It’s Miller time . . . for retirement

Andrew Miller

The Cubs won the 2016 World Series but, until they did, Cleveland relief pitcher Andrew Miller may have been that postseason’s biggest star.

Andrew Miller’s mother once hoped he’d parlay his high 1500s SAT results into a college degree from Masschussetts Institute of Technology. Mrs. Miller would just have to settle for her brainy son becoming a lefthanded pitcher who helped revolutionise relief work, and who helped articulate the folly of the owners’ lockout from December through almost mid-March.

Miller had long proven that the best, most valuable relief pitcher in the bullpen isn’t necessarily your “closer” earning “saves,” particularly with the team then known as the Indians (now the Guardians) in the 2016 postseason plus the second half of 2016’s and most of 2017’s regular seasons.

But during the foolish lockout, the 36-year-old Miller also helped clarify that the players refused to suffer tanking any more gladly than tanking teams’ fans do.

“All during these negotiations,” Peter Gammons wrote in The Athletic as the lockout finally came to its end, “Miller drove home the players’ insistence that tanking and ideas that diminished competition were contrary to their beliefs. He consistently called ‘increased competition a core goal’ of the negotiations. ‘Anything that points towards mediocrity is the antithesis of the game and what we’re about as players,’ he said.”

Miller announced his retirement Thursday, after a considerably distinguished sixteen-season pitching career, in which he shifted himself from a nothing-special starting pitcher who couldn’t harness his repertoire into a game-changing relief pitcher who used his stamina and his wipeout slider to show both the uselessness of the save-centric mindset and resurrect an ancient—and then-controversial, too—idea about relief work.

Hall of Fame manager Casey Stengel thought nothing of bringing prime relief (Joe Page, Allie Reynolds, Bob Turley, to name three) in earlier than the latest innings when he managed the Yankees. He hammered the point that the time to reach for a stopper happens any time, even in the earliest innings. Miller’s Indians manager Terry Francona, whose new toy came from the Yankees in a non-waiver trade deadline deal, used Miller in just that way the rest of 2016 and all the way through the postseason.

It finished what Miller’s four-year/$36 million deal with the Yankees in December 2014 started: making a mostly non-closing relief pitcher into a star. He stayed with the Yankees until that trade deadline. For the second half of 2016, right up to the moment he ran out of petrol in Game Seven of the 2016 World Series (an RBI single, plus David Ross’s last major league hit–a leadoff home run), Miller was the Indians’ best relief pitcher.

According to fielding-independent pitching, which accounts for the things within a pitcher’s control as traditional earned-run average doesn’t, it wasn’t even close: his 1.53 FIP was 80 points below the next-lowest in the pen, Dan Otero’s 2.33 . . . and 1.78 below designated closer Cody Allen.

The ancient beer commercial proclaimed, “Now—it’s Miller Time.” The skipper for team known then as the Indians proclaimed, “Now—it’s Miller Time,” whenever he needed a stopper in that postseason. Quick: Name the only two relief pitchers ever to win a postseason Most Valuable Player award without being their teams’ primary closers. Answer: Miller, in the 2016 American League Championship Series; and, Rob Dibble, in the 1990 National League Championship Series.

Miller was just as deadly in 2017 (1.99 FIP) until he developed patellar tendinitis in his right knee, his landing knee, in early August, returning that September. He ran out of fuel again in the postseason, this time against his former team, the Yankees, in the Indians’ division series exit.

In due course he signed with the Cardinals, but he fought injuries and the inconsistencies they provoked. He never really looked like the force of nature he was in 2016-17 again, except during three brief postseason trips with the Cardinals. In fact, his entire posteason relief FIP—seven postseasons, 29 games, and one trip to the World Series—is more sparkling than his regular-season career marks as a reliever and as the starter he first was before he discovered life in the bullpen with the 2011-12 Red Sox:

Andrew Miller—Fielding-Independent Pitching (FIP), Career
As a starting pitcher 4.78
As a relief pitcher 3.02
As a postseason reliever 2.43

He’d shortened his delivery into a partial slide step to help him put more bite on that slider. He also paid close attention to just how he and his fellow relief corpsmen were handled, fuming over an early-season set in Chicago during which then-Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine seemed almost indifferent to how the April chill affected their pen preparation.

