Building a better bullpen: The next Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller took the baseball world by storm this postseason. When he was acquired by the Cleveland Indians from the New York Yankees at the trade deadline, it was assumed by many that they had just fortified their bullpen with a great closer. Bullpen stopper is more like it. Terry Francona already had a pretty respectable closer in Cody Allen, who has now topped the 30-save mark for two consecutive seasons. Not wanting to disrupt what was already in place, Francona has taken to using Miller in high leverage situations, whether it be the fifth inning or eighth inning.

The results have seen Miller be nearly unhittable and the Indians have changed the way the game is being managed. The banter around the baseball water cooler is now that this should be the formula for success going forward. So, let’s take a look at how Miller got to this point and see if there are any predictors that could show where to find more like him.

Miller began his professional baseball life in the Detroit Tigers organization and was shipped to the Florida Marlins as part of the return for Miguel Cabrera. A high walk rate led to his being shipped to the Boston Red Sox, who a short time later banished him to the bullpen, where his walk rate was cut in half almost immediately. Many starters who never attain command of a full arsenal of pitches often find success in the bullpen by sticking to their two best pitches. But, to cut your walk rate in half? Pretty impressive. Miller essentially throws fastball and slider from such a sweeping arm angle that it is difficult for hitters to distinguish the two pitches out of his hand. The movement and command are so good they can both be thrown in any count.

So, now we know that to find the next Andrew Miller, you just need a pitcher with low walk and hit rates and high strikeout rates. Easier said than done, of course. But, there is a group of the top relievers in the game that were recently failed starters either after arriving in the majors or were on the cusp in the top levels of the minors. Luke Hochevar, Wade Davis, Dellin Betances, Hector Rondon, Aroldis Chapman, Zach Britton, Jeurys Familia, Trevor Rosenthal, Kelvin Herrera, and Jake McGee have all worn the failed starter hat in recent seasons, yet have found great success in the bullpen.

Just like Miller, many of these were starters with high walk rates. Betances saw a similar drop in his walk rate when the Yankees moved him to the bullpen, dropping from around 8.0 BB/9 down to 2.5 BB/9. He always had an electric fastball, but he didn’t have the control of all his pitches to pitch deep into games effectively. Pitching in the bullpen allowed him to focus on just using his two best pitches (fastball and curveball) and unleash a higher velocity on his fastball since he was only pitching one or two innings at a time. I could go on and on about how the rest of this group has improved since being moved to the bullpen, but the bottom line is that these twelve are among the top relievers in the game today.

Giving up on a prospect who was supposed to be the next great starting pitcher is no easy thing, but with the way the game is changing, bullpen pieces are going to become more and more important sooner than later. Moving a guy like Miller to the bullpen gives you the luxury of extending innings for his outings. Let’s face it, the best reliever on a pitching staff should log the most innings of anyone in the bullpen. It only makes sense if he does this when the game is most in doubt. So to find the next Miller, find the former starter who was rushed to the majors and struggled but always had good stuff. Be patient with him and see if moving him to the pen doesn’t help clear up the issues that have plagued him. If you want to find the next Miller, try to find the next ace pitcher and don’t be afraid to change his role if starting doesn’t work out. Luis Severino of the Yankees is one of the first that come to mind after the success he had in 2016 once he went to the bullpen.

The argument has been that closers are not going to want to give up the ninth inning because that is what their contract is valued on. In the scenario of the Indians in 2016, their closer is still doing the same thing. The market will reflect the value that these firemen like Miller bring to the game and I feel will become on par with the dollars that closers get paid now, if not more. I would expect him to be the first to benefit from this revaluation. “Bullpenning” is upon us. It will now be interesting to see who will be the first to use it in the regular season.

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