Andrew Miller was off in Game 1 of the World Series. For just the second time in 2016, he walked a pair of batters. Didn’t matter.
The lefthander continued his assault on postseason history on Tuesday, working out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam without allowing a single run by displaying the same ferocious swing-and-miss stuff that has made him a force this month.
Miller ended up firing two more scoreless innings on Monday, bringing his total to 13 2/3 scoreless innings in these playoffs (with 24 strikeouts) and 22 career scoreless playoff innings.
Each one of these outings picks at a scab, re-exposing the wound that was opened when Miller proved a monumental presence in Cleveland’s sweep of the Sox in the American League Division Series. Each comes with a question: Why did the Red Sox trade that guy again? Even the author of the deal, Ben Cherington, now seemingly treats Miller as one who got away, as the former Red Sox GM explained to Ben Reiter for his phenomenal Sport Illustrated feature on the pitcher.
“In hindsight, what we should have done is re-signed him,” Cherington says. “I think we probably had a chance to. But we were probably being guided, a little bit, by the conventional wisdom around big, long-term deals for non-closer relievers — even though, clearly, he had the stuff to close. Those types of deals were uncommon at the time. The ones that had happened hadn’t turned out well. What we didn’t realize clearly enough, at the time: Andrew Miller is an uncommon pitcher and had to be treated in an uncommon way.”
There was, unquestionably, an element of miscalculation by the Sox when it came to Miller. At the time they held the line in contract negotiations and declined to match the Yankees’ four-year, $36 million contract offer to the lefthander, some members of the Sox organization felt the team should believe in its ability to develop the next Miller.
Miller, however, has emerged as something beyond what he was with the Red Sox — an incomparable bullpen weapon. Clearly, the Sox failed to properly value his skills when he was a free agent.
Was the initial decision to trade Miller to avoid him walking and leaving the Sox with no return? It happened at a time when the Red Sox’ hopes of contention had already been demolished in 2014 and when the reliever was two months from free agency.
But that ignores the potential value of the pitcher the Sox got back for Miller: Eduardo Rodriguez.
The process the Sox followed on Rodriguez was a thorough one, with several evaluators covering the Orioles system. Among those was Mark Wasinger, then a special assignment scout who has since been promoted to special assistant of player personnel.
“It was definitely a group effort. [Cherington] got a consensus from our scouts, a number of opinions. It was definitely a thorough process from beginning to end,” Wasinger said. “I saw a start where he didn’t last but three or four innings, but the stuff was very good. The command was so-so at the time. His changeup and fastball were both plus pitches. His breaking ball still needed some work. I put him in as an everyday third or fourth starter for us. Our player development people have done a very good job with him. He’s improved both is command and his third pitch. He’s shown flashes of brilliance.”
Indeed he has. In 41 big league starts, Rodriguez has pitched at least five innings and given up one or no runs on 16 occasions — tied for the third most by any AL pitcher in his first 41 starts since the DH was introduced in 1973.
As a 23-year-old in 2016, Rodriguez had an up-and-down year health-wise and tinkered with his mechanics. His 3-7 record and 4.71 ERA while averaging about 5 1/3 innings over his 20 starts are all underwhelming. But his second-half improvement — a 3.24 ERA, 9.2 strikeouts per nine innings in 14 starts, up from a 6.89 ERA and 6.4 strikeouts per nine in the first half — offered a reminder of what he’d shown both in the minors in the 2014 and in the big leagues in 2015.
Here’s how a handful of evaluators from around the league view the Miller-for-Rodriguez deal with the benefit of hindsight:
Evaluator No. 1: “If you aren’t in the race, then you have to move pieces like Miller . . . Try to hit a HR with a middle rotation starter.”
Evaluator No. 2: “I think it is still a pretty good deadline get at the end of the day. Potential mid-rotation starter for a reliever. With the current [bullpen management] philosophy, they probably sign [Miller], but you didn’t know that at the time.”
Evaluator No. 3: “Still project Rodriguez the same as when I saw him in [Double A]: No. 3, mid-rotation starting pitcher . . . If Boston had [Miller] for 2-3 more years, [they don’t do the deal] but they didn’t and they were not contending ,so no-brainer for me [to do the deal again].”
Evaluator No. 4: “Still like it. Liked it at the time . . . [Rodriguez is] still a third or fourth starter.”
Evaluator No. 5: “Still would have made the deal and felt good about it. With the opportunity to still re-sign Miller after the season, getting something like [Rodriguez] still seems like a no-brainer . . . Considering how much better [Rodriguez] was in the second half [of 2016] I’d expect big things from him in ’17.”
There are no guarantees with Rodriguez. If he fulfills his potential before he is eligible for free agency in five years, he’d be delivering something that the market seemingly values at $100 million to $120 million for something like $40 million or $50 million.
“I thought it was an astute trade by Ben at the time. We’ll see if it comes to fruition. But I thought it was a good deal,” said Wasinger. “Eddie’s thrown some gems. He’s shown flashes of dominance. He’s exceeded what I thought, and his potential is actually now top of the rotation. If that’s the case, you get a top-of-the-rotation starter for a dominant bullpen piece. I think I’d take that No. 1 or No. 2 starter.”
Meanwhile, skepticism about the deal overlooks the uncertainty that surrounded Miller. By the middle of the summer, it had become fairly clear to both sides that the pitcher would explore free agency. Moreover, given the brevity of his dominance out of the bullpen and the typical volatility that characterizes closers, it was hard to know that he’d establish a baseline as perhaps the game’s best reliever.
“If we’d have known now what we knew then, we may not have made the deal, and would have thrown buckets full of money at Andrew Miller,” said Wasinger. “But long-term, we still might get a better deal.”
Ultimately, Rodriguez will determine whether the Sox made the right deal. But the decision to deal Miller at a time when the Sox had him under control for just two more months of a 2014 season that had already been flushed? Even with the lefthander’s electrifying October, the logic of that maneuver remains sound.
He is Andrew Miller, and you’re not, writes Adam Kilgore of The Washington Post.
Miller found something in 2011 while working with Pawtucket pitching coach Rich Sauveur, writes Brendan McGair of the Pawtucket Times.
Follow Alex Speier on Twitter @alexspeier.