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Welcome (Maybe) to the Next Phase of Baseball’s New-Look Reliever Age

Only one team has Andrew Miller, but almost every team has the desire to find a comparable tool, and, early in the 2017 season, it appears that clubs’ attempt to replicate could lead them to do something even better: innovate

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Before we talk about this young season, let’s look back to last year, when Andrew Miller reinvented the relief ace role by serving as a multi-inning fireman for the Indians down the stretch and through the playoffs. It’s not too great a leap to call it a revolutionary development: Miller and manager Terry Francona reversed 100 years’ worth of evolution in which relief pitchers’ outings were getting shorter and their roles more rigid, and their innovation resulted in the middle reliever walking away with the ALCS MVP award.

Miller might be better-suited to this role than any other pitcher in baseball. Not only is he either the sport’s best relief pitcher or close to it, but the manner in which he became a reliever allows him to pitch multiple innings. Miller, like most relievers, is a failed starter, a former no. 6 overall pick out of North Carolina who was supposed to turn into a scary headlining lefty, like Randy Johnson or what Chris Sale eventually became.

Miller washed out as a starter not due to injury or platoon issues, but because he couldn’t throw strikes. He’s figured out that part since moving to the bullpen and junking his changeup. In 66 career starts, Miller posted a 16.7 percent strikeout rate and an 11.9 percent walk rate. Last year with the Yankees and Indians, Miller struck out 44.7 percent of the batters he faced and walked only 3.3 percent. And he’s still the same physically imposing, rubber-armed birdman who throws like he’s cracking a bullwhip.

Though Miller might be the ideal, he’s not the only one who can fill this kind of relief role, and, considering how valuable he was last year, it’d be absolutely shocking if some other team didn’t try to create a Miller of its own, a process Ben Lindbergh explored just before Opening Day.

It’s too early in the season to tell which teams are making real progress in that search, but over the first few days, we’ve seen a few examples of a different kind of middle-relief worker: less of a high-leverage rally ender than a high-leverage innings eater, someone who can hold an opponent in check for several innings at a time after his team’s starter gets knocked out early, or as a game stretches into extra innings.

Since the start of the season, seven pitchers have combined for eight relief appearances of more than two innings, which isn’t in and of itself unusual. One of them was a five-run, 3.2-inning mop-up job by Detroit’s Aníbal Sánchez, who’s just barely hanging on at the end of his career. Another came courtesy of Angels right-hander J.C. Ramírez, an itinerant low-leverage middle reliever who’s pitched mostly an inning at a time since joining the Angels — this was his longest outing since last April 22. Philadelphia’s Adam Morgan entered a tie game Thursday in the sixth and threw 2.1 innings against the Reds, in which he allowed three runs and took the loss. Morgan is a left-handed former college starter and top-100 prospect, but the similarities to Miller end there.

Next up is Adam Warren of the Yankees. Warren, a former college teammate of Miller’s, was a valuable swingman for New York from 2013 to 2015, before he was traded to the Cubs for Starlin Castro in December 2015, then traded back in the Aroldis Chapman deal the following July. The weirdest thing about Warren is that he’s never been anything but really good for the Yankees, posting a 3.33 ERA over parts of six seasons in a variety of roles; with the Cubs, however, his ERA ballooned to 5.91, perhaps because his entire worldview is grounded on his pizza crust being a certain thickness and Chicago freaked him out.

Anyway, Warren’s already made two appearances of longer than two innings on the season, both in relief of a starter who got knocked out early — Masahiro Tanaka on Sunday and Michael Pineda on Wednesday. In both cases, manager Joe Girardi called on Tommy Layne to get three outs, then Warren for the next seven, and Warren’s yet to allow a base runner.

But the way Girardi is deploying Warren isn’t some reaction to Miller, particularly considering the Yankees already have Chapman and Dellin Betances for their high-leverage work. In fact, Warren’s been biting off chunks of games like this for years. In addition to 21 career starts, he has made 21 relief appearances of seven outs or more — those two figures add up to about 20 percent of his career appearances and about half of his career innings. Warren entered both games with the Yankees down multiple runs — his average leverage index entering a game this year is 0.27. In both cases, his job was to keep the Yankees in it long enough to mount a comeback, and both times the offense let him down.

Oakland’s Frankie Montas got eight outs Wednesday in mop-up duty, but his pedigree is more useful than his usage: The 24-year-old, a big-bodied (6-foot-2, 255 pounds) and hard-throwing Dominican, has already bounced around in three blockbuster trades, including deals for Jake Peavy, Todd Frazier, and Rich Hill. The White Sox and Dodgers were grooming Montas as a starter, but rib resection surgery in February 2016 and a broken rib in June limited him to 16 innings in the minors last year. The question with Montas is whether he can hold up to the particular stresses of operating as a fireman, and whether he’ll have trouble, as many recent bullpen converts do, entering the game with men already on base.

Unlike Miller’s fireman role, though, a high-leverage innings-eater role could offer Montas two ways around those problems: First, the A’s already have a deep bullpen, and if Ryan Dull or Sean Doolittle got the team out of immediate danger, it would give Montas an opportunity to start his outing with the bases clear. It would also obviate the need for him to stay warm and wait for a crisis like Miller does, thus avoiding extra wear and tear.

Of these seven pitchers, the one with the most biographical similarity to Miller is Archie Bradley. Like Miller, Bradley is tall (6-foot-4), throws hard, and was a high draft pick (no. 7 overall in 2011, the first of three Bradleys taken in the opening round that year). Like Miller, Bradley struggled to throw strikes as a starter (11.1 BB%) and didn’t strike out as many batters as his stuff would indicate he should have. On Tuesday, Bradley made his first career relief appearance — technically a mop-up outing with an average leverage index of only 0.26 — but his stuff was way better than mop-up grade.

Bradley got 10 outs, seven of them by strikeout, on 57 pitches, allowing three hits and one walk. One of the 33 four-seamers he threw that night hit 98.72 mph, the hardest pitch of his major league career. He looked like a yeti throwing a javelin. Bradley could very well become a traditional closer, because teams that begin a season with Fernando Rodney pitching the ninth inning rarely end the season that way, but Bradley is similar enough to Miller that a multi-inning fireman role could allow his stuff to play up while still taking advantage of his starter physicality.

Of these two-inning-plus appearances, the only one that came in a high-leverage situation also came from the pitcher whose usage most matched Miller’s last year: Houston’s Chris Devenski, who entered in the eighth inning of Wednesday’s Mariners-Astros game with the score tied at two and tossed up four no-hit innings with seven strikeouts. Last season Devenski finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting after he threw 108.1 innings in a variety of roles — five starts, 16 one-inning relief appearances, 27 multi-inning relief appearances. Here’s one of those multi-inning appearances.

Devenski uses four pitches, but his bread and butter is the fastball-change combo, which the Mariners just couldn’t solve.

Devenski’s fastball comes in around 93 mph, with slight arm-side run. The changeup, on average, drops about five inches more and is 11 mph slower, which to a hitter looks a lot like the "hit the brakes" line from Top Gun.

Devenski entered 19 games last season with men on base, but he’s not really a fireman like Miller. Situations like Wednesday’s — in which he enters at the start of a high-leverage inning and throws until the other team runs out of pitchers — are where he dines out. While Devenski was in the game, the Mariners used four pitchers, including closer Edwin Díaz for two innings. The Astros’ bullpen is also set up in such a way that it could work like Cleveland’s, with Ken Giles in the Cody Allen role under the supervision of a manager, A.J. Hinch, who shares Francona’s affinity for platoons and situational substitutions.

Bullpen roles are fluid throughout the course of the season, and, with less than a week’s worth of games played, many teams haven’t encountered a situation in which a multi-inning fireman would even be useful. But if we’re already looking for the next Miller, Bradley and Devenski would be a good place to start.