As a 6-foot, 7-inch, way-too-wiry professional athlete, New York Yankees closer Andrew Miller knows what it's like to be typecast. When he walks through a mall, strangers occasionally gawk or sidle up and ask if he plays basketball for a living. And when he delves into the pitcher-hitter dynamic in media interviews, the conversation inevitably drifts to his height and the potential advantages it provides.
Miller is one of the most insightful and cordial ballplayers you'll find, and his answers confirm that he has, indeed, given the matter some thought.
"I get asked that question [about my height] all the time," Miller said, "and I tell people, 'It's all I know.' I don't know what it's like to be a 5-foot-10 right-handed pitcher. This is what I have to deal with, for better or worse. For the most part, I think it's for the better."
Dellin Betances, New York's principal setup man, is a more physically imposing presence at 6-foot-8, 265 pounds. But like Miller, he needed to overcome some obstacles to find his niche in the majors. Betances came up through the ranks as a starter and encountered the standard blips in trying to repeat his delivery and gain command of his pitches. A lot of trial and error was required before he began accumulating what Baltimore shortstop J.J. Hardy calls "Nintendo numbers."
Miller, a left-hander, and Betances, a righty, have formed an identity as baseball's most imposing 1-2 bullpen tandem this season. The distance from the mound to home plate is 60 feet, 6 inches, but when they complete their strides and release the ball, reaction times are compressed and the word "overmatched" attains new meaning.
The Yankees are leading the American League East in part because of Michael Pineda's emergence as a dominant starter, the early power surge of Mark Teixeira and the table-setting acumen of Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner. But no element has been more integral to the team's early success than a bullpen that's as close as it gets to a sure thing.
The numbers reflect the profound impact that Miller and Betances have had through six weeks. In 36 2/3 innings pitched, they've combined for 60 strikeouts, 11 hits allowed and a 0.00 ERA. According to Baseball-Reference.com, they've teamed up for an aggregate 2.6 wins above replacement -- with a 1.3 WAR each.
Betances raised the bar of expectations considerably on May 2. In a cameo appearance at closer, he struck out four Boston hitters on 14 pitches to wrap up a 4-2 Yankees victory at Fenway Park.
"I don't know that I've ever seen anybody manhandle another team like that -- let along the Boston Red Sox," Miller said. "It was one of those days when he was on and he just had it. If everything is perfect for him, nobody stands a chance."
Bring on the discomfort
Hitters have a time-honored phrase to describe savvy pitchers who achieve success with middling stuff. Bob Tewksbury, Jimmy Key, Brad Radke, Jamie Moyer and Mark Buehrle are among the starting pitchers who've personified the "comfortable 0-for-4."
Betances and Miller embody the polar opposite dynamic: They're horrific 0-for-1s.
"There are certain pitchers that hitters just don't feel comfortable against," Hardy said. "Those guys are really, really big, and it's hard to pick up the ball. When they're standing on the mound, it's like you're looking straight up at them."
It's a given in baseball circles that tall pitchers generally require more patience and tender loving care than their more compact counterparts. For every Randy Johnson who makes it to Cooperstown or Chris Young who earns a comfortable living, there's a corresponding Loek Van Mil, Andrew Brackman, Eric Hillman, Andrew Sisco or Ryan "the Space Needle" Anderson who falls by the wayside because of health issues, a lack of consistency or some other missing component.
Sometimes salvation beckons from the bullpen, where velocity is easier to maintain, diverse repertoires can be culled and complex mechanics are easier to harness. When tall pitchers click in relief, it's a recipe for demoralization in 15- to 20-pitch installments.
Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild, who was with Cincinnati when Randy Myers, Rob Dibble and Norm Charlton helped bring a title to the city as the "Nasty Boys" in 1990, is well-acquainted with the impact a dominant bullpen can have on an opposing team's psyche. Miller and Betances present a challenge all their own with their long limbs, extended reaches, velocity and deception.
"I think it takes longer for a taller kid to develop, because they fight things that a guy who's not that tall doesn't have to fight," Rothschild said. "But when they get it, they have leverage and extension coming off the mound that really helps."
