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Andrew Miller is a paradox

The Indians have to decide: Can he be great again?

Divisional Round - New York Yankees v Cleveland Indians - Game Five Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Below is a graph. It is a simple graph. It does not use advanced statistics, although any number of advanced statistics could show a similar trend. It is a graph of Andrew Miller’s innings pitched (red) and ERA (blue).

For our purposes, of course, only the years 2016 to present are of interest. In 2016, the Indians acquired a legitimate ace of a reliever, evident by the huge gap between innings and ERA above. That reliever commanded a king’s ransom, but he was kind of guy that turns a good ballclub into a World Series team. This is indisputable.

Time, however, is undefeated. This is also indisputable. And time overwhelmingly took the lead in the battle against Miller last year.

In 2018, Miller was on the disabled list 51.8 percent of the calendar days between April 29 and September 30 (aka the regular season). He appeared in just 37 games and threw just 34 innings, his lowest since 2013. When he was “healthy” enough to appear, Miller produced the worst numbers of his career as a reliever. His ERA (4.24), FIP (3.51), strand rate (75.3 percent), and average against (.233) were their highest and his WHIP (1.38), BABIP (.329), hard hit percentage (41.4 percent), SIERA (3.29), and walk percentage (10.4 percent) were career highs (or close to) since he became a full-time pen arm (in 2012). In addition, Miller’s strikeout rate (29.2 percent) and WAR (both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference had him at 0.4) were at their lowest since 2012.

Perhaps this was the logical outcome for Miller, nearly across-the-board career worsts and spending 96 of 185 calendar days in the season on the disabled list, as he has been worked like a rented mule the last few years. Between 2014 and 2017, Miller logged 261 innings of work (most of which were high leverage) in the regular season and an additional 33 innings (all of which were high leverage) in the postseason.

You can’t fault the teams who worked Miller so hard (Boston, Baltimore, New York, and Cleveland) as they were only using their best weapon the best way they knew how: often. But, after watching Miller devolve into a pale facsimile of his old self, the Indians are left with the memory of a great reliever and a question: Does he deserve of a qualifying offer?

The initial, gut-level reaction answer to that question is no. Perhaps emphatically. A failed starter going into his age-34 season, having missed more than half the season previous with injury, who posted the worst results of his career...that is not the kind of player a middle-third club expecting to run an all-time high payroll for the second consecutive year offers a $17.9 million deal. And perhaps it’s telling that FanGraphs’ contract crowdsourcing project simply assumed the Indians would not put forward a qualifying offer.

Andrew Miller, though, is not a normal player. The Indians likely don’t make the 2016 World Series without him. And while the team can’t pay him in 2019 for his exploits 3 years prior, it has to decide if that pitcher is gone forever.

For brief moments, Miller flashed his old brilliance this year. As the Tribe hit the stretch run, Miller had vintage filth, with his fastball velocity reaching its highest monthly average in October and matching its 2016 glory. When he was on, the Tribe bullpen looked like the best in the league again.

But for each moment of pitching excellence, Miller had at least one moment of uncharacteristically poor pitching. He was up and down between outings as much as he was on and off the disabled list. Is that level of mediocrity no longer uncharacteristic of Miller? Have injuries robbed him of the talent that made him so special?

The data on relievers is clear: Despite weathering a poor market better than other positions, the average annual value of 46 contracts signed by relievers after the 2017 season was just $4.4 million. The highest individual contract was signed by Wade Davis, who made $17.33 million last year and will for two more seasons. Regarding Miller, the Indians have better data, quantitative and qualitative, than anyone (unless the Astros were able to steal it somehow). From that data, they will evaluate whether or not he merits a qualifying offer worth more for one season than any reliever earned last offseason. I’m not convinced Miller deserves to be paid like Davis, and more highly than Aroldis Chapman, or that he even has $18 million left in his arm — but I’ve been wrong before (i.e., Michael Brantley).

Which brings me back to the graph at the top of this post. If the Indians see the cruel march of time claiming another victim, there’s no way Miller gets the qualifying offer. If the lines at the end of the graph are more like those at the beginning and the team sees an ability to close the gap, perhaps he is worth the gamble. Because of his body of work, a qualifying offer for Miller is a much more complex question than his 2018 performance would dictate.

We’ll know for sure whatever the Indians choose to do before 5 pm on Friday. I for one, am glad it is not my decision to make.