Andrew Miller Is the Perfect Relief Pitcher

As the Blue Jays take the field in Toronto tonight, they’ll find themselves down two games to none in the ALCS, with Game 3 representing as close to a must-win game as you can get without actually facing elimination. Teams have come back from down 3-0 before, of course, so the Blue Jays aren’t definitively done if they can’t figure out how to win on Monday night, but having to win four straight games against any good team is a massive challenge. And the idea of winning four straight against Andrew Miller’s team seems downright impossible, because right now, Andrew Miller is basically the walking embodiment of the perfect relief pitcher.

Miller’s numbers in the ALCS are just silliness. In the first two games in Cleveland, the Indians asked Miller to face 12 Blue Jays hitters, and two of them put the ball in play. Ezequiel Carrera had the second best outcome against Miller when he grounded out to second base on Saturday. Josh Donaldson is the only Toronto hitter to reach base, which he did on a single up the middle on Friday night. And even that seems like kind of a miracle.

In the first two games, Miller has thrown 55 pitches, 31 of which have been sliders. The Jays have swung at 16 of his sliders; they have swung and missed on 12 times. Three of the four swings at Miller’s slider that haven’t been whiffs? Those were fouls. On 16 occasions now, the Blue Jays have chased Miller’s slider, and only once (Donaldson’s single) did it lead to anything besides a strike on the hitter. Of the 15 at which they didn’t swing, only five were called balls, so taking the pitch wasn’t exactly a winning strategy either. The Blue Jays haven’t been able to even come close to hitting Andrew Miller’s slider, and like a wise man, he just keeps throwing it.

Two dominant games do not an elite player make, but Miller has quietly been the best reliever in baseball for a while now. While Aroldis Chapman throws the hardest, Zach Britton will get the most Cy Young votes, and Kenley Jansen has been consistently incredible for the Dodgers, no reliever in baseball has been as dominant as Miller over the last three years.

Going back to the start of the 2014 season, here are what batters have done against Miller in the regular season.

Andrew Miller, 2014-2016, Regular Season
Innings BA OBP SLG wOBA
198.1 0.153 0.219 0.256 0.212

Those are hilarious numbers, but they actually pale in comparison to what Miller has done to opposing hitters in the postseason. He’s pitched in the playoffs each of the last three years — granted, only one inning in the Wild Card game in 2015 — and his postseason numbers make his regular-season numbers look like a slump.

Andrew Miller, 2014-2016, Postseason
Innings BA OBP SLG wOBA
16 0.080 0.145 0.120 0.131

The 55 batters who have faced Miller in the postseason have a combined wOBA 16 points lower than what pitchers have put up, while batting, during the same timeframe. And keep in mind that Miller is being used against the best hitters on the opposing teams, and those are the guys he’s turning into the equivalent of a bad-hitting pitcher at the plate. That is nothing short of remarkable.

When you fold Miller’s postseason numbers into his 2014-2016 performance line, you find that hitters have put up just a .207 wOBA against him over the last three years, over 818 batters faced. That’s the kind of wOBA you see from guys like Erik Kratz, the veteran backup catcher who bounced around the league and got 230 PAs over the 2014-2016 seasons. That’s the average performance of the guys who have faced Miller over the last three years, now spanning a total approaching 1,000 plate appearances. While being selectively used to only face the other team’s best hitters.

A couple of years ago, Wade Davis was at this level. He held batters to a .196 wOBA in 2014 and a .202 wOBA in 2015, though he did it more with weak contact than Miller’s no-contact approach. But remember back to 2014, when Davis was free to pitch the middle innings while Greg Holland racked up the saves in the ninth inning, and that seemed like the absolutely perfect October bullpen? In 12 games pitched during that playoff run, Davis faced six batters twice and seven batters once, in the seventh game of the World Series. He never faced eight batters in a game during that run.

During the first four game the Indians have played in the postseason, Miller has already faced eight batters twice, and then faced six more in his other two outings. Miller is matching peak-Davis’ dominance while extending the workload to levels that other pitchers who have gotten to this level just haven’t matched.

The most recent example of this kind of dominant relief weapon in the postseason? Mariano Rivera, of course. In 2003, he faced 55 batters in eight games, and they hit .127/.127/.182 against him. In that run, he faced eight batters in the fifth game of the ALCS, then 11 batters in the seventh and deciding contest, then faced seven batters in both of his World Series appearances. That Miller is even invoking Rivera tells you how dominant a force he’s been for the Indians thus far. That Terry Francona feels free to use him in any spot, to squelch any rally, makes him the kind of bullpen weapon not seen in a very long time.

Andrew Miller, right now, is something not that different from a left-handed Mariano Rivera. And given the way the Indians are using him, he’s about as valuable as any relief pitcher can be. We haven’t seen him make it through a full playoff workload yet, and perhaps the heavy pitch counts will catch up to him at some point, but right now, Miller looks like an unhittable machine bent on destruction of the Blue Jays lineup. If Toronto is going to battle back and take this series, they’re going to have to figure out how to hit the most unhittable pitcher in baseball right now.

Good luck.





Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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soddingjunkmail
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soddingjunkmail

Dave,
How good would Miller have to be, or how many innings would he have to pitch for him to eclipse Kluber in value delivered?
Is there an argument to be made for Miller as series MVP?

HappyFunBall
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HappyFunBall

Depends how you want to measure “value”. He’s got a terrific chance of beating Kulber in WPA simply by virtue of the leverage of the innings he appears in. That’s not terribly uncommon for relievers generally. He won’t throw nearly as many total innings, however, so something like pitcher WAR will always favor the starter.

Kluber will likely affect two games. Miller could be a factor in four or five. If he’s seen as the deciding factor in those four or five appearances, Miller certainly could win a narrative-driven award like the MVP.

jonnyzuck
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jonnyzuck

Using FIP and IP so far: we have Kluber with 13.1 IP and a 2.55 FIP and Miller with 7.2 IP and a -0.51 FIP, so Kluber has an extra 5.2 IP over Miller but a FIP 3.06 higher. If you use RA/9 then Kluber just has an extra 5.2 scoreless IP over Miller, and if you use xFIP then the difference is 3.52 in Miller’s favor. Obviously they both have very small sample sizes but if you think FIP or xFIP is a better measure of value than RA/9 I would argue that Miller has been more valuable in his 7.2 IP than Kluber in his 13.1 IP even without factoring leverage into the equation. For the record though, Kluber has a .57 WPA and Miller has a .56 WPA so far.

larphraulen
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larphraulen

Did not know it was possible to have negative FIP. Damn.