The other day, in the midst of one of Andrew Miller’s recent mowings down of the Toronto Blue Jays I pithily tweeted out the following:
It's not even like you can analyze why Miller is so unhittable. It's like why is a sunset beautiful? It just is.— Merritt Rohlfing (@merrittrohlfing) October 15, 2016
The point of this being, there’s no real nuance to how Andrew Miller beats batters, he just beats them. But that got me to thinking, how does Andrew Miller get batters out? The short answer is, very well. But is there any strategy to it? Does he do certain things to certain batters? Does he pore over scouting reports and the like, figuring just the perfect way to attack the best hitters in the lineup and make them look like little leaguers? Whatever the answer, the man is masterful, it’s just interesting to know how he goes about it.
Below are the strike zone maps of three appearances Russell Martin had against Miller in the ALCS, on October 14th, 15th and 17th. I chose Martin to start off because he’s roughly a league average hitter this year, logging a 99 wRC+, and only he and Melvin Upton have seen Miller three times this postseason. You have to figure, if a pitcher sees the same guys three times in such a short span, he’s going to adjust his attack some. Take a look.
This is from Game 1:
Here's Game 2:
and Game 3:
So basically, Miller kept the ball away or down at the bottom of the strike zone, throwing heat and an unhittable slider to a righty. We’ve seen it constantly. Martin struck out all three times. Next, here’s how he attacked Josh Donaldson, who singled on the 14th and struck out the next night:
This is the Single:
Donaldson is a great down and in hitter, as evidenced by his heat map:
So what Miller did the first time around was bold as brass, really. But it begins to paint the picture of what he does when he’s on the mound. The thing about being a relief pitcher, especially one like Miller, is that you only need one good pitch. He happens to feature a slider as a pitcher, much like Sergio Romo of the Giants, but he also is able to dot 97 on the corner when he needs to. This savage combination of a breaking ball he can command almost at will, as evidenced by this David Laurila piece over at Fangaphs, and his incredible command and control of both pitches combined with intense velocity has created an animal rarely seen.
The nut of that being, he is like most relievers in that he can trust his stuff and lean on strengths, rather than going after weaknesses. Just look at how he attacked Mookie Betts on consecutive nights in the ALDS:
October 6th, a walk:
October 10th, a double:
One walk, one double. The best two day appearance a batter has had against Miller in October. He tried to mitigate the walk in the second appearance and got punished for it. But whether through hubris or that’s just what he does, Miller attacks how he sees fit. So that led to looking at just how Miller has attacked righties all year, which brings up this heat map:
Essentially, that is how he attacked Martin, Donaldson, and Betts. As our eyes have shown us, it’s always down, down, down. In fact, judging from how he attacks lefties, that’s just how he always pitches. In fact, this is how he breaks out against lefties and righties, combined:
What is this, if not an obvious focus on one consistent attack. As I said before, he’s just someone who throws his two pitches, and bets on his best against the other guys’ best to see who gets the outs.
The other thing to consider though, is how he sequences his pitches, if he even does. His fastball and slider play off each other so well, so often coming in at the same tunnel and then one moving a foot or two while the other just arrows in or even bites away a bit arm-side to the left-handers’ batters box. That Laurila article does have Miller admitting his slider isn’t always the same, of course. Sometimes he can shape it to bite more, other times act more like a curve and break more down than just towards righties. To the sequencing then. Against Donaldson as we see above, a hit came from his simply trusting in himself too much, and attacking where Donaldson is strongest. The strikeout came from attacking away with a pair of fastballs, backdooring a slider once, and then unhittable back foot sliders. It surely helped that Donaldson singled the night before, because he was looking in that area and made an attempt, but the ball was just too far gone. The real question on that one is, did Miller miss his spot that time, or did he mean to throw a slider in the zone?
For a larger sample, we have Martin. Looking back to those charts, he started away each time, but on the 14th and 17th it was a slider. On the 15th, fastball. On the 14th, he followed with a fastball on the outside half, then sliders inside and finally, more sliders. This informed on Martin's at-bat on the 15th, throwing four fastballs to only two sliders, even if the slider got the strikeout that time as well. He went back to the slider on the 17th, only throwing one four-seamer and hammering sliders down in the zone and at the Back foot to get the strikeout.
That’s a lot of words to note that he does, in fact, balance what happened before. While Miller isn’t seeing a guy several times in a game most of the time, he expects the opponent to expect, and does, to some degree at least, adjust the attack. But even in that, he relies on his best stuff.
In the end, I feel like i in a way proved the point of my aimless tweet. The reason Andrew Miller is so dominant in the postseason is because he is hard to hit. He’s hard to hit because he throws dominant stuff. It’s circular logic. He is, because he is. But we all knew that, we’ve seen what he’s done. It’s just fun to look at sometimes.