Andrew Miller and the Indians’ Bullpen Have Taken Over the American League Playoffs

In the top of the third inning of game 1 of the divisional series between the Red Sox and Indians, Boston left fielder Andrew Benintendi homered to right center field to give his team a 2–1 lead.

The Red Sox would maintain that one run advantage of exactly one half-inning, as Roberto Perez, Jason Kipnis and Francisco Lindor would each put a ball in the right field bleachers in the bottom half. The Indians have not trailed since.

That’s 12 days, 6+ games and 51 1/2 innings and counting where Cleveland’s most dire situation was a tie ballgame.

Despite that third inning, they’ve not sustained this run of success by continuing to bludgeon opponents with their bats. In fact, their 3.8 runs per game in the playoffs is a full run below their regular season average, when they were the second highest scoring team in the AL (behind Boston).

No, the reason they’ll have gone well over 200 hours without trailing in a baseball game by first pitch this afternoon — and you know this if you’ve watched even one of those games — is their bullpen.

Part of that effectiveness has been manager Terry Francona’s creativity and willingness to use his relievers in situations that divert from traditional managerial norms. In that same game 1, Andrew Miller entered the game in the fifth inning, and the analytically-inclined popped small, invisible bottles of champagne all across the country.

Especially coming off of Buck Showalter’s decision earlier that week to leave Cy Young candidate Zach Britton in the bullpen as his team’s season melted away, Tito’s choice to bring Miller in so early was a pleasant surprise. The fireman reliever, ala Goose Gossage, had long since been replaced by rigid segmentation of bullpen roles, where the set up man came in in the 8th before handing things off to the closer in the 9th, and if it wasn’t one of those innings you better not use those guys because what if you need them later you might need them later we might be in a one run game and then who are we supposed to put on the mound…

Unlike Showalter and the Orioles, Francona was not going to end the game with any bullets left in his gun. His willingness to get multiple innings out of Miller as his offense tried to extend the lead, rather than save Miller for a single inning in the hopes that lesser relievers could maintain the current scoring advantage, showed a value of process over results, and very well may have changed how postseason bullpens are managed for the foreseeable future.

Of course, when you put Andrew Miller on the mound, it’s not just about the process. The results are damn good too.

Miller, along with Cubs infielder Javier Baez, has been the breakout star of these playoffs. The term “breakout” may imply that Miller has not shown this level of performance before, and that’s certainly not the case. He’s been dominant for a long time now — maybe best reliever in baseball good — but it’s his workload combined with that performance that’s made him such a standout.

Since coming to the Indians at the trade deadline, Miller has been as good as ever, but he was only asked to throw more than one inning on eight occasions. Thus far in the postseason he’s not gone less than one and a third in any appearance, and the Indians have just over half of the wins they’d need to bring a title back to Cleveland. In fact, he’s gone two innings three times already, just one short of his regular season total between both Cleveland and New York.

The key to his success this postseason, and to his career, has been the effectiveness of his slider, perhaps the best wipeout pitch in the major leagues:

That location is no accident, and neither is the result. Miller’s two-strike approach all season has been to backfoot right handers and run that sweeping slider away from lefties:

Miller is essentially a two-pitch pitcher — fastball/slider — and the latter has been as devastating as ever in October. When batters swing at Miller’s slider, they are missing the ball an incredible 61 percent of the time. He’s basically Randy Johnson at the moment.

On most teams, the horse is a starter, a pitcher capable of giving you seven or eight innings twice a series. See Kershaw, Clayton. However, the Indians are not most teams because of Francona’s managerial style, and for them it’s Miller with the saddle on his back. You’d have a hard time making an argument they’ve lost anything with this alternative approach.

It’s not just Miller that has Cleveland one win away from its first World Series appearance in 19 years.

After Game 2 in Cleveland, Blue Jays outfielder and resident bat flipper Jose Bautista claimed that “circumstances” were holding the Blue Jays back, by which he presumably meant the umpires.

Bautista may have some legitimate beef there, but the umpires aren’t the circumstances swinging the series. It’s the Francona and the Cleveland bullpen, and their success goes well beyond Andrew Miller.

Never was that more evident than last night, when Trevor Bauer’s drone-inflicted, blood gushing, open wound on his pinky forced him to leave the game after just two-thirds of an inning.

For most teams, this would be a disaster, even with the prior knowledge that something like this could happen considering 1) the nature of Bauer’s injury; and 2) the fact that he’s not allowed to have a bandage or any other type of adhesive on his hand while he pitches.

That’s not to say that the Indians were free from concern. They certainly weren’t. Asking 8 1/3 innings from your bullpen is a lot to ask, even from one as good as this.

But Francona made it work. No Indians reliever — six in total — threw more than 1 2/3 innings, but as a group they put together this line: 8 1/3 innings, seven hits, one walk, eight strikeouts, and two runs. It was a masterpiece held together by silly putty and glue.

Once again, it was Francona’s willingness to be flexible with those relievers roles that made it all possible. After serving as the closer all season, Cody Allen came in during the 7th inning to face the right-hand heavy heart of the Toronto order and get five massive outs. After serving as the set-up/fireman all season, it was Miller shutting the door and earning the save.

If you’re a Cleveland reliever, especially in the postseason, there is no defined role for you. But that’s exactly what’s allowing this team to succeed right now, and it very well could be the reason they’re popping champagne bottles tonight as they make their way back to the World Series.

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