Looking to provide veteran reinforcement for a bullpen that had struggled at times during the shortened 2020 season and had shipped out Adam Ottavino and Jonathan Holder, the New York Yankees decided last winter to reunite with a left-handed pitcher that they had traded away to an AL Central team a few years prior, Justin Wilson. Although the bullpen was certainly a strength last season, it lacks relievers with a strong track record outside of Aroldis Chapman and Chad Green.
With this in mind, could Brian Cashman consider a repeat of last winter when the transaction freeze ends by bringing in former Game Enderer Andrew Miller back for a second round in pinstripes? By the way, if you don’t get that reference, poke around the comments section from early 2015, when manager Joe Girardi refused to name Miller the closer despite the fact he clearly was.
The last time that Miller was in the Yankees public consciousness is a bittersweet memory, as he gave up a solo home run to Greg Bird to lead off the seventh inning in Game 3 of the 2017 ALDS that sparked the Yankees to three straight wins to overcome an 0-2 deficit against Cleveland, to whom the Yankees had traded him the year prior. At the time, Miller was one of the best in the business, the archetype of the modern relief ace brought in to put out fires — the role that Green and Jonathan Loáisiga largely filled this past year. But while I’m not going to say that Bird’s home run broke Miller, his career since the 2017 season has gone downhill.
From 2013 to 2017, Miller was counted among the game’s elite bullpen arms. His 9.8 fWAR trailed only Kenley Jansen, Chapman, and Craig Kimbrel and was just ahead of Dellin Betances. Only Wade Davis and Zack Britton, meanwhile, posted a better ERA than his 1.82; his 1.96 FIP similarly ranked behind just Jansen and Chapman. His 41.1 K% was second only to Chapman and his 33.7 K-BB% only to Jansen. Considering Jansen, Chapman, and Kimbrel were all closers for their respective teams, you could make the case that Miller was the best setup man in baseball.
Due to the fickle nature of relievers, it shouldn’t be surprising that the top of all these lists look almost nothing like the top of the same lists from 2018-2021. Most of these top names, however, find themselves somewhere in the top 20 or so. Even if they’re no longer consistently among the elite, shutdown pitchers, they’re still good relievers who are the backbone of their teams’ bullpens. Miller, however, disappears from the top of the list entirely. His 4.31 ERA ranks 148th among the 204 relievers who qualify for the list, while his 0.2 fWAR ranks 171st. To put it another way, the list of relievers who have produced more value than Miller since the start of the 2018 season include former Yankees prospect Dillon Tate (career 4.25 ERA), Fernando Rodney (who hasn’t pitched since 2019, when he posted a 5.66 ERA), and Anthony Gose (an outfielder-turned-pitcher who has six innings under his belt).
Making matters worse, Miller has been plagued by minor injuries the last few seasons. Hamstring tightness and knee inflammation limited him to just 34 innings in 2018. Before the pandemic shut down spring training in 2020, he had trouble feeling the baseball. This past year, a blister on his foot shut him down twice for a total of about six weeks. While none of these are major causes for concern, they have meant that Miller has thrown more than 50 innings exactly once since 2017.
More concerning is the decline in stuff we saw from Miller in 2021.
For perspective, that fastball spin rate was in the 2nd percentile among pitchers. For a pitcher entering into his age-37 season, this is not a good sign.
At this point in time, I’m not all that certain what sort of contract Miller will receive on the open market once the lockout ends. On the one hand, his declining velocity and spin rate will certainly deter teams, but on the other, a team desperate for bullpen help might conclude that he is a risk worth taking since he still put up good numbers in 2020 (2.77 ERA, 2.58 FIP) despite that declining stuff. Ultimately, if the Yankees decide to bring in a veteran reliever to help reinforce the bullpen, then they should steer clear of Miller, but much like Dellin Betances, should he be available on a minor league deal, he’s worth a flier.