Francona finding innovating way to use best reliever

Dan Armelli

Dan Armelli

I had my doubts at first. The only doubt I didn’t have, however, was that the Cleveland Indians’ newest bullpen arm, arguably the best in baseball, should be the “closer” for the first place team in the American League Central.

Not only would newly acquired Andrew Miller be the best reliever for the Indians, but at the price it cost the Indians – including two top 100 prospects in outfielder Clint Frazier (currently No. 17 overall) and pitcher Justus Sheffield (No. 83) – why would the Indians do anything with Miller except to put him in the most important position a pitcher of his caliber could be put in?

Unless, it’s not. Manager Terry Francona has found a better usage for him — one that I was confused by at first, but now ultimately makes sense to me.

Francona is doing the wise thing by not pigeonholing Miller into a specific inning, which could’ve led to Miller coming in to face batters that frankly aren’t worthy of seeing his pitches. The goal is to use Miller in the highest leverage situations in a given game; ones that won’t necessarily always be in the ninth inning.

Take for instance the Tribe’s Aug. 14 game against the Los Angeles Angels. Miller came on in the seventh inning with no outs to face the bottom of the order, pretty much the exact opposite of high leverage, though the Indians were clinging to a one-run lead.

However, the third hitter of that inning, 29-year-old rookie Nick Buss, came up to the plate, having hit a double and a triple that day.

Miller was able to retire the side on just nine pitches. Fortunately for Indians fans, Francona knew he could stretch out Miller more than just nine pitches instead of simply giving him the hook after an inning.

Miller went back on the mound to face the Angels top of the lineup (thankfully outfielder Mike Trout wasn’t playing that day). Miller induced a groundout and fly out to Yunel Escobar and Kole Calhoun, respectively.

Seven pitches later Miller struck out Albert Pujols, sending the game to the bottom of the eighth with the Indians’ one-run lead still in tact.

That’s why Miller was brought to Cleveland.

It was the first, and not the last, time the Indians would use Miller for two full innings. And if he’s only going to throw 20-25 pitches in these outings, why not utilize this strategy?

It strengthens the possibility that Miller will indeed be put in the highest leveraged situation possible in this game, and Cody Allen is a good and experienced enough reliever to close out games.

Miller collected 45 saves in his year and a half with the Yankees, during which for some of the time he took a backseat to Aroldis Chapman.

Batters this year are hitting below .200 from both sides of the plate against the lefty Miller. There seems to be no situation in which Miller can’t pitch effectively, which is exactly why Francona can afford to use him the way he does.

The statistics also back up the way Francona is using Miller, including FanGraph’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR), which is a statistic/tool that helps determine “a player’s total contributions to his team.”

There are three different types of WAR. Among other factors, FanGraphs uses fielding independent pitching (FIP) — “what a player’s ERA would look like over a given period of time if the pitcher were to have experienced league average results on balls in play and league average timing,” as described in their use of pitchers’ WAR, or fWAR in this instance.

This is a category that Tribe ace Corey Kluber has found himself near the top at for most of the season — unlike WAR, even given his rough start by his standards.

In August, Miller finished with the fifth best fWAR in the AL among relievers (0.5), giving legitimacy to Francona’s strategy. With a bigger sample size to come as Miller gets more innings, it’s no stretch to say he will continue to ascend in this category and help the Indians win more games as the high leverage situations increase.

With Miller able to come into feasibly any situation, it’s up to Francona to decide when to bring his most talented bullpen arm into the game.

Dan Armelli is a columnist, contact him at .[email protected]