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 Natoinal 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 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 overrunning of the bulls

2019-05-31 EdwinDiaz

Alex Verdugo’s (27) game-winning sacrifice fly Wednesday night further exposed Mickey Callaway’s injudicious handling of his closer Edwin Diaz (39).

Even if you’re not handed the best of bullpen bulls to work with, there’s a judicious and an injudicious way to manage those bulls. Mets manager Mickey Callaway seems more and more to be the injudicious type. For any manager that’s a yellow flag. For a former pitching coach, that’s red alert.

Callaway didn’t build this bullpen. That was freshman general manager Brodie Van Wagenen’s work. But given that, Callaway’s management of this less-than-solid pen this year could yet prove fateful, if not fatal, for a manager who was all but wired into the electric chair almost two weeks ago.

The talk of the tomb—er, town—Friday morning was apparent disconnect between Callaway and his closing ace Edwin Diaz. Diaz apparently told Callaway he wouldn’t be an available option Thursday in Los Angeles, but Callaway apparently made public that Diaz would be available—despite pitching eight times in twelve days including Thursday night.

Diaz may be known as a swift warmup when he gets the call but even a swift warmup is liable to have thrown a full inning’s worth of pitches before he’s brought into the game. Doing that math should suggest that he pitched sixteen innings or better worth of pitches in those eight gigs. And one notices soon enough that Mets relief pitchers are throwing a lot more bullpen warmups than might be healthy for them.

Early in the season Callaway vetoed any thought of handing the ball to Diaz before the ninth inning even if he needed a stopper like five minutes ago. In due course he and the Mets changed that position. Smartly enough, assuming his work load’s been handled smartly otherwise.

“It’s impossible to climb inside Callaway’s mind, but it’s reasonable to believe that this added pressure could influence the in-game decision-making process,” writes Elite Sports NY‘s Danny Small. “Whether that means leaving his starter in for longer than anticipated or going to a reliever who probably needs a day off, a manager in win-at-all-costs-mode before June hits is a bad look.”

One dumb part: Diaz had a travel day off . . . from New York to Los Angeles, not exactly the most restful of journeys, before Callaway went to him Tuesday night, when the Mets had a fat 7-3 lead against the Dodgers going to the bottom of the ninth.  He threw sixteen pitches, shaking off a leadoff double by Alex Verdugo to get a strikeout and two line outs to end the game.

On Wednesday, though, Diaz may have had a temporarily empty tank when Callaway brought him in with the Mets leading 8-5. A save situation by the rule, but disaster when Joc Pederson and Max Muncy homered back-to-back, Pederson on a full count. You could call it Dodger vengeance for the Mets’ seventh, when Amed Rosario and Dominic Smith opened by taking reliever Julio Urias over the center field fence back-to-back.

Then Diaz suffered back-to-back doubles and another Dodger run, followed by putting Corey Seager on to work to Matt Beatty, who singled to load the pads for Verdugo. The good news was Diaz got Verdugo out. The bad news is that is was the sacrifice fly that won the game for the Dodgers, 9-8.

Diaz didn’t poke his nose out of his hole Thursday as the Mets lost comparatively quietly, 2-0. And the trip from Los Angeles to Arizona, where the Mets open a weekend set with the Diamondbacks Friday night, isn’t even an eighth as draining as a coast-to-coast jaunt.

The Mets’ lack of bullpen depth behind Diaz hurts. Their arguable best setup man, Seth Lugo, was reported returning to the team from the disabled list Friday after a spell of shoulder tendinitis. Right now it’s even money how long it takes Lugo to return to his groove.

Jeurys Familia, their returning former closer, is described best as shaky. Robert Gsellman can be an effective pitcher but his inconsistency is an issue. Drew Gagnon is pitching better than his 4.96 ERA (his fielding-independent pitching is a healthy 2.96) but he’s still walk prone and doesn’t miss bats that effectively.

You understand to an extent why Callaway wants to lean on Diaz as heavily as he does, but you have to wonder about moments such as going to him when the lead is big enough not to really need him as acutely as you wondered about not going to him earlier than the ninth when the Mets needed an immediate stopper.

Callaway’s hardly the first manager to mishandle any bullpen, however well built. You could assemble a remarkable banquet populated by skippers who think relief pitchers are impervious to drainage.

When Pete Rose managed the Reds in the 1980s, he wasn’t especially judicious about his bullpens but in particular he warmed up one lefthanded late-innings reliever, Rob Murphy, more than 200 times one season. Murphy averaged 71 innings a season per 162 games and topped out at 105 innings for 1989, the year Rose was banished for violating Rule 21(d).

Two hundred warmup sessions in a 105-inning season would be bad enough, especially when you figure Murphy had to have been warmed up more than once in a game without coming in. If Rose warmed him up that often for his 84.2 inning 1988, it was to wonder that Murphy’s ERA wasn’t higher than the 3.08 he did post. And, that his arm didn’t amputate itself.

Come to think of it, except for his first season with the Red Sox in 1989, Murphy would never again be half as effective as he’d once been despite of misuse in Cincinnati. “Some managers think, if a guy’s not actually in a game, he’s not pitching,” wrote Whitey Herzog in You’re Missin’ a Great Game. “But if he’s tossing on the sidelines, man, he’s getting hot.”

If the Mets’ relievers are indeed warming up more often or with more pitches than might be healthy before they’re brought into games, that’s an overdue red alert, too. (It’s also a good reason to dispense with the traditional eight warmups on the game mound the moment the reliever’s brought in.)

A former pitching coach should know better. A team hoping to stay the course to the postseason can’t afford to burn their best relief pitcher out before the stretch. Which is very much what’s in danger of happening to Diaz, and maybe one or two others.

And, it could help turn the Mets’ season from all-in to all-gone, and maybe all-rebuild, before the non-waiver trade deadline passes.