BOSTON (CBS) — The Red Sox have the better starting pitching, the Red Sox have the better lineup. But if you’re looking for a key to the American League Division Series between the Red Sox and Cleveland Indians that begins tonight, his name is Andrew Miller.
Plain and simple, the Red Sox may not have an answer for him.
Because nobody really does.
Even more worrisome, of course, is the fact that Cleveland manager Terry Francona has perfected the art of using Miller, who arrived in Cleveland at the Aug. 1 trading deadline. Since that time, Miller has made 26 appearances during which the Indians have posted a 23-3 record, with Miller recording four wins, three saves and nine holds. (Overall this season, the Yankees and Indians were 59-11 when Miller pitched.) What Francona has effectively done with Miller is to use him the way former Red Sox general mananger Theo Epstein wanted to employ his best reliever during the famed closer-by-committee experiment of 2003, before Francona arrived in Boston.
Think about it: the closer-by-committee approach is built on the notion that the most important outs of a game are often recorded before the eighth ninth inning. So that’s when a team should use its best reliever. The problem is that the Red sox did not have the personnel – or the manager – to make it work, and Cleveland now seemingly does.
As such, Miller is always there, lurking in the bullpen until, presumably, the middle innings. But given Cleveland’s issues in the starting rotation, would it totally shock you if Francona brought him to pitch in, say, the fourth inning of a crucial game? (OK, that’s probably a little early, but you get the idea.) If the Indians are in trouble, Francona can always go to Miller to get out of it – and then he can probably go with Miller for another two innings after that.
Consider: Assuming a minimum of 100 innings over the last three seasons combined, the four pitchers with the lowest ERAs in baseball are all relievers: Wade Davis, Zach Britton, Aroldis Chapman and – you guessed it – Miller. During that span, Miller is a preposterous 18-8 with a 1.77 ERA and major league-leading 0.77 WHIP while averaging 14.79 strikeouts and just 2.09 walks per nine innings. He has been arguably the hardest pitcher in baseball to reach base against.
Two nights ago, Orioles manager Buck Showalter had a similar weapon in Britton and couldn’t figure out how to use him; Francona won’t make the same mistake.
Overall this season, Miller is 10-1 (including 4-0 with Cleveland) with 25 holds and 12 saves. No other pitcher in baseball reached double digits in all three statistics. While that speaks to Miller’s versatility, it also speaks to his dominance. He can pitch against right-handers (.153/.195/.279/.474) and lefties (.181/.189/.333/.523), and he can pitch in middle relief, set up or close. If the Indians hit the heart of the Red Sox order in the sixth inning of a close game, you can bet that Miller will be coming in. If the best hitters in the Boston lineup come later, Miller will enter then. But you’re going to get him, one way or another, unless the Sox can somehow get control of games early and keep Miller in his warm-up jacket.
Entering this series, much has been made of the Red sox’ clear and decisive edge in the starting rotation, which may or may not mean anything. Last year, for example, Kansas City Royals starters had a 4.97 ERA … and won the World Series. (Royals relievers, by contrast, were nearly half that number at 2.51.) Further, over the last four seasons, relief pitchers have accounted for a stunning 41.3 percent of all postseason innings pitched, which means that you don’t necessarily need good starting pitching to win. You just need good pitching, whether it’s at the beginning, middle or end.
In this series, there is no better pitcher than Andrew Miller.
And somehow, some way, the Red Sox must ensure that he stays buried in the Cleveland bullpen so that he cannot single-handedly bury them or their season.