In Terry Francona's script for the latest season of MLB's hit drama Postseason Baseball, the most important role in the American League Championship Series may be a middle reliever.
This one just so happens to be played by one of the nastiest pitchers in the league.
It's a departure from the usual script, but it's a reality the Toronto Blue Jays must be prepared for with Game 1 of the ALCS set for Friday. Francona used Andrew Miller twice in the Cleveland Indians' AL Division Series sweep of the Boston Red Sox, and the lefty took no prisoners:
|Andrew Miller in the ALDS|
Short version: 16 batters faced, four baserunners, seven outs the easy way and, most importantly, no runs.
These outs loomed large in real time, when there was no ignoring how the postseason bullpen mantra of "Just have a lead after six" changed into "Just have a lead after four or five." These outs also loom large on paper. Baseball-Reference.com calculates Miller swayed Cleveland's win probability by 26.3 percent. Through Monday's action, only three pitchers had done better in the divisional round.
So much for the decree that elite relievers must handle only high-leverage innings, much less the last three outs. This was Francona and Miller acknowledging that all postseason innings are high-leverage innings. But also, this was acknowledging that the big picture is really quite simple.
"The point isn't to use your best relievers in the biggest moments," wrote Neil Weinberg at FanGraphs. "The point is to maximize your odds of winning the game."
Indeed. And for Francona and Miller, the revolution began well before the postseason arrived.
With a 1.77 ERA and 14.9 strikeouts per nine innings in the first year-and-a-half of his four-year, $36 million contract with the New York Yankees, Miller was an obvious trade target for an Indians bullpen that needed another shutdown arm to pair with closer Cody Allen. But to justify the price of acquiring Miller—the remainder of his contract and a package of prospects headlined by Clint Frazier—the Indians would need to get a lot out of him down the stretch.
That was precisely what Francona had in mind, telling The Ringer's Ben Lindbergh that he saw "a guy that is willing to pitch any inning." He put that theory to the test when he called on Miller in the sixth inning in just his second appearance with the club on August 4.
That equaled the number of times Miller had come into a game before the eighth in his entire tenure with the Yankees. It ended up being one of nine times he did so in his 26 appearances with Cleveland. He dominated the whole way, racking up a 1.55 ERA with 46 strikeouts and two walks in 29 innings.
Miller obviously still has the stuff that's made him one of baseball's elite strikeout relievers since 2012. He throws a mid-90s fastball with good life and a slider that can make hitters dance as if an old-timey Western villain is shooting at their feet.
Observe an example here, courtesy of The Pitcher List:
When necessary, Miller also has the goods to last more than one inning: a background as a starting pitcher and efficiency that, even despite his now-extreme slider usage, has never been better.
He walked a career-low 1.1 batters per nine innings this season with control that, given his history as a left-handed clone of Nuke LaLoosh, even his biggest believers from back in the day didn't see coming. Here's Aaron Fitt of D1Baseball.com:
And whereas other late-inning relievers might scoff at being used so far away from the almighty "save," Miller has an aw-shucks attitude about it.
"I don't know why I get credit for that, I think most guys would do the same thing," Miller said on the eve of the ALDS, via Erik Boland of Newsday. "I think at the end of the day if everybody's on the page that winning's the most important thing, something like that doesn't matter."
One question for the future is whether Cleveland's usage of Miller will be the start of a league-wide trend, or if it's a unique situation. It seems everyone wants to believe the former, but it may be the latter.
After all, relievers with great stuff and great control and a previously stretched-out arm and a willingness to do heavy lifting before the late innings aren't plentiful. If teams want them, they're going to have to cultivate them. That runs the risk of overextending a relief pitcher or diminishing the role of an otherwise promising starting pitcher.
The question for today, however, is for the Blue Jays: How are they going to avoid letting Miller do to them what he did to the Red Sox?
The most obvious solution is to not repeat the Red Sox's mistake of letting games fall into Miller's hands. He had leads to protect both times he pitched in the ALDS because Boston hitters couldn't get to Cleveland starters, scoring only five runs off Trevor Bauer, Corey Kluber and Josh Tomlin.
The Red Sox had the best offense in the league this year, but it got passive. Per Baseball Savant, Boston hitters swung at only 40.9 percent of the pitches they saw, the lowest mark of all playoff teams as of Tuesday morning. Even against Tomlin, a notorious strike-thrower, too many bats stayed on too many shoulders.
The Blue Jays must change the way they operate to avoid falling into that same trap. They had the most patient offense in MLB, seeing a league-high 4.03 pitches per plate appearance. That had the purpose of feeding the team's .330 on-base percentage and .426 slugging percentage, but it could backfire if it doesn't lead to runs before Miller Time.
Failing that, whatever aggression Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista and the rest of Toronto's hitters don't take out on Cleveland's starters should be saved for Miller himself. In the regular season, anything after the first pitch was thin-ice territory:
- First pitch: 1.214 OPS
- Even count: .724 OPS
- Batter ahead: .556 OPS
- Pitcher ahead: .282 OPS
In this context, "be aggressive" isn't meant to encourage Blue Jays hitters to string hits together off Miller. For all his dominance, he gave up eight home runs this season. That's an open invitation for the Blue Jays to be true to their nature.
"We rely upon that home run ball," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said after his team slugged eight dingers in their ALDS sweep of the Texas Rangers, via Brittany Ghiroli of MLB.com. "You know what? Whether you like it or not, that's the kind of players we have."
The Blue Jays will be in trouble if they can't get to Indians starters or to Miller himself. Give or take, that would leave them with three innings to do damage against the rest of Cleveland's pitchers. That's a small window that will be populated by good arms. Although not on Miller's level, Allen, Dan Otero and Bryan Shaw are quality pitchers.
And the Blue Jays may need more than just one or two runs if they can't break through before the late innings. The Indians have a deep lineup that features a near-constant platoon advantage. Following a season in which it finished second in the AL in runs, the Cleveland offense hit a solid .271 and scored 15 runs in the ALDS.
So while Miller won't be the best player on the field in the ALCS, he will indeed be the most important. He'll be the ace everyone knows Francona has up his sleeve, forcing Gibbons and the Blue Jays to play their cards accordingly. If they do that well, Miller's ALDS dominance will be an anomaly.
If not, things will keep going according to Francona's script.