“The Red Sox returned home . . . and when Miller got to the park, he was upset about the usage of Rich Hill—who had already worked through a couple of operations in his career,” Gammons wrote.

Miller talked about how Hill had gotten up “close to eight times” and finally got in to face one lone batter in the bottom of the eighth inning, and Miller said, “there ought to be some kind of punishment for doing that to a pitcher, particularly someone with a medical history.” Miller turned a corner in his career that season under [2012 Red Sox manager Bobby] Valentine and there were no public issues. But he felt a teammate had been jeopardized and for 24 hours remained in that window.

“The problem still seems to be,” I wrote in the 19 March edition of the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America’s Here’s the Pitch newsletter, “that enough managers pay too little attention to the pitch volume relievers throw in the pen before they come into games . . . if they come into games. Some of those managers still think a relief pitcher hasn’t “pitched” unless he’s been in a game. Those men may well throw more innings’ worth of pitches in the pen than they’ll ever throw on the game mound.”

Apparently, there was at least one relief pitching thinking along the same lines in 2012. Rest assured, Miller’s probably not the only such reliever with the only such thoughts. The need to monitor relief pitchers’ warmup work carefully and manage it prudently remains profound if rarely appreciated.

Miller’s Cardinals teammate Adam Wainwright, himself now approaching the end of a splendid pitching career, appreciates Miller as both a relief pitcher and an advocate for the greater good of the game as one of the players’ union’s main negotiators.

He changed the game and he kind of took that relief role back to when it first started, guys who could do two, three innings–and he was the guy who did it in the postseason. I have an appreciation for what he did for the entire game of baseball. As many hours as that guy put in for the union over these past few years is kind of staggering. He may retire and that means this whole offseason he still spent sixteen hours on the phone a day, for us, for who’s next–that means a lot.

Miller is also the kind of young man who appreciates such things in life as fine wines and (this endears him to my guitar playing heart even more) the woods used to make guitars. The relief force who has worn the uniforms of the Tigers, the Orioles, the Red Sox, the Yankees, the Indians, and the Cardinals also has a calm appreciation for baseball’s history and signatures.

“I’m usually pretty quick to be able to step back though and see how lucky I have been,” Miller told the Post-Dispatch. “The hard times were necessary for me to grow and to be able to appreciate the highs along the way. Ultimately, I was able to play for many great franchises, wear historic uniforms, and play in some amazing ballparks.”

Pondering such appreciation causes me to ponder that I’d love to find a way to suggest Miller in retirement could bring his considerable weight to bear, as a baseball thinker as well as pitcher, on behalf of a forgotten player class: the now 504 pre-1980, short-career major leaguers who were frozen out of a 1980 pension realignment that made pension vesting possible after 43 days’ major league service time

All those players have received since is an annual stipend negotiated by former Players Association director Michael Weiner and former commissioner Bud Selig. The original stipend was $625 per 43 days’ major league service time, up to $10,000 a year. Somewhere during the lockout, the stipend—whose February payment was delayed pending the lockout settlement—was hiked fifteen percent. Now, it’s $718.75 per 43 days’ major league service time.

It’s hardly close to what those pre-1980 short-career men deserve, but it’s something. The further bad news is that those monies still can’t be passed to those men’s families upon their deaths.

Many of those men were active union members supporting the battles for players’ rights and respect, which compounds the original injustice. Several of those players have said they believe a perception that most were mere September callups factored in their original freeze-out. Well. I’ve been looking it up. So far, the majority of such players either made even one of their teams’ rosters out of spring training or appeared on rosters as early as later in April, or May, or June, or July, or August.

Articulate, intelligent, sensitive Andrew Miller, entering a richly-earned retirement, would be an invaluable voice of influence on behalf of those men, if he could be made further aware of such an injustice.

