High Risk, Higher Reward: Cardinals Make a Bold Move For Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller is a big man, a big name, and a big-game hunter in the postseason. Assuming that the Cardinals and Miller finalize their free-agent contract, the Cards have added one of the more fearsome relievers in Major League Baseball.

So why I so fearful of this apparent agreement?

There are two sides to the Miller story.

THE  POSITIVES

He is a menacing, nasty, towering (6-7), left-handed presence with a slider that slays hitters. From 2014 through 2017, Miller was third among MLB relievers with 9.6 WAR. He was second with 14.63 WPA. He had the third-best ERA (1.72) and FIP (1.83.) He ranked first in WHIP (0.79.) He was tied for second with a 41.8 percent strikeout rate. He had the second-lowest contact rate allowed by a reliever (63.8%.) Miller has been an innings-eating, lineup-devouring weapon in the postseason. Pitching out of Cleveland’s bullpen for the 2016-2017 postseasons, Miller conceded four earned runs in 24.1 innings (1.48 ERA), struck out 38, and allowed a .188 average, .247 onbase percentage, and .318 slugging percentage.

Miller’s supreme dominance and multi-innings usage during his 2016 postseason appearances made him one of the most memorable stars of October. Miller won the MVP award for his wipeout work in the ’16 ALCS.  In 11.2 innings against Toronto in that ALCS, Miller didn’t give up a run, was scratched for only five hits and struck out 21 of 41 batters faced. That’s a preposterous K rate of 51.2 percent.

“He’s just one of those guys that has an arm slot you just can’t really plan for, you can’t really practice against,” said Miller’s teammate, Jason Kipnis, late in 2016. “Not to mention the stuff he has is incredible. He’s not fun. We know some guy may get a hit. It will happen. He knows it will happen. But the chances of them stringing together 3-4 hits to get a crooked number off him are very unlikely.”

Added then-teammate Rajai Davis:  “When you think about what he’s doing against major-league hitters, some of the best hitters in the game, and he’s making them look that bad? He’s got stuff,” His deception, his sharpness on his curve and his slider, they look like they’re going to be strikes and then when you go to swing, they’re not a strike. And they’re so close that they could be.”

Miller is a superb teammate. He thrives on pressure. He wants to be great. Nothing rattles him, or scares him. And in terms of professionalism — and the highest of standards — Miller will be an excellent example for young Cards’ relievers.

THE  CONCERNS 

Miller, 33, turns 34 on May 21.  He’s been worked hard in the regular season and the postseason. It may not seem like much, but Miller has been a postseason fixture since 2014, appearing in 22 games and pitching 33 innings over the last five Octobers. The labor and intensity of innings began to wear him down in 2017, but especially 2018. Shoulder and knee problems put Miller on the disabled list three times last season, with a total of 99 days missed.  The DL stints included a 70-day shutdown from late May through early August, with Miller rehabbing a painful knee. That right knee became a source of torment for Miller late in the 2017 season.

Here’s the bottom-line breakdown of Miller’s baseball-health issues over the past two seasons: Placed on the DL five times … spent 140 days on the DL … and while on the DL Miller received a total $6.806 million in paychecks for not pitching. Miller very much wanted to pitch; he’s a great competitor. But Miller’s problematic right knee, irritated left shoulder, and a strained hamstring prevented him from working.

Accordingly, Miller’s performance declined in 2018.

The particulars:

  • Miller pitched 34.1 innings, his fewest in a season since 2013. He yielded 31 hits in the 34.1 innings; to put that in perspective consider this: Miller also gave up 31 hits in 2017, but they were scattered over 62.2 innings.
  • Miller’s ERA soared to 4.24. It was a more reasonable 3.51 based on FIP. Miller was a victim of unlucky batted-ball randomness, as indicated by the .329 average on balls in play against him in 2018.
  • Miller’s hard-contact rate was an alarming 41.4% in 2018 — up from 24% over the previous two seasons.
  • The Miller strikeout rate remained robust at 29.2%. However: here’s the sequence of his K rates starting in 2014, and there’s a trend: 42.6% in ’14 … 40.7% in ’15 … 44.7% in 16 … 38.9% in 2017 … and 29.2% in 2018.
  • Miller’ strikeout-walk ratio was 2.81, his worst since 2012. And way down from his peak K-BB ratio of 13.67 in 2016.
  • The contact rate against Miller jumped to just under 70 percent last season; it’s been rising since his career-low contact rate of 59.1% for the Yankees in 2015.  His swinging-strike rate has dropped accordingly — but it was still a healthy 13.2% last season.
  • Batters didn’t chase as many pitches out of the strike zone last season. According to FanGraphs, the out of zone chase percentage was 27.7 percent in 2018. That’s good. But not as formidable as Miller’s OOZ chase rate in 2015 (35.2%) … 2016 (40.5%) … and 2017 (36.2%).  If hitters are laying off the Miller slider at a higher rate, that won’t be good for him.
  • Miller’s slider averaged 83.3 mph last season … down from the 84-to-85 range in his previous four seasons. His fastball clocked in at an average of 93.6 mph. That’s plenty of heat. But not as much heat as his average fastball velocities as 95.1 mph in 2015, and 95.4 mph in 2016. The decrease in velocity began in 2017 (average fastball, 94.5 mph.)

THE BOTTOM LINE

Miller had 0.4 WAR last season. In the previous four seasons he averaged 2.4 WAR.

On the other hand: the entire Cardinals bullpen had an 0.5 WAR last season.

So even the 2018 version of Miller is an upgrade. Even if Miller’s stuff is diminishing to an extent, he’s a vastly superior lefty reliever when measured against Brett Cecil, Chasen Shreve and Tyler Webb. (Left-handed prospect Genesis Cabrera — as well as young LH starter Austin Gomber — could be lefty relief options as well in in 2019.)

At the time I write this, the Cardinals-Miller deal wasn’t official.

And no specific terms have been floated by the baseball media, though Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports reports that Miller will receive a multi-year deal. The number of years in a Miller-Cards contract will obviously influence the degree of risk being taken by the Cardinals. But no question, the Cardinals are taking a risk in signing Miller to a multi year deal.

Here’s ESPN’s David Schoenfield, writing before the opening of the free-agent market: “Obviously, two years of knee problems has to place him in the high-risk category. Maybe he’ll look for a one-year contract to rebuild value — in which case he could be a bargain — or maybe he gets a much riskier three-year deal. Even with the injury problems, his strikeout rate was still high last year and a .329 BABIP may have inflated his hit rate. He could end up being the best reliever in this group or maybe never be vintage Andrew Miller again.”

Last week at the baseball winter meetings, Cleveland manager Terry Francona was asked about Miller’s viability during a Q&A session with reporters.

“Oh, he’ll be fine,” Francona said. “I hope he goes to the National League. That’s how confident I am he’ll bounce back.”

Following up on their big acquisition of Arizona first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak and GM Michael Girsch have made another bold move here. Some will say that they should have signed another LH free agent, Zach Britton. But Britton is represented by agent Scott Boras, who is clearly slow playing the negotiations in an understandable effort to lure several interested teams into a bidding battle for Britton.

By the way, Britton comes with his own warning label. He had knee and forearm injuries in 2017 and blew out an Achilles while working out last winter — and has pitched just 78 innings over the past  two seasons. And his strikeout-walk rate has collapsed.  Hitters are refusing to hack at Britton’s slider, and that makes him less effective.

Here’s what Schoenfield wrote earlier: “He’s throwing the same percentage of pitches in the strike zone, but hitters are swinging less often and chasing less often. As a result, his walk rate is up and his strikeout rate is down. I think there’s still a solid reliever here, but I’m skeptical we’re going to see the guy who posted three straight sub-2.00 ERAs again unless he adds to his pitch mix.”

Offseason moves can be impacted by timing, and Miller was obviously the sure thing. It made no sense for the Cardinals to wait and wait and wait while Boras engages teams in his annual offseason mating-ritual dance — only to miss out on Britton with Miller long gone from the market. Miller had good offers on the table, and was ready to sign. The Cardinals went for it. As they should have.

Miller doesn’t have to be the 2016 model to give the Cardinals a better bullpen.

But if Miller has that knee fixed, it should put him in good shape to return closer to form. If Miller can perform better than the 2018 version of himself, the Cardinals will have few if any regrets for signing him.

High risk. High reward.

That’s free agency. That’s baseball.

Thanks for reading …

-Bernie