Andrew Miller is fantastic. That's the basis of this article, and really the basis of any well-rounded human being's life philosophy. Would that we could all be more like Andrew Miller — great at his chosen profession, possessing of a great smile, and just generally a good person.
Perhaps it's better we're not all some sort of Slenderman/Sasquatch hybrid, but I've read people would be taller and skinnier if we colonized Mars. Perhaps he's the progenitor of that. That is all beside the point though. The point is, Miller is singularly fantastic to watch. Even when he struggles. This struggling happened on Wednesday when he created a rare bases-loaded, one-out situation against the Houston Astros and commenced to vaporize two Astros hitters (good ones too; Carlos Correa and Brian McCann) to preserve the Cleveland lead. This incredible ability to silence hitters when it was most needed was classic Miller, and as with every time he does this, I can't help but wonder just how it’s so easily possible? These guys know what's coming, and yet still they take that long, slow walk to the dugout more often than not.
The obvious reason is just that he's got a pair of dominant pitches that pair off well with each other. I'm not really sure what an 80-grade slider looks like, but Miller's is as good as I've seen, and the fastball in the mid to high 90's with great control pairs with it so well only makes it more vicious.
Between his general gangliness, big hands, incredible velocity and the snap of that slider, he's just blessed with severe talents physical. So it's easy to just wave it all away and say "he just does it". But these are elite hitters he's facing, for the most part. You don't get to the majors by being mediocre, and Carlos Correa and Brian McCann are both more than just mediocre. That home run McCann hit off Trevor Bauer, which was a perfectly placed pitch he just ambushed, that was incredible in its own right. Neither could touch Miller though.
What I'm talking about is pitch sequencing. It's something that is still in its nascent stages of understanding among the general public, even if the overarching idea is pretty obvious. The best pitchers use their pitches off each other, using speed and movement differences to baffle hitters instead of just trying to overpower them. If Rajai Davis, a career below average hitter compared to his peers, can turn the best fastball in the game around for a home run, that tells me that velocity isn't everything. It's vital to success, but as Kyle Hendricks has shown, it's not so crucial that mindgames can't at least partially take their place.
Whenever I watch baseball I try to understand why a pitcher throws something when he does. With starters there's so much variance with having three or four pitches, it can get a bit overwhelming and hard to really describe in less than a book. That's why focusing on a reliever is helpful for our purposes here. They generally have two pitches. Unless it's Zach McAllister, his sequencing is pretty obvious. Fastball. Repeat until end of inning or you've gotten bombed.
In that inning that went so awry so quickly, Miller started a batter with a slider four of the six batters he faced. Those sliders were followed with another slider twice of four possible chances. Those sliders were both followed with a silder. Ultimately, those two at-bats that were all slider-y to begin with, one against Josh Reddick and the other against Carlos Beltran, ended in a walk (Reddick) and a hit-by-pitch (Beltran). Miller only threw sliders to Beltran, but worked in the fastball to Reddick in the midst of the sequence. He leaned on his best pitch early, and with the addition of a fielding error to the mix to load the bases, it became apparent he needed something more
Then there's the strikeouts. Rather than just listing the occurrence, here's the PitchFX maps of the both of them. First, Correa:
That went fastball, fastball, fastball, slider, slider, fastball, slider, slider, since Brooks Baseball doesn’t supply that info.
And here's McCann:
That’s a fastball and three sliders to get the K.
Both at-bats were started with a fastball for a strike, and from there McCann saw only sliders while Correa was worked to 0-2 with fastballs before the first breaker. Again, both struck out. Neither looked particularly comfortable at the plate even though they knew there was a 50 percent chance they knew what they were going to see just based on guessing one pitch or the other and ignoring tenancies. McCann in particular, despite seeing only one fastball, was somehow in even worse shape than Correa because that fastball was in his mind, yet the ball kept bending. It was fascinating.
Miller has thrown his slider 57.3 percent of the time this year, a mark he's hung near the last three years or so. Focusing on this season, since it seems like more of the same from him to this point, of the 41 batters he faced including Wednesday night, 27 times the slider was the first pitch. In general, here’s a map of how often he’s thrown the slider based on the count, courtesy of the wizards at StatCast:
Truthfully, this isn’t that elucidating even if it’s really neat, though the amount of time he goes with a breaking pitch to open an at-bat in general is pretty interesting. It kind of flies in the face of conventional wisdom, though — the basis of pitching wisdom is to throw your best pitch as often as you can. His best pitch is the most absurd slider on Earth. It behooves him to throw it very much.
No, what I’m trying to get at is just how interesting it is that these elite players, whether the Chicago Cubs or the Astros or whoever, no matter how fantastic they are they’re stymied by a guy who only has two pitches to work with. And it’s not as though he’s just chucking, there does seem to be a method to his madness. Those two at-bats on Wednesday that ended in strikeouts, both were set up with a first pitch fastball, which were helped by earlier at-bats that opened with a slider. Until he says otherwise, I have to believe he and the catcher have a concerted plan when they go up there and work to get a mental edge on the batter, even if it’s just with two pitches.
There’s only so much sequencing that can go one with two pitches, and when the at-bat stretches out that's when he becomes more hittable, but as we’ve seen of late (like the Correa at-bat, even if it’s just a data point rather than a trend) in an eight pitch at-bat that saw an even split of sliders and fastballs, Correa was more lost than when he began the at-bat. Or maybe he just tried to hit the slider and missed because it’s filthy, I don’t know. If you go back and watch, Miller did have a brief conversation with Roberto Perez right before the final pitch. It could be he just went back to his best stuff (the best idea) or there was a deeper plan there. They don’t get the time together in the dugout like catchers and starters do to scheme. But that doesn’t mean Miller isn’t still trying to get a step ahead.
There’s no real resolution to what I’m talking about here, I just think it’s interesting how pitchers, even overpowering ones like Miller, use more than just powers and have pitches to bounce off each other. Whether it’s sequencing or tunneling (throwing two pitches at the same angle and toward the same area of the zone so they look the same but the hitter misjudges the breaking pitch or whatever) or merely the overwhelming might of a great reliever, I don’t know for sure. I do know Miller at least doesn’t just throw.
In using his slider so much he becomes almost more unhittable than, say, a Chapman, because the split is so close to 50/50 and actually leans in favor of the slider. Hitters like fastballs. They look for fastballs. They don’t move. They don’t like sliders that slice space-time, they’re hard to hit. But even less talented pitchers, your Josh Tomlins of the world perhaps, they are able to use a bit of guile to slip by these extremely talented hitters. It’s all about making what you’re throwing less known. That Miller can do that, and also have such filthy stuff to get the number of strikeouts looking that he does (38 a year ago) or the number of strikes looking (32 percent of the time over the last three years, five points higher than league average), it’s amazing.
Maybe I think too much while I’m watching, but I love the duel of two men, and the mental game underneath it all. Despite only two weapons, Miller is dominant at it. Guile is more fun than power. But when you combine the two, it’s simply marvelous.