Indians’ creative use of Miller will present Blue Jays with a challenge

Andrew Miller (Ron Schwane/AP)

TORONTO – Even those who have experienced success against Andrew Miller acknowledge that it’s not fun facing the six-foot-seven Cleveland Indians left-hander.

Take Dioner Navarro, for example. In a game against the New York Yankees last September, Navarro hit a game-tying ninth-inning home run off of Miller. That’s the kind of success few players experience, but Navarro’s quick to point out how tough Miller is to face.

“He’s really nasty so I went up there with the mentality of ‘get him early, get him before he gets to that slider,’” Navarro said.

Miller induces swings and misses 24 per cent of the time he throws his slider, one of the best out pitches in baseball. He complements it with a fastball that will reach 98 mph, creating exceptionally tough at-bats for the opposition.

“Man, he can throw the slider any time, any count, any situation,” Navarro said. “His fastball’s the same way. His arm angle. He’s big, lengthy. He throws hard. Everything.”

Complicating matters for the Toronto Blue Jays as they prepare for their ALCS matchup against the Indians: Cleveland manager Terry Francona has been using the 31-year-old in the middle innings, aggressively targeting high-leverage moments and keeping him in for more than three outs at a time.

Miller threw four innings in the Indians’ three-game sweep of the Boston Red Sox after a regular season in which he posted a 1.45 ERA with 123 strikeouts against just nine walks in 74.1 innings.

It’s the kind of bullpen usage analytically-inclined observers wondered about for years, but not the kind of role you’d expect from someone with closer experience, closer stuff and closer money. Now observers around the game are taking note. “I love it,” remarked a rival front office executive.

At the same time, it’s clear this isn’t a front office imposing its will on the field. If this were rookie Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, for example, many would assume the front office was making decisions behind the scenes. Francona, a two-time World Series champion with 16 seasons of managerial experience, has legitimate clout. Clearly, there’s buy-in at all levels, right down to Miller himself, a $9-million reliever willing to challenge conventional baseball thinking. As Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said, “that doesn’t happen all of the time, either.”

“That’s a big weapon they traded for,” Gibbons added. “He became, really, the perfect swing guy for them.”

That said, Blue Jays hitters have had more than their share of success against Miller, who spent extensive time in the AL East for the Yankees, Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles. Melvin Upton is the lone MLB hitter with three career home runs against Miller, so expect Gibbons to pinch hit with Upton when Miller enters. Russell Martin has five walks in 10 plate appearances against Miller, while Kevin Pillar has two hits, including a double.

Even then, the at-bats haven’t been comfortable for Pillar, who likens Miller to Chicago White Sox left-hander Chris Sale. His plan: isolate either the fastball or the slider until there are two strikes.

“You pick one or the other and you’ve probably got to look in a certain spot,” Pillar said. “He likes to shove that stuff way inside, so you’ve got to set your sights out over the plate.”

While the Blue Jays haven’t yet started game-planning for Miller in depth, that’ll change in the next couple of days.

“Up to 98 with a good slider, that makes for a tough at-bat,” hitting coach Brook Jacoby said. “But we’ve got some smart hitters.”

If the ALDS offers any indication, those hitters will soon be tested early and often against Miller.

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