The Cleveland Indians have raced out to a surprising 2-0 lead over the Toronto Blue Jays in the ALCS, and they have done so in large part because their manager, Terry Francona, has embraced a polarising strategy: use Andrew Miller, his best reliever, as early and as often as he needs to.
When Miller was traded to Cleveland from the Yankees at the mid-season trade deadline, Miller was slotted in as the Indians’ 8th inning set-up man. In the playoffs, however, Francona has deployed him much earlier, even as early as the 5th inning, and let him work multiple innings in middle-relief.
Francona’s logic is easy to follow: use your best reliever when he is most needed. An out in the 5th inning is just as valuable as an out in the 9th inning, especially if you’re clinging to a one-run lead and your opponent’s best hitter is at the plate. Just because you are leading by one run in the 5th doesn’t mean you’ll still be leading by one in the 9th. In other words: when the stakes are the highest, turn to the reliever you must trust to get you through the inning.
There’s been plenty of research and advanced stats to back this idea up, but baseball managers have not historically been the earliest adopters of sabermetrics. Traditionally, a team’s best relief pitcher is their closer, and rarely does that closer even appear in the 8th inning. But that’s just bad strategy. Remember that Buck Showalter failed to use Zach Britton (far and away his best reliever) in the Wild Card play-in game because the Orioles never had a lead. What’s the point of having a great reliever if he never takes the mound?
Francona understands this. Asked why he turned to Miller in the 5th inning of Game 1 of the ALDS, Francona put it simply: “Well, he’s really good.”
That’s something of an understatement. Miller has been completely untouchable these playoffs. In the ALCS, he has faced 12 batters and struck out 10 of them. Through the five games the Indians have played in the playoffs, Miller has faced 28 batters in total and struck out 17. He’s yet to concede a run, and is already on the edge of history. From ESPN:
“He is the first reliever in MLB history with at least five strikeouts in back-to-back games, and the sixth to have multiple five-strikeout games out of the bullpen in a single series.”
Miller’s slider has been particularly effective. From ESPN:
“All 10 of his strikeouts against the Blue Jays have come with that pitch. Twenty-six of his 31 sliders this series have resulted in strikes. Of the 16 times the Blue Jays swung at his slider, they missed 12 times, fouled pitches off three times and put the ball in play just once (Donaldson’s single in Game 1).”
Here’s Miller’s performance in Game 1:
Miller has been so dominant thus far that he’s earned praise of Pedro Martinez:
I have been in many postseasons and hadn’t seen anybody dominate like Andrew Miller.
— Pedro Martinez (@45PedroMartinez) October 15, 2016
Yankees fans will kindly ask Martinez to remember another reliever by the name of Mariano Rivera, but the praise here is, of course, still completely warranted.
Think about what a weapon Miller is under Francona’s strategy. Assuming Cleveland’s starters can go just 5 and 6 innings, Miller is almost a lock to get his team to the 9th. Cody Allen may not be quite as untouchable as Miller at the moment, but as the team’s closer he hasn’t conceded a run in the playoffs, either.
It’s a perfect formula for playoff success, and no coincidence that the Indians are just two games from the World Series.
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