Bernie’s Offseason Audit. Next Up: The Age-Related Decline of Cardinals Reliever Andrew Miller

Welcome to another edition of The Audit. It’s my series of taking a look back at relevant members of the 2019 Cardinals — and then looking ahead to what we can reasonably expect in 2020.

Just a friendly reminder: for offense, when I cite wRC+ (aka park-adjusted runs created) a mark of 100 is the league average. And the same applies to OPS+ … 100 is average. The more that a hitter gets above 100 in either of these metrics, the better he is. A wRC+ of 150 means that a hitter is 50 percent better than a league-average hitter.

As for pitching: on occasion I will cite ERA+ .  That metric uses a pitcher’s standard ERA and normalizes it by taking into account the externals factors such as ballparks, opponents and trends in a given season. A score of 100 is league average which means that a 125 ERA+ is 25 percent better than the league average.

Let’s get to it …

Today: Left-handed reliever Andrew Miller.

The big picture: the Cardinals signed Miller, then 32, to a two-year contract worth $25 million before the 2019 season. The contract has a $12 million team option for 2021; the Cardinals can terminate third year by buying Miller out at a cost of $2.5 million. But it isn’t that simple. According to Cot’s baseball contracts, the deal includes a vesting option that kicks in if Miller pitches in 110 games — combined — in 2019-2020. This past season Miller appeared in 73 games. With 37 appearances by Miller in 2020, the Cardinals will owe him a guaranteed $12 million for 2021. Based on the number of appearances per season Miller can reach incentives that can add around $1.5 million to the total contract over a three-season period. He picked up $500,000 in incentives during 2019.

The truth and the reality: Miller, who will be 35 on May 21, was among the truly elite MLB relievers from 2012 through 2017. But his performance declined in an injury-ripped 2018 season with Cleveland. And though he was good at times in 2019, Miller’s performance eroded again — even more alarmingly during his first year with the Cardinals. Though Miller returned to pitching health, the Cardinals didn’t get the positive results they’d hoped for in 2019.

Miller’s ERA+, before and after: From 2014-2017, Miller averaged an astounding 248 ERA+ per season; that was a whopping 148 percent ABOVE league average. In 2019, his ERA+ for the Cardinals was 97, or three percent below league average. Damn.

The 2019 season: In 73 appearances Miller worked 54 and ⅔ innings and pitched to a 4.45 ERA and 5.19 fielding independent (FIP) ERA. That ERA and FIP were the worst by Miller in a season since he transitioned into full-time relief at the start of 2012. After crafting a 1.72 ERA from 2014 through 2017, Miller has slumped to a 4.36 ERA over his last two seasons.

Home-run derby: Miller’s HR-allowed rate, only 0.7 per nine innings from 2014-2017, has doubled to 1.4 per nine over the past two seasons. Miller was rocked for allowed 1.81 homers per nine innings for the Cardinals in ‘19. It was the worst HR rate in his eight MLB seasons as a reliever.

Strikeouts and walks: From 2014 through 2017, Miller had a remarkable overall strikeout rate of 41.8 percent, with a walk rate of 6.7 percent. His strikeout-walk ratio was an excellent 6.3. His walks-hits per inning (WHIP) was 0.75. But over the last two seasons Miller’s strikeout rate fell to 29.5 percent, with his walk rate inflating to 11 percent. The WHIP rose to 1.35 … and Miller’s 2.7 K-BB ratio over 2018-2019 was a dramatic fall-off from his previous level.

Looking at 2019 only, Miller had a 29.7% strikeout rate with an 11.4% walk rate and 1.32 WHIP … plus a 2.59 K-BB ratio. His strikeout rate is still robust — but not in the same hemisphere of his 40 percent range from his peak seasons.

The strikeout rate would look a lot better as a stand-alone stat. But we can’t really separate it from the home-run bug and the elevated walk rate. But at least the strikeout rate tells us something: Miller still has a punch,

Wins Above Replacement: From 2014-2017 Miller averaged 2.35 WAR per season, which was tied for second among qualifying MLB relievers over that time. He plummeted to 0.4 WAR for the Indians in 2018. And in 2019 Miller came in below the replacement level at minus 0.4. That -0.4 put Miller tied for 90th among qualifying MLB relievers in 2019.

Miller vs. LH batters: He faced 111 left-side hitters in 2019. They batted .213 against him with a .333 OBP and .340 slug. His strikeout-walk ratio against LHB was a mediocre 2.8, and he yielded a fat 1.4 homers per nine. When going against LH bats, Miller posted the equivalent of a 3.96 ERA and 4.21 FIP. And while Miller maintained a healthy strikeout rate against LHB — 35%, which was 12th best among qualifying relievers — his walk rate vs. LHB soared to 12.6 percent.

During his 2014-17 peak, Miller allowed LHB a .179 average, .228 OBP and .280 slug with a 6.8 K-BB ratio. It computed to a 2.07 ERA and 1.78 FIP. So while his 2019 performance vs. LH hitters was mostly fine — but it represented a significant descent from his past dominance.

Miller vs. RH batters in 2019: Not good. Awful, actually. He was popped for a .453 slugging percentage and 2.1 homers per nine innings, with an ERA of 4.85 and a 6.01 FIP. From 2014-2017 Miller made easy work of RH batters: a 41.6% strikeout rate, .221 OBP and .229 slug.

Loss of Velocity: According to Brooks Baseball, Miller’s four-seam fastball averaged 92.7 miles per hour, his lowest velocity with the pitch in eight seasons as a reliever. As recently as 2017, Miller averaged 95.3 mph on the four-seamer. His slider velocity dipped for the third year in a row, down to 82.7 mph. Miller’s four-seam fastball is no longer a formidable weapon; in 2019 opponents mashed it for a .522 slugging percentage compared to a .310 slug against his slider.

From Inside Edge:

1. Miller threw his slider  61.2% of the time in the 2019 season — the 2nd highest rate among qualified MLB relievers … and more than double the league average of 28 percent sliders. He used the slider 64.3% of the time vs LHB in 2019 season, the third highest rate among qualified relievers.

2. Miller recorded 35 of his 40 strikeouts (87.5%) vs LHB with his slider in 2019 season — 3rd highest among qualified relievers. And high above the league average of 28.%.

3. Miller notched 53 of his total 70 strikeouts (75.7%) with his slider in ‘19 season; that was 8th highest among qualified relievers and way above the league average of 29.8%.

4. When behind in the count, Miller lost trust in his fastball. He threw off-speed pitches 57% of the time when down in the count; that was 5th highest among qualified relievers. The league average: 32.2%.

5. To remedy his fading four-seam fastball, Miller ramped up his effort to get hitters to chase it outside of the strike zone. But that didn’t happen; they chased only 16 of 88 fastballs off the plate (18.2%) in 2019 season — 5th lowest among qualified relievers.

Baseball Reference Projection for 2020: more of the same, but perhaps a tad better, with a 4.18 ERA and 1.4 homers per nine IP. But the strikeout-walk ratio projection (2.7) isn’t encouraging. The forecast calls for a 27 percent K rate and 10% walk rate.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie