When former Diamond Heel Andrew Miller comes in to the game for the Cleveland Indians, the inning is already over. His minuscule 0.98 ERA and 83 Ks in 55 innings since being traded to Cleveland make it easy to understand why; not to mention he was the 4th ever reliever to win an ALCS MVP (besides Dennis Eckersley, Mariano Rivera and Koji Uehara…. they were pretty good) in 2016.
His bullpen dominance has been an incredible resurgence for a pitcher that had an ERA of 5.70 as a starter. With Miller’s stock at an all-time high, and the Heels getting ready to compete for a 10th College World Series appearance, let’s take a look at one of the most decorated Heels to ever step over the chalk line.
Miller’s story begins at Buchholz High School in Gainesville, Florida. As a senior he was named the Gatorade Player of the Year in the state, along with a preseason and postseason All-American. His accomplishments and skill did not go unnoticed as he was drafted 63rd overall by the then Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
Lucky for us Heels, he decided to take his talents to Chapel Hill where he began to shine right away. As a freshman, he found himself in the rotation right away making 15 starts and compiling a 2.93 ERA in 89 innings. These impressive numbers were enough to get him second team All-ACC, opened the eyes of many MLB scouts. He received an invite to the Cape Cod Collegiate Summer Baseball League for the summer of 2003. Whoever hadn’t noticed him during his first year at UNC had a rude awakening on Miller’s skillset. Not only was he a Cape Cod All-star, he was also named the #1 MLB prospect in the league by Baseball America.
There was no sophomore slump for Miller as he was once again second team All-ACC and the Diamond Heel’s Friday started for most the season. A 2.98 ERA and 104 Ks in 96 innings once again had MLB scouts salivating over the 6’7 lefty. He again played in the Cape Cod league, and was again named the #1 MLB prospect in the league. Junior year was Miller’s coming out party nationally.
On a team that came within 1 game of winning the College World Series he was the bona fide ace with a 2.48 ERA, a 13-2 record, and 133 Ks in 123 innings. He was named Baseball America’s national player of the year to go along with ACC pitcher of the year and first team All-ACC. He left Chapel Hill having both the single season and career strikeout records at 133 and 325 respectively. It looked like the sky was the limit for the lanky southpaw, and the Detroit Tigers drafted him sixth overall in the 2006 MLB Draft.
In 2006 Miller spent most the season in the minors only throwing 10 innings for the big-league Tigers. In 2007 he one again started in the minors but made it up to the MLB to make 13 starts. The results left much to be desired. A 5.63 ERA and 39 walks in 64 innings was not exactly top 10 pick production, and the Tigers began to shop him. The Tigers then hit the jackpot trading Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin to the Marlins for a guy named Miguel Cabrera (he’s pretty darn good too).
From 2008-2010 Miller began each season in the minor leagues before ending up in the majors for all three. The change of scenario didn’t help Miller’s number however compiling a 10-20 record and a 5.89 ERA with 125 walks in 220 innings with the Fish. It was safe to say Miller was struggling with control. In 2010 Miller’s contract was up in Miami and he found a new home; Fenway Park in Boston.
2011 began the same way the other professional years for Andrew Miller had. Following a brief stint in the minors, he eventually made it to the big leagues and struggled to a 5.54 ERA in 65 innings with 41 walks. 2012 was the beginning of the new and improved Andrew Miller. He began the season once again in the minor leagues but with a different role.
Instead of a control issue starter, Boston moved him to the bullpen. Miller’s career took off. He finished the 2012 season with 40 innings and 51 strikeouts with a much improved 3.35 ERA. Control was still an issue with 20 walks, but as a reliever he had an easier time working through the free base runners. 2013 was much of the same for Miller finishing the season with a 2.64 ERA and a whopping 30.2 innings with 48 Ks and only 17 free passes.
Once 2014 rolled around he had established himself as one of the best relievers in the game, and between Boston and getting traded to Baltimore he had a combined 2.04 ERA and a ridiculous 69 strikeouts and in 42 innings. His control issues had been completely figured out with only 13 walks. After the 2014 season, he was a free agent once again, except this time he was now worth his weight in gold.
The New York Yankees signed Miller to a four-year/$36 million deal to be their closer. One could argue the Yankees underpaid for him, as he had a 1.77 ERA in 107 innings and 177 strikeouts with only 27 walks before he was traded in a blockbuster deadline deal to the Cleveland Indians. His playoff performances in 2016 was again unbelievable before Cleveland fell to the Chicago Cubs in the World Series. He is now a true superstar pitcher in the game of baseball, but it still begs the question of “what in the world made him so inconsistent as a starter but so good as a closer?”
The first answer to this question seems to be fastball velocity. When looking at fangraphs.com (a website which tracks all MLB pitches and statistics), his average fastball as a starter was anywhere from 90.8 mph to 92.3 mph. When he was moved to the bullpen that number jumped to 93.8 mph to 95 mph. This could be due to a change in mechanics, but a main reason for this is the “let it rip” mentality in the bullpen vs “get deep into games” as a starter.
In baseball, any velocity increase is a big deal to a hitter, but 2-5 mph is a world of difference. The other answer to this question is Miller’s knee-buckling slider. When he was a starter the most Miller threw the breaking ball was 287 times in a season. As a reliever, the number has jumped to as high as 668. It also saw a velocity jump like the fastball, from an average of 79 mph starting games to as high as 85 mph in a season in the bullpen. His slider has always been one of the best pitches in baseball but adding 6 mph makes it just about untouchable. These two large changes are a huge piece of how Miller has upped his game.
Andrew Miller will forever be one of the most decorated Diamond Heels in history at the collegiate level, but it certainly looked like his career in the MLB would be a bit of a disappointment compared to his potential. Now with the move to the bullpen he is dominant once again, and he it doesn’t look like it will stop any time soon.
PS - How fun is this to watch