You Don’t Just Have to Beat Andrew Miller’s Slider

The media has presented a skewed perspective. The matchup we are going to see is the Chicago Cubs against the Cleveland Indians. The matchup we aren’t going to see is the Chicago Cubs against Andrew Miller. I mean, we’ll see that, but we won’t *only* see that, regardless of how the Indians are being discussed. And, look, I know we’re contributing to all this. We’ve been writing three Miller pieces a day. If we don’t stay above that threshold the whole website blows up.

The Cubs are going to have 25 players, and pretty much all of them are going to play. The Indians are going to have 25 of their own players, and pretty much all of them are going to play. It’s going to be fun! This is another Andrew Miller post.

I can’t help myself. He’s the most fascinating guy. He’s also the most dominant guy, which is why he’s driving the narrative in the first place. The Indians’ hopes are believed to rest on Miller because Miller has seemed invulnerable, especially through the last two series. It’s a lot of fun to try to wrap your head around how amazing Miller has become. He’s officially entered the realm of being one of the Fun Fact machines, and membership’s reserved for the truly elite. I want to add on to the collective understanding, though. There’s one thing about Miller that somehow seems underappreciated. It’s the easiest thing about him to overlook.

Remember when Sergio Romo was completely unhittable? Romo was known for his slider, which he threw about as often as Miller throws his slider. For so many observers, the slider *is* Andrew Miller, in the way that the cutter is Kenley Jansen, or the fastball is Aroldis Chapman. Miller is known for his most incredible pitch, and it’s a pitch that gives hitters little chance of survival. A few years ago, Miller threw 39% sliders. This year he got up to 61%. That slider is one of the very best individual pitches in the game.

So that’s what hitters have to be worried about. When you face Andrew Miller, you know damn sure what to look for. By run value this year, Miller owned a top-20 slider, even though he threw a fraction of the innings of many of the names in front of him. Here’s the more surprising thing. We also have run values per 100 pitches, just for the sake of having consistent denominators. The most valuable fastball in the game by that measure belonged to Jansen (for some reason it’s not classified as a cutter). The runner-up fastball by that measure belonged to Zach Britton. And in third place, there’s Miller, whose fastball was 2.2 runs better than average per 100. His slider, if you’re wondering, checked in at +1.8.

What this doesn’t mean is that Miller’s fastball is actually better than his slider. That can’t be considered true, because he throws his slider 54% more often. The slider is what carries him, and if it weren’t for that pitch, he’d be an awful lot worse. But because of the way Miller uses his slider, his fastball is like a secondary pitch. Miller throws fastballs roughly as often as Kyle Hendricks throws non-fastballs. Given how dominant the slider is, batters have to look for it in every situation, and that opens up space for the fastball to be effective.

It didn’t work quite so well a year ago. Back then, Miller’s fastball was basically average. Improvement, I think, comes down to two things. One, Miller’s usage has been across-the-board consistent. When ahead in the count, even, or behind, 2016 Miller’s slider usage has been roughly 60%/60%/60%. A year ago, 2015 Miller’s slider usage was roughly 60%/50%/40%. It’s like the count circumstances haven’t made a difference to Miller’s mental calculations. The fastball can just never be sat on.

And then, Miller has tweaked his locations. In other words, he’s just taken a step forward with his command. From Baseball Savant, here are Miller’s sliders, from the last two seasons:

miller-sliders

You’re seeing a similar plan. The approaches are almost identical, with the 2016 sliders being just a little more off the edge, glove-side. Here are the fastballs:

miller-fastballs

Miller’s fastballs this year have been lower. They’ve been lower, on average, by a few inches, and if I had to speculate on how this has worked, I think it’s simply made the two pitches tougher to pick apart. This year, hitters have been looking down more often, and when you’re preparing for something low in the zone, that can make it tougher to distinguish between a pitch that’s staying in the zone and a pitch that’s diving out of it. Miller’s sliders have looked like fastballs, and his fastballs have looked like sliders, and while sliders have looked like sliders and fastballs have looked like fastballs, the whole point is that every pitch could be one of two pitches. Miller’s had them working together better, and that’s presumably how he eliminated more than half of his walks.

We’re all accustomed to .gifs. I wouldn’t say there’s anything real remarkable about watching Miller’s fastball in action, but, for the hell of it, here’s Miller killing one of the Blue Jays’ very last chances of mounting a rally.

Josh Donaldson hit that ball so poorly I don’t think he was looking for a heater. He ended up caught in between, which is where Miller has kept most of his opponents. Now, for the sake of being complete, Miller definitely can be defeated:

…not that he was defeated there, but, close enough. Miller does make mistakes, and he just this year allowed eight homers. A few seasons back, he allowed just three. Everyone is vulnerable to some extent. Miller’s not immune. Chapman and Jansen gave up some big playoff hits. This game’ll get you.

But while the Cubs will be trying to get Andrew Miller, at the same time they’ll also be trying to get away from him. Because he is the best the Indians have, and he’s dangerously versatile. When a hitter stands in against Andrew Miller, the hitter knows full well that the guy on the mound has perhaps the best slider in the sport. He’ll throw it in every single situation, and that’s the mark of a dominant pitch. Yet entirely because of that, Miller also knows he can win an at-bat with his heater. He’s not a one-pitch pitcher. He’s just a pitcher who wants to make you believe that he is.





Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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ice_hawk10
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ice_hawk10

the fastball works because he often pitches backwards. quite often when he falls behind 2-0 it’s the slider he slings in there for a get me over strike, rather than the fastball. also fairly often he’ll get into an obvious slider count and instead beat the hitter with a fastball, even a bad one, cause the hitter guesses wrong or takes. i’m not sure the fastball is objectively a good pitch by reliever standards, he just utilizes it very well and plays it off an otherworldly secondary (primary?) pitch