Miller, who will turn 30 on May 21, and Betances, 27, both trace their professional roots to the 2006 first-year player draft. Miller, an All-American at North Carolina with a College World Series pedigree, received a guaranteed $5.45 million payout from Detroit as the sixth overall pick. But success was slow in coming. The Tigers sent Miller and Cameron Maybin to Miami in December 2007 in an eight-player trade that brought Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis to Detroit, and Miller's career stalled because of injuries and a lack of control. He gradually began to accept the idea that his best route to success might come through the bullpen.
"Everybody wants to hold onto being a starter for as long as they can," Miller said. "You can be rewarded more handsomely if you're an effective starter in the major leagues, and we all become attached to the set routine in the rotation. You're able to lift [weights] for four days and have a side session where you can work on stuff, and you don't get that as a reliever. Other than when you're physically on the rubber, it's a very different mindset."
Miller parlayed his success in the Boston and Baltimore bullpens into a four-year, $36 million free-agent deal in December, and he's made a glitch-free transition to the ninth inning in the Bronx. The big turning point for Miller came when he realized he could get right-handers out by throwing his fastball inside and preventing them from leaning out over the plate. Miller has become adept at burying his slider down and in on righties, who are hitting an anemic .055 (5-for-91) with 50 strikeouts against him since late July.
"It's an overwhelming slider, and it doesn't discriminate," said Baltimore reliever Darren O'Day, who pitched in the same bullpen with Miller for two months last summer. "It changes planes so rapidly, both horizontally and vertically. I remember Pedro Martinez talking about breaking balls when I was in college, and he said the most important thing is that it has to change planes quickly.
"Andrew has such good command of his slider, he can throw it for a ball or a strike whenever he wants. It's up to him, really. If he throws it for a ball and guys swing at it, they're not going to hit it. Maybe they would be better advised just standing there."
No closer controversy
Betances, a New York City native, showed some promise on the basketball court at Grand Street Campus High School in Brooklyn until he had two teeth knocked out and received a cease-and-desist order from his father and his coaches. He quit basketball to focus strictly on baseball, and passed on a scholarship offer from Vanderbilt to sign with the Yankees for a $1 million bonus in 2006.
Like Miller, Betances junked his changeup years ago and makes liberal use of his breaking ball. Miller relies on a 50-50 split of fastballs and sliders, according to FanGraphs. Betances throws his heater 47 percent of the time and his breaking pitch the other 53 percent.
The biggest mystery -- other than how to hit Betances' No. 2 -- is what to call it. The pitch has been alternately described as a curveball, slider, cutter and a slurve, although Yankees catcher Brian McCann thinks no conventional terminology does it justice.
"Just call it the nasty one, because that's what it is," McCann said.
Betances adheres to select routines in the bullpen to keep his mechanics in sync. When he's not simulating his motion with a towel in his right hand, he's throwing off flat ground each day (if only for a few tosses) to make sure he doesn't fly open with his front shoulder or lapse into other bad habits.
"Pitching regularly has definitely helped me," Betances said. "It's given me a chance to be more consistent with my delivery and helped me develop into the pitcher I am now."
When David Robertson left to sign a $46 million deal with the Chicago White Sox in December, Betances had reason to believe he might inherit the closer's job in New York. But he has quietly and dutifully accepted his mandate to collect "holds" in front of Miller, and earned the respect and admiration of his teammates in the process. Betances is so soft-spoken that reporters in postgame scrums need to lean in to hear his responses. His outward modesty reflects his competitive priorities.
"That all speaks to him," Miller said. "He has more on the line financially with arbitration and free agency, so he had more reason to lobby [for the closer's job] than I did. But I think he sees the big picture. He knows if he goes out and pitches, it will all get taken care of. The front office and staff here did a pretty good job of preventing it from becoming an issue, and this whole clubhouse wants to win. It would be silly to let something like that get in the way."
After Betances whiffed 135 batters in 90 innings last year to break Mariano Rivera's franchise record for strikeouts in a season by a reliever, Rothschild sat back, assessed the numbers and took pride in the realization that the kid had, indeed, arrived. It's tempting to muse about the possibility of Miller and Betances achieving something historically significant in 2015. But the Yankees are too immersed in the daily grind to be presumptuous.
"When you're in the middle of it, you can't do that," Rothschild said. "The baseball gods will get you."
Helpless hitters might contend that when Miller and Betances are on their games, the baseball gods are relegated to innocent bystanders. New York's twin terminators are dispensing their own brand of justice from on high this season.