Andrew Miller Is Back, Never Really Left

Last year, perhaps without even knowing it, Andrew Miller became the father of a bullpen revolution. It was a year ago when Miller, entering multiple games in the fifth and sixth innings, helped propel a Cleveland team down its No. 2 and No. 3 starting pitchers to the brink of a World Series title.

The Indians were lauded for their creative use of Miller, freeing him from the shackles of the save to impact games in high-leverage situations and for multiple innings. He avoided the fate of Zach Britton, another dominant left-hander, who looked on longingly from the Rogers Centre bullpen as his Orioles fell to the Blue Jays in an extra-inning Wild Card game.

But here’s something of interest concerning both Miller and his first-place club: during Cleveland’s recent 22-game winning streak, the southpaw recorded only a single appearance. Indeed, Miller missed most of the historic streak while on the disabled list with a knee injury. The best team in baseball per run differential this regular season was without its best reliever — and arguably the best reliever in the game — for an extended period.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say that Miller has struggled this season. He, of course, has not. He’s remained one of the game’s elite relievers when healthy. But there was reason for concern when, on Aug. 21, during his second appearance back from the DL and predating The Streak, he removed himself from a game before the training staff could even arrive to the mound to give an initial diagnosis.

His velocity had been down in his previous outing and it was again well below his standard — and even the league average — at 90 mph. From 2012 to -16, Miller’s average yearly fastball ranged from 94.9 mph to 95.9 mph. It’s resting at 94.6 this season.

The team with seemingly everything — with perhaps the best pitching staff in MLB history and the excellent middle-infield tandem of Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez — suddenly had a question mark regarding its ace reliever. That was problematic, since bullpens take on outsized importance in the postseason and since Miller has been the club’s best relief option.

Well, Miller looked like his old self, his revolutionary self, on Tuesday.

His fastball averaged 95.64 mph, according to Brooks Baseball, his best mark since July 22nd, more in line with his 2016 velocity and far removed from the troubling average fastball velocity of 90.07 mph on Aug. 21.`

And while his fastball velocity is an important indicator of heatlh, most important is that his slider was back. It’s his signature offering, one which has become his primary pitch since 2015, supplanting the fastball for that distinction.

Miller struck out three of the four batters he faced Tuesday. Then returned to the mound on Wednesday, recording his first back-to-back appearances since coming off the DL. He struck out two batters in a scoreless inning and his fastball averaged 93.96 mph, according to Brooks Baseball. He’s struck out 11 of the last 20 batters he’s faced over four outings.

While it’s a small sample perhaps, it’s not insignificant: Miller’s strikeout percentage has fallen from 44.7% last year to 38.3% this year, his K-BB% declining from otherworldly 41.5 points last season to merely an outstanding mark of 29.6 this season.

By some measures, Miller has performed similar this year compared to last year. He’s produced a 33 ERA- this year compared to his 34 ERA- mark last season. He has a 47 FIP-: not very different than last season’s 38 figure. It’s not that he’s performed poorly. It’s that his health had created a question mark, and now he has apparently put that question to rest.

Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway told The Athletic he was encouraged by what he saw Tuesday night.

Said Callaway:

“The stuff was good. The break on the slider. Obviously the velo was there. He felt really good. You could just see it, the conviction behind the pitches, the way he was using his body. It was really good, very encouraging.”

We haven’t seen much of Miller since the All-Star Game. He’s pitched just 17 second-half innings. He recorded just a single appearance during Cleveland’s historic winning streak. But the face of the bullpen revolution might be getting back in form at the highest-leverage of times. Baseball’s richest team in terms of talent might be getting a little richer entering the postseason. Miller might be ready, again, to be one of baseball’s greatest October weapons.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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