If you didn’t already know that Andrew Miller has a great slider, you do now. The lanky left-hander has been dominating the postseason. He’s also been garnering plenty of media attention, including here at FanGraphs. Tony Blengino wrote about him last week. Dave Cameron wrote about him yesterday. So did Eno Sarris.
On the premise that you can’t get enough of a good thing, here’s one more on Miller, this time in his own words. The subject — surprise, surprise — is his signature pitch. Where did he learn it? How did it evolve? Why didn’t he throw more sliders when he was struggling earlier in his career? I asked Miller those questions, and more, late in the regular season.
Miller on learning to throw a slider: “I wish I knew when I first threw one. I know that’s a big thing with kids: when do you start throwing a breaking ball? I guess I was probably around 13 or so.
“It’s never really been a curveball. It’s always been a slider, because that’s kind of where my arm slot is. The best way I’ve described my breaking ball — and it still holds true — is that I basically throw a curveball from a lower arm slot.
“I think of getting on top, which is a lot of what you hear when somebody is teaching a curveball. That’s part of the technique, and it’s what I do, only with a lower slot and hand position.
“I didn’t have a whole lot of pitching coaches, growing up. I had coaches who played baseball, but I didn’t get specific lessons from the local guru, or anything like that. I went to summer camps at the University of Florida, but I don’t remember anybody in particular showing me, ‘This is how you do it.’
“When you’re 12-13 years old and warming up for a baseball game — you’re out there on the field with your friends — you’re just trying to figure out how to make the ball break as much as possible. You realize it’s something you can do, and you kind of trial and error it.”
On his slider when he was a prep phenom: “For high school, it was pretty good. That might actually be a better question for a scout, but I was a pretty big prospect. I also thought I was something else. I had quite a bit of confidence. But compared to my peers… I’ve always spun the ball pretty well. I stood out back then. My height and ability to create leverage were probably big factors in that.
“I didn’t think, ‘Throw it as hard as I can.’ That’s something I’ve never really thought about with a breaking ball — at least not until the last couple of years, in the big leagues, when I started to see these guys throw harder and harder breaking balls. I mostly just tried to create a particular shape. In a sense, I always thought the more break the better. Obviously, you don’t want one that’s loopy, but I wanted one that had a lot of horizontal movement, in an attempt to miss the barrel, to attempt to miss the bat.”
On his slider since he’s been in pro ball: “My slider has been pretty much left alone. When I was a starter, I was constantly working on my changeup and my fastball command. Those and mechanical issues. But the slider has always come naturally to me. My arm works that way. It’s a pitch I kind of think of from an athleticism standpoint. I visualize the break I want it to make, and I throw it.
“It’s always been the easiest of my pitches. It’s been easier to throw for a strike. It’s been easier to command consistently. For a couple of years, when I was struggling pretty bad, it wasn’t as good, but it was still a crutch for me. I would be more likely to have that pitch on a given day — I could throw it for a strike — as opposed to fastball command. A changeup is something I never really figured out.”
On why he didn’t throw more sliders in the years he was struggling: “There were two things. First, I did lose a little bit — I don’t think it broke as sharply — but I had so many mechanical bad habits I’d created, that everything kind of declined. That was kind of tough.
“The reason I didn’t throw more — and this has been correlated to my success the last couple of years — is that it’s been so engrained in us to get ahead with your fastball. And when you’re behind in the count, you get back into it with your fastball.
“I always had this fear that, when I went back to the dugout after walking a third batter in an inning, having thrown a slider behind in the count, I would have to explain myself. Getting over that — getting beyond that — was big for me. I’ve realized you don’t have to be a fastball-dominant pitcher.
“If I’m trying to get back in the count, or if I’m throwing to a hitter’s weakness — if I have a plan — there’s nothing wrong with even a 3-0 slider. If there’s a purpose behind it — if it’s the right pitch in my head — I think I should throw it.”
On varying the shape of his sliders: “I think we try to simplify things down to being effective for just one reason. But there’s spin rate. There’s going to be a deception factor. There’s the ability to command. There’s the ability to make it different. If you throw the same breaking pitch every time, maybe you can move it in or out, or up and down, a little bit. But I don’t think that’s as effective as having one you can change the tilt on, or change the velocity on. Having some source of variation makes it a more effective pitch.
“I basically have one grip, but it’s not always the same slider. I throw one that’s flatter, with more horizontal break, to execute a back-door breaking ball. Back door, I want it to start as far off the plate as I can, so the hitter gives up on it.”
“If I think I have a back-foot slider set up, to a righty, I’ll throw one harder and try to make it look a little more like a fastball out of the hand. If I’m throwing one hard, down and in, I don’t want more break. That gives the hitter more time to recognize it. What I want is that shorter, tighter break.”
On his slider grip: “I’ve changed grips over the course of my career, but for the last four years it’s been the same. I’ll change my release point, or maybe my grip just a little, but it’s pretty minor stuff. I don’t think I would ever call it two pitches. It’s just a slider. It’s not a cutter.
“Back when I was a starter, I threw a sinker-cutter combination. Detroit wasn’t a big fan of cutters with young pitchers. They thought it hampered four-seam velocity — and there’s probably some truth to that — so it’s a pitch I scrapped long ago.”
On if his slider is better now than it’s ever been: “I think the command is… I feel that sometimes it’s better than other times. Not too long ago I went through a stretch where it wasn’t as good for a week or so. It wasn’t as sharp and I wasn’t locating it. I gave up a home run to Yulieski Gurriel, the new Cuban guy who’s with Houston. He fouled off a couple of good ones, and then I hung one. Ichiro… I kind of hung one, kind of close to him. It wasn’t terrible, but the location was poor.
“It’s not a pitch I can just mindlessly throw up there at all times. Every pitch has its ups and downs. I don’t know that you can totally master any pitch. But my fastball command has improved. My ability to throw that pitch, and any pitch in any count, has probably made my slider appear better. Overall, I don’t know that it has changed a whole lot over the years. I have been throwing it pretty well lately.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.