Forget the ninth inning -- Andrew Miller is here to save the game

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IN JUNE 2006, the Tigers drafted Andrew Miller out of North Carolina with the sixth overall pick. The baby-faced lefty was a consensus future star, a 6-foot-7 starter who touched 98 mph with his fastball and snapped off major league sliders from a steep, angular delivery. Detroit gave him $5.45 million to sign -- the most of any first-round pick that year -- and promised to let him join the major league roster in September.

First, though, he would spend the summer in Lakeland, Florida, just a two-hour drive from his hometown of Gainesville, pitching for the Tigers' High-A affiliate. The club suggested he could live in a room that had recently been vacated, but Miller soon discovered that the room was actually a closet in teammate Kevin Whelan's bedroom. It was exactly big enough to hold a queen-sized blow-up mattress, which a previous tenant had left behind in the house. Miller's clothes hung above him while he slept. The closet got no light, so his roommates would rustle him awake to keep him from sleeping through an afternoon.

His mom, Kim, a nurse, pestered him to find a better place to sleep. He had dealt with back issues as a teenager -- after he had grown 9 inches in 12 months -- and she worried the mattress wouldn't be good for his body. And he could, of course, afford to coddle himself: He was a millionaire weeks away from debuting in Yankee Stadium.

He stayed on the air mattress. "The word I keep coming back to is 'adaptable,'" Kim says, remembering a story about Andrew's childhood. "I worked every other weekend, and my husband and his friend David would load him in the back of the car and go riding on the hunting property [in Gainesville], and Andrew would just go along with it. My sister-in-law said we weren't real parents because 
Andrew was too easy."

We tell stories like this to make a point, to establish a metaphor that can fit a complex subject into a simple concept. Here the subject is Miller; the metaphor is the air mattress; and the concept is his willingness to humble himself for the greater good. I'm telling you this because I want to convince you that Miller is the perfect protagonist in a much larger story about one of baseball's biggest wastes.

The history of the reliever has shaped many great pitchers' careers -- Trevor Hoffman's and Mariano Rivera's and Aroldis Chapman's, to name just a few. Andrew Miller is the great pitcher who will reshape the history.

"YOU KNOW WHO invented relief pitching?" Bill James asked in his 1985 Historical Baseball Abstract. "Napoleon. No joke. ... On the day of a battle he would take two or three regiments of crack troops and sequester them a distance from the shooting, eating and sleeping and trying to stay comfortable. ... At a key moment in the battle, with everyone else in the field barely able to stand, he would release into the fray a few hundred fresh and alert troops, riding fresh horses and with every piece of their equipment in good repair. He did this many times and with devastating effect -- and if that's not relief pitching, I don't know what is."

Baseball's original rules prohibited player substitutions, but it didn't take long for the sport's strategists to discover how powerful Napoleon's battle plan could be. In the 1870s, the Boston Red Stockings made pitcher Jack Manning the first great "saver," as sports writers at the time called him, by playing him in the outfield. When a game needed to be saved, he jogged in as a fresh arm.

After substitution rules were liberalized in the 1890s, managers spent decades tweaking relief tactics: They used their aces in relief when they weren't starting, then they leaned on dedicated relievers to rescue struggling starters, then they used those relievers to protect narrow leads, then they combined different types of relievers into a bullpen of specialists. They learned first the value of a fresh arm, then that pitcher performance was better in short stints, and then that certain mediocre starters -- max-effort ones with limited repertoires, for example, or lefties who couldn't get righties out -- were especially suited for this role. Starting pitchers completed fewer games each year, and the prestige of relievers grew with each generation. In 1950, Jim Konstanty became the first relief pitcher to win an MVP award. He threw 152 innings, all in relief, and won 16 games. He also saved 22, though nobody knew that at the time.

Then came Jerome Holtzman, a young sports writer who proposed a formula to reward relievers. In 1960, The Sporting News began publishing Holtzman's "save" leaderboards. In 1969, the league adopted the save as its first new official stat since 1920.

Like WAR -- the current era's most important new baseball formula -- the save went through revisions and existed in a state of uncertainty, with different teams and writers using different definitions and with the league revising the official requirements. Some years a reliever could get a save without completing the game if an official scorer deemed him the winning team's most effective reliever. Or he could earn one only by completing a "perfect" inning -- three up and three down -- with no more than a two-run lead.

In 1973, the Oakland A's were playing the seventh game of the World Series. Rollie Fingers, the best reliever in the game, was on the mound with two outs in the ninth inning. Fingers induced a routine ground ball to first base. Gene Tenace booted it. The tying run came up. Fingers' manager, Dick Williams, walked to the mound and took the ball. That's right: With two outs in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the World Series, Williams was pulling his ace reliever to bring in a lefty, Darold Knowles.

"I wasn't that surprised," Fingers says now. "That's the way it always was. I didn't get all the saves."

Fingers was the relief ace but not the "closer." The title wasn't yet widely in use; the best relievers were called firemen. Fingers would swoop into games whenever the manager needed to "stop the blood right now." He entered that World Series game in the sixth inning. At the time, a pitcher didn't need to finish the game to earn a save.

"You know who invented relief pitching? Napoleon. No joke." Bill James

In 1975, though, the save was codified into the formula we now know. No longer could a reliever get a save without recording the final out. And no longer would a reliever be the biggest star in a bullpen without getting the save: "There gets to be a kind of an appetite about getting saves," closer Dan Quisenberry said in 1985. "You want that S after your name." Therefore, no longer could