Finding the Next Andrew Miller
Finding the next Andrew Miller is kind of like searching for Bigfoot.
99% of the population that thinks rationally, believes he does not exist; the 1% that enjoys superstition watches shows like Finding Bigfoot on Animal Planet.
With regards to relief pitching, you can consider me that ‘1%’, but I’d like to narrow my classification to an individual who simply enjoys the hunt. I accept there is no Bigfoot, or Andrew Miller 2.0, but trying to piece together evidence keeps me young, exuberant, and some might say, mildly insane.
Andrew Miller’s path alone is enough for one 2,000 word column. For an idea of who we’re working with, here are the first two lines on his Fangraph’s page.
This is about as macabre as you can get when throwing a player into the fire.
With his 2007 and 2008 seasons both accumulating ERAs north of 5, it wasn’t until four years later, with the Boston Red Sox, that Miller’s performance started to jive with the pedigree bestowed upon him when he was selection sixth in the 2006 amateur draft.
Reason for the sudden success? Prior to 2012 with the Red Sox, Miller hadn’t thrown his slider more than 24% of the time across a full season. Every season since, his slider usage has eclipsed 39%. In 2016, it encompassed 60.5% of all his pitches thrown.
Even with the startling success of a pitch like that, the story my mind always goes back to is the value placed on a pitcher like Andrew Miller, and a team’s willingness to move such an elite talent at any given point in time.
Last season the Yankees shipped Miller to the Indians for Clint Frazier and Justus Sheffield, MLB.com’s 24th and 79th best prospects respectively. Keep in mind the Yankees also dealt Aroldis Chapman to the Cubs for an even better haul, MLB.com’s number three overall prospect, Gleyber Torres.
Simply economics would tell you, that if you control a commodity other people desire, and the price offered exceeds the perceived cost of giving up the asset and any potential future value, you should make the deal. Relief pitchers are a particularly interesting commodity to fit into this model. In today’s game, multiple elite relievers are sought after by contending teams. Good teams often have good bullpens, and if a contending team doesn’t have a good bullpen, it becomes an obsessive point of discussion when critiquing said team (2017 Washington Nationals). Mediocre teams with overlooked bullpen assets become the holy grail which contending teams seek to take.
I see two buckets to put these reliever transactions in.
The first is for mediocre teams with good bullpen arms, who aren’t trying to commit a robbery in getting value now, for a piece that is useless to them. Think Tyler Thornburg, the Brewer’s reliever who was traded to the Red Sox for a decent haul this offseason – most notably, third basemen Travis Shaw. Or consider Ken Giles, who was in a similar situation on a bad Phillies team before being dealt to the Astros for the budding prospect Vince Velasquez.
The second is a more recent class of transactions, dominated by Andrew Miller, Aroldis Chapman, and Craig Kimbrel. These are established, healthy relievers who demand a premium in return for their services.
Moving from the first bucket to the second requires time, and consistency. Moving from the second bucket to the first requires collapse or injury, Greg Holland comes to mind most recently.
Instead of speculating on which established closer could get shipped, let’s look deeper for the next Andrew Miller. I want a guy who can succeed in a new role, create value through consistency, and then demand a generous return for his services.
Enter Kelvin Herrera.
27 years old, with four relief seasons under his belt, the most noticeable of which being his change from 2015 to 2016. Strikeouts jumped up 8% to 30.4%, walks fell about 5% to 4.2%, and his FIP followed suit, dropping from 3.44 to 2.47.
Take a look at Fangraphs and you’ll notice Herrera started throwing a curve-slider, at a rate higher than he ever had in his career – hmm, reminds me of Andrew Miller. I use the phrase ‘curve-slider’ because of the conflicting classification of this breaking ball across different sites for Herrera’s 2016.
Fangraphs – 15.9% sliders, 5.2% curves.
Pitch F/X – 10.7% sliders and 10.7% curves.
BrooksBaseball – 7.8% sliders and 13% curves.
So I went right to one of the better baseball minds in the industry, Eno Sarris for some help.
I think I agree with Eno too…
He buries the pitch to Castro, but the pitch bites more like your standard curve. I’ve seen other times where it looks more like a slider as well, cementing the fact Eno thinks Herrera manipulates it…
Aesthetics of a pitch are one thing, while results are completely different. How Herrera changed his approach to hitters ahead in the count was the big difference for this amplified success. In 2015, he tended to rely on his change to both lefties and righties, with some afterthought given to his young curve. In 2016 Herrera had a refined approach focused on differentiating to lefties and righties, and it worked masterfully. Hard stuff to start, changeup when ahead to lefties, curve when ahead to righties.
Coinciding with his curveball’s development was a noticeable jump in effectiveness his changeup. On the left is his swinging strike rate with the change against lefties in 2015, while on the right you’ll see the same scenario but for 2016. This dramatic of an improvement in generating empty swings against hitters is astounding. Herrera is a reliever with four situationally effective, plus pitches, an extreme rarity.
Herrera is controlled through next season, his final year before becoming a free agent after signing a $5.325 million dollar deal with the Royals for the 2017 season.
The issue is that the Royals’ window is slamming shut quickly. Their list of players becoming free agents next season will make the 2018 Royals look a like a brand new expansion team due to assumed size of their wallets and recent contract to Danny Duffy. Eric Hosmer, Alcides Escobar, Mike Moustakas, and Lorenzo Cain are all up to the highest bidder.
So what’s a team that will likely have a tough time contending for the next few years do with a relief asset like Herrera?
The logical thing would be to deal him away at the 2017 trade deadline and bolster a farms system that hasn’t been rich with projectable talent in a long time – does anybody remember Bubba Starling? The more intriguing move would be to gamble on a great 2017 and a great first-half of 2018. Then the package may creep to Andrew Miller territory, and exceed the value of a guy like Tyler Thornburg. It may seem unlikely, but talented relief assets increase value very quickly, and it’s not like even more success would be unprecedented form Herrera.
Whichever way it gets done, holding onto Herrera until free agency deviates from the standard move a lot of teams on the fringes make. The Royals are at a point where flipping assets to pad the farm is a must. Herrera on another, contending team, could be exactly what’s needed to show the world exactly how good this pitcher is.
Statistics all from Fangraphs.com, BrooksBaseball.net, and Baseball Reference.