I have lived more than half my life in mortal fear of Cleveland Indians relief pitchers. Jose Mesa was incredible in 1995. I know that to be true, but I don't remember it. All the good he did that season was later pushed out of my mind by the trauma that came later. Instead of his excellence, I remember him blowing a lead in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the ALDS in 1996. I remember him blowing back-to-back leads in Games 3 and 4 of the ALCS a year later, though he was let off the hook when the Tribe came back to win both of those games. Of course I remember the ninth inning on October 26, 1997. Ever since that damned night in Miami, I've been uneasy when the bullpen door has opened for the Tribe during a big game. Among the ignoble collection of arms who've thrown high-leverage innings for the team in the nearly two decades since then, none was quite good enough quite often enough to lift the veil of trepidation from my face. None until Andrew Miller.
When the Indians first acquired Miller (who is under contract for another two years, at the very reasonable cost of $9 million per season), I was excited to have him, but the cost in prospects felt like a steep price to pay. If I had known he'd pitch 48.1 innings for the Indians (regular and postseason combined), while allowing only eight runs, with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 76:7, and he'd grow a sweet beard and win ALCS MVP honors during one of the most amazing postseasons a pitcher has ever had, I wouldn't have cared if they'd traded the entire farm system for him.
In the 20 seasons between Mesa's fantastic 1995 and this year, who's the best Tribe reliever? By total Wins Above Replacement, it was Rafael Betancourt. By Wins Above Average, it was Steve Karsay. (No, I'm not making that up.) BY ERA+ it was Bob Howry if we set the minimum at 100 innings pitched, Mike Jackson if we set the minimum at 200. By saves it was Bob Wickman, followed by Chris Perez. Betancourt's 2007 probably rates as the single best season, but there's a case for Jackson's 1998, Wickman's 2001, and if you think FIP is significant for relievers, Cody Allen's 2015. Point being, there's not an obvious answer to the question at the top of this paragraph.
The Indians have had a few relievers post a season with elite run prevention, and a few relievers with a great strikeout rate, but they've never really had both of those things in one guy: Among relievers with a K/9 rate of 10+ the Indians, if you look at the top 100 seasons (by ERA+) in history, not one of them belongs to the Indians. Every other AL team had at least one of those seasons, an average of more than three per team. Andrew Miller had one of those seasons in 2014, another in 2015, and by the time the Indians traded Clint Frazier, Justus Sheffield, and two others prospects for him on July 31, Miller was well above those those levels again. He was something the Indians had never had before.
On August 16, Terry Francona used Miller for two full innings, then did it again two days later, in what now looks like a preview of October. Miller didn't allow any runs in his final ten appearances of the regular season, with 18 strikeouts and only one walk in 11.1 innings. That was all a sign of things to come as well. Miller pitched 29 regular season innings for the Indians, with a 1.55 ERA, a 304 ERA+, and 14.3 strikeouts per nine innings pitched.
The Indians would have won the AL Central even without Miller, so the real test of his value would come in the postseason. In Game 1 of the ALDS, Miller began to show his true worth earlier than anyone expected. In the top of the fifth inning, with the Tribe clinging to a one-run lead and the heart of Boston's order coming up for the third time, Francona went to Miller. A reliever of his caliber being used so early in the game is almost unheard of. Miller ended the inning, then pitched a 1-2-3 sixth inning and got the first two outs of the seventh. It was the first of ten appearances Miller would make in the postseason, and he'd work more than just one inning in all ten of them. No one else had ever done that more than seven times in a postseason.
Miller wasn't just getting guys out either, he was dominating them: 7 of the 12 outs he recorded in the ALDS came via strikeout; in the ALCS 14 of his 23 outs were strikeouts, and three singles were the only base runners he allowed in his 7.2 scoreless innings of work, winning him ALCS MVP and giving him a strong case for the best series ever by a relief pitcher. For the first time in memory, I was looking forward to the Indians having a small lead as the game went on, knowing it would mean Miller Time.
In Game 4 of the World Series, Miller finally gave up a run, a homer that just barely cleared the left-field wall at Wrigley. It seems fair to wonder now if Miller needed to pitch a second inning that night, given his extensive workload during the previous three weeks, and given the Tribe's six-run lead. In Game 7, the mileage finally caught up with Miller. As he had in the Tribe's first game of the postseason, Miller entered in the fifth inning, but this time he allowed a run. He allowed another in the next inning. As you know, the Indians would lose in extra innings. October was the greatest month we've known in ages. November... the worst.
Might Miller's Game 7 struggles push everything that came before from my mind, the way Game 7 nineteen years ago did with Mesa? No. Maybe because Miller's struggles expanded a deficit, rather than blowing a lead... Maybe because Game 7 wasn't Mesa's only postseason struggle... Maybe because Mesa didn't strike out nearly half the batters he faced... Maybe because Mesa started 19 years of abject terror for me, and Miller ended that. The Andrew Miller I remember is the one who made me feel like things were going to work out in the end.