This year in the playoffs, baseball rediscovered a dangerous weapon from its past.
The fireman is back.
The Los Angeles Dodgers took their closer, Kenley Jensen, and turned him into a multi-inning weapon. The Chicago Cubs did the same thing with Aroldis Chapman. But the most celebrated case is what Cleveland manager Terry Francona did with Andrew Miller.
Miller was acquired from the New York Yankees at the trade deadline and immediately upon joining the Indians was used in the most high leverage situations. The inning did not matter. Miller then was asked to pitch multiple innings on numerous occasions, particularly in the postseason, when allowing starters to go through opposing batting orders a third time was simply not an option.
During the regular season, Miller went more than one inning eight different times in 26 appearances. In the postseason, he exceeded more than one inning pitch in every one of his 10 appearances.
It was almost enough to win a title for the Indians, but Miller is obviously a very special talent. It’s impossible to replicate that kind of production from another relief pitcher.
But this is a trend we’re going to see more of, even in the regular season moving forward. Teams are going to be searching for their own version of Andrew Miller, an effective reliever who is willing to enter the game at any time and throw multiple innings two or three days a week.
Do the Phillies have such a player on their roster or in the minor leagues somewhere? Here are the criteria as I see it.
- A potential fireman has to be comfortable going multiple innings. That means being comfortable sitting in the dugout after pitching and then going back out for more. This makes me think a converted starting pitcher would be the most effective option. And for the record, Andrew Miller is a converted starter.
- The pitcher’s stuff has to be good. Either a guy with a lot of movement who generates a ton of ground balls, or a two-pitch strikeout pitcher who dominates his first time through the lineup.
- A team-first attitude. Asking a relief pitcher to have no defined role and that he likely won’t pile up all those precious, money-making “saves,” will be key. It worked in Cleveland because Miller was a team-first guy, and because they had an effective closer already in Cody Allen.
So who meets these criteria?
Vince Velasquez is the most obvious answer, but only if his pitch economy issues next year don’t improve. Velasquez is usually dynamite the first time through the order, but he runs up a high pitch count and is generally only able to last five innings, six at the most.
It has been said numerous times that, if Velasquez doesn’t pan out as a starter, he would make an ideal closer. But instead of closing, perhaps the fireman role would be a more effective use of his skills. Of course, the Phillies would prefer that he stays in the rotation. But if that’s not possible, he could fill this role.
Another pitcher of note was also acquired in the Ken Giles trade, Mark Appel. Appel’s stuff seems to flash pretty well early but goes away as the game progresses. Perhaps if he didn’t feel the pressure of having to be a No. 1 or 2 starter, he could relax a little more, focus on two pitches, and let loose.
Now, there are some negatives to Appel that could pose an obstacle, the biggest of which was pitching with runners on base. Last year, with no runners on, batters hit .250/.313/.284 against him, but with runners on base, opponents’ slash line was .290/.413/.516. That’s flat-out ugly.
There are injury concerns with both players, Velasquez especially. So reducing their workloads a bit could help, although pitching 2-3 innings, 2-3 days a week, mostly in high leverage situations, may not exactly be a cure for arm issues.
Finally, the man most believe will be the Phils closer next year, Hector Neris, could potentially serve in the Andrew Miller role instead.
Neris throws an unhittable splotter and has a plus fastball to go with it. Despite hurling a pitch that most think is pretty stressful on the arm, Neris was a workhorse in 2016, pitching in 79 games and tossing 80 1⁄3 innings, with a 2.58 ERA and 11.4 K/9.
He mostly pitched in one-inning bursts last year but, early in the season, managed an impressive outing of 2 2⁄3 innings while striking out six.
That was precisely what Miller did in the postseason this year, and Neris showed he has the ability to do the same thing.
Of course, it’s not easy to do what Andrew Miller does. If it was, Miller wouldn’t be worth so much and wouldn’t be so darned awesome.
But every team is going to be scouring their rosters or looking at the free agent/trade market to see if they can find themselves an effective, multi-inning relief pitcher heading into 2017.