then, beginning on June 13, he has a 3.57 ERA with 31 strikeouts and allowing 12 hits in 22.2 innings and 19 appearances since then. The most telling stat though, is the fact Miller’s 10 walks in that span are more than he allowed all last season (allowed just nine in 2016).

The question lies in how can the Tribe’s bullpen survive without the pitcher who has been the most valuable component of it since he was acquired at the 2016 MLB trade deadline. The worry deepens when one remembers the only other mainstay left-handed relief pitcher the Indians have, Boone Logan, will likely miss the remainder of the season. The answer, of course, is that no one on the Indians current roster is going to replace Miller at his best, so a team effort will be needed to get through these weeks.

Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw won’t likely be asked to pitch more innings as their workload has already been heavy, but they will be needed to pitch at their best. Despite what you might believe in the aftermath of blowing a save to the Boston Red Sox, Allen should be fine. After having some elevated numbers in May and June in ERA (4.22, 3.48) and FIP (5.58, 5.47), Allen recovered to have a fine July (2.31 ERA, 2.38 FIP). His strikeout rate (26.1%) and walk rate (8.7%) are also well within his norm.

Shaw, on the other hand, has been a mess lately. There were whispers amongst fans that it was Shaw that might need a 10-day DL trip as his strikeout rate diminished to miniscule amounts in July (6.7%) leading to an elevated FIP (5.58) and ERA (5.06) after he had been rock solid through the first three months of the season. Shaw has had other blips during previous seasons where he has recovered, but his strikeout rate has not dipped below 20% for a month since August of 2015 and has not been below 10% since September of 2012.

If Shaw’s strikeout issues persist, then there will be a question of who picks up his innings as well as Millers. The good thing for the Indians is that they have several options who have been better than what most fans might think.

Joe Smith is the rental reliever that the Indians brought in at the deadline to help alleviate some worries about bullpen over-use. He was phenomenal for the Toronto Blue Jays before his own DL stint and looked fantastic in his first appearance for the Indians. WFNY’s Mike Hattery broke down the profile and questions in an excellent piece.

Joe Smith is 33 years old with significant mileage on his funky below the waist release point. However, strangely, Smith is posting a strikeout rate of 35.4%, whereas, his career strikeout rate is 21%. Smith’s strikeout rate is so good that he is No. 14 in all of Major League Baseball among relievers (though second to Andrew Miller on the Indians). Smith has added 14% to his strikeout rate year-over-year, which is nearly unheard of for a young pitcher- let alone one in his early thirties.

Nick Goody and Zach McAllister would be up next to fight for high-leverage innings. Both pitchers possess ERA and FIP that are better than what Allen and Shaw have recorded this season.

Goody (2.29 ERA, 3.22 FIP) has seen his strikeout rate jump in 2017 (31.3%) while his walk rate has maintained his career average (10%). The result has been a reliable backend arm who has 82% of the baserunners he has allowed. One issue to monitor though is that he is a flyball pitcher (45% FB%, 30% GB%), so he is not the type of reliever who will get out of jams with double plays and home runs can be an issue (0.92 HR/9).

McAllister (2.11 ERA, 3.36 FIP) is having his best season for the Tribe.1 McAllister has been even better at stranding runners though his 91.3% might be unsustainable. His strikeout rate is not quite as high (28.7%), but it falls within his career norms. He allows a more even distribution of batted balls types compared to Goody (39.8% FB%, 37.2 GB%) and a similar home run rate (0.96).

The deciding factor between these two pitchers for initial opportunities might wind up being recent success. McAllister was near unhittable in July. He had a 0.71 ERA and 2.83 FIP as his numbers across the board improved. Goody went the other direction as his ERA jumped to 6.23. His FIP maintained at 2.34 though as his strikeout rate went through the roof (38.1%), so don’t count him out.

After the above pitchers, the rest of the arms in the bullpen do not have nearly as much upside. Dan Otero (3.46 ERA, 4.47 FIP) is a fine backend bullpen guy who will give OK innings when needed. Tyler Olson has done great in his extremely limited 3.2 innings (0.00 ERA, 1.78 FIP, 30.8% K%) and is the lone left-handed pitcher available though it would be dangerous to assume he can continue that level of dominance. Adam Plutko was recalled from Columbus to replace Miller in the bullpen and he also has 3.2 innings pitched of MLB experience. They went not as well as he finished with a 7.36 ERA and 6.69 FIP. It would be foolish to assume he will continue to be as bad.

The depth of the roster has already been tested this season, it will only be moreso moving forward. The Tribe has a tough month ahead as Jason Kipnis (home run for the Akron Rubberducks on Wednesday) and Lonnie Chisenhall (no update or rehab schedule is worrisome) remain out of the lineup. Josh Tomlin is out until mid-September and Andrew Miller won’t be back until mid-to-late August. If the Indians are going to hold off the Kansas City Royals and win the AL Central division, then they will need their bullpen to continue to be a strength. Yes, even without Andrew Miller.

  1. Oddly enough, both McAllister and Goody come from the farm system of the New York Yankees. Feel free to use that on your next Tribe Trivia night. []