The Cardinals say it’s Miller Time

2016-10-15 AndrewMillerIt may be a good thing that Anheuser-Busch no longer owns the St. Louis Cardinals. They’d have one helluva promotional migraine on their hands with Cardinal fans wearing T-shirts and holding up placards saying, “Now . . . it’s Miller Time.”

The Cardinals announced via Twitter Friday morning that relief bellwether Andrew Miller has signed for two seasons with a 2021 vesting option; The Atlantic‘s Ken Rosenthal says the deal guarantees the lefthander $25 million for the two years and $12 million if the option vests.

Anyone wondering what the Cardinals were thinking in signing the 33-year-old lefthander might care to note that, even with an injury-disrupted 2018, his worst season since 2013, Miller’s 0.4 2018 wins above a replacement level player by himself were practically the same as the entire Cardinal bullpen for the season. Of course they were thinking a little more deeply when looking at Miller’s season.

From his return from the DL at August’s beginning until his final assignment of the season on 29 September, Miller pitched as close as possible to the wipeout pen man who helped the Indians get to Game Seven of the 2016 World Series before he ran out of fuel in that game. From 3 August through 28 September, Miller struck out 22 batters and walked only six while surrendering only fifteen hits and five earned runs in 16 innings for a more than solid 2.81 earned run average over the span, even if he had occasional control issues shaking off the rust and plunked two batters.

One bad inning on 29 September—a three-run homer and an RBI single—soiled his return from an early season hamstring strain and the knee inflammation that cost him two months. Clearly the Cardinals bypassed that final disaster, looked at his 3 August-28 September round, and decided that a healthy Miller meant a bullpen improved exponentially with a lefthander who can and has gone multiple innings in his turns and still owns a plus fastball and (when healthy) a slider that drives hitters into at-bat graves.

Just as clearly, the Cardinals offered Miller something other suitors couldn’t or wouldn’t, and Miller was romanced rather ardently since the World Series ended. The Mets and the Yankees had him on their dance cards and both teams asked for his most current medical reports. The Mets especially could have made room enough for Miller since they lack a solid lefthanded bullpen option at all and, if they’re that serious about contending in 2019, Miller healthy would have silenced a lot of the snickering about that stance.

Several reports indicated Miller had a phalanx of two-year offers on his plate but hoped for three. If the Cardinals were willing to give him the third year, even if it’s a vesting option, it means they have Miller through his age-36 season. If he lives up to his restored health and doesn’t let his coffin-nailing slider betray him, the Cardinals make an investment that helps send them back to the postseason post haste.

Miller gives several options for a Cardinal bullpen whose top five members posted a collective 4.50 ERA despite striking out eight or better per nine innings, perhaps because they were also walking a collective 4.16 per nine. Now look closer: the rate would have been far lower without Brett Cecil’s 6.9 walks per nine. Even closer Bud Norris undermined his own 10.9 K/9 rate with a 3.3 BB/9 rate, while converting 28 of 33 save chances.

Miller with an injury-disrupted 2016 still had a slightly better K/9 rate than the collective and individual Cardinal pen. He had a gruesome 4.2 seasonal BB/9 rate but most of that was thanks to his pre-August struggling through and with the injuries. His medicals must have looked even better to the Cardinals than they did to the Mets, the Yankees, and other teams on his trail. The Yankees may have needed to bring Miller back less, but the Mets—whose pen still needs remaking despite bagging Edwin Diaz to close—may have some splainin’ to do about not bringing Miller aboard at all.

The Cardinal pen clearly needed a shot in the arm, if not in the head. A healthy Miller gives them just that and then some, since his calling card once his gears fell into place has been middle, later, or both kinds of relief and not just single innings, either, though you have to be mindful of overworking him approaching age 33. Miller can even close when need be. (He did have such a season for the 2015 Yankees, saving 36.)

It’s going to seem strange, indeed, to see Busch Stadium with its several Budweiser signs including atop the major scoreboard serving Miller on the mound. They used to call Miller the champagne of bottled beer. They hope Miller on the mound means three rounds of champagne in the clubhouse in October.