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Andrew Miller Is Tempting Fate by Representing Team USA at 2017 WBC

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJanuary 31, 2017

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 02:  Andrew Miller #24 of the Cleveland Indians reacts during the fifth inning against the Chicago Cubs in Game Seven of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on November 2, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images

After pushing himself to the limit for the Cleveland Indians, Andrew Miller is ready to pick up where he left off in service of his country.

Spoiler Alert: This isn't the best idea.

Don't worry. Miller's not taking up arms or anything. He's only lending his arm to Team USA for the fourth (and final?) World Baseball Classic. Paul Hoynes of Cleveland.com had the news in December:

paul hoynes @hoynsie

Indians' Andrew Miller committed to pitching for US in World Baseball Classic.

The tournament kicks off March 6. By then, only four months will have passed since Miller was last on the mound for the Indians. It'll also be after just a couple of weeks or so of spring training.

In short, it's an ambitious next step for the left-hander. Which feels oddly appropriate following his star turn last season.

The 31-year-old put up a 1.45 ERA and a 13.7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 70 regular-season appearances. He then kept it up in his 10 appearances in Cleveland's World Series run, posting a 1.40 ERA and striking out a record 30 batters.

If Miller wasn't the best reliever in the league last year, he was certainly one of the best. And never better by his standards. This part is worth a tip of the ol' cap.

And now for the part worth a clutch of the ol' pearls: Miller also worked harder than ever in 2016.

It doesn't matter whether you look at his innings or his pitches. The guy pitched 93.2 total innings, 24 more than his previous career high as a reliever in 2014. He also threw 1,423 pitches, 325 more than in 2014.

For the most part, you wouldn't have been able to tell Miller was tackling such a heavy workload. His velocity stayed steady. So did his dominance. He cut through the opposition like a Jedi through a droid army.

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 28:  Andrew Miller #24 of the Cleveland Indians pitches in the fifth inning against the Chicago Cubs in Game Three of the 2016 World Series at Wrigley Field on October 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Imag
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

That is, of course, right until the end.

After going scoreless through his first eight postseason appearances, Miller relented in his last two in the World Series. The Chicago Cubs got to him for five hits and three runs in 4.1 innings. He struck out only three batters.

The bulk of the damage came in Game 7. Miller just didn't have it, allowing four hits, a walk and two runs in 2.1 innings. Although not the reason, it was a reason the Tribe lost an 8-7 heartbreaker in extra innings.

According to the man himself, his performance wasn't because he was worn out.

"I felt pretty good," Miller said, via Mike Axisa of CBSSports.com. "I felt like my command was there. My fastball velocity was there. I didn't really spin it as well as I wanted to today, but that's something you have to work around. That happens in May. I don't think there's any excuses about this time of year. It's pretty easy to get up for these games."

If Miller's arm could talk, it might have told a different story.

Consider his release point. It had already been trending down and hit its nadir Nov. 2 during Game 7:

Credit: BrooksBaseball.net

As Neil Paine covered at FiveThirtyEight, there are mixed signals about what kind of data shows warning signs for fatigue or injury. Newer studies, however, have tended to focus on release-point variation. The general hypothesis is that tired pitchers "find it harder to maintain consistency in their release points."

Even by Miller's own standards, the drop he experienced in 2016 was extreme. That doesn't mean he was pitching hurt by the end, but it could indicate he was more worn out than he was willing to let on. 

If fatigue doesn't come back to haunt Miller, his pitch selection might. 

In 2012, his first year in relief, he started throwing a ton of sliders, using them 39.4 percent of the time. He's continued to push the envelope since, peaking at 60.8 percent sliders last year.

This is the pitch-selection equivalent of playing with fire inside a fireworks factory.

When Jeff Zimmerman dug into the data for FanGraphs in 2012, he found that pitchers who threw over 30 percent sliders have a higher likelihood of landing on the disabled list the following year. Thus, it may not be coincidental that Miller landed on the DL with a forearm strain in 2015. Likewise, it may not be a fluke if he finds himself there again in 2017.

CLEVELAND, OH - AUGUST 13: Andrew Miller #24 of the Cleveland Indians pitches against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim during the eighth inning at Progressive Field on August 13, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by David Maxwell/Getty Images)
David Maxwell/Getty Images

All told, Miller tempted fate both with how much he threw and what he threw last year. Just to be safe, it would have been best for him and the championship-hopeful Indians if he had followed his short offseason with a risk-free spring.

Granted, "risk-free" is a relative term. It's not as if players never get hurt in spring training. Despite the low stakes involved, it's still baseball. Wherever it is being played, the injury bug is never far.

Nonetheless, the World Baseball Classic is a different animal.

It demands all-out effort from players at a time when they're not accustomed to going all out. And while studies on the WBC's potential to inflict injuries and hurt performance recommend that everyone chill out, the optics aren't good.

After 2009's edition, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Jake Peavy, Edinson Volquez and Scot Shields were among the almost two dozen World Baseball Classic pitchers hit by an injury waveHoynes noted the Indians were then hit hard by the 2013 tournament, after which Vinnie Pestano and Chris Perez struggled to recover from injuries linked to their involvement in it.

So even if the World Baseball Classic isn't dangerous, it is not safe either. And if that's true for all the participants, it may be doubly true for the guy coming off the kind of year Miller just had.

Lest their quest to return to the World Series in 2017 lose a key piece, the Indians need Miller to come out unscathed from the World Baseball Classic. For that, they're short on assurances.

All they can do is watch closely and hope for the best. Crossed fingers wouldn't hurt either.

                                   

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.comFanGraphsBrooks Baseball and Baseball Savant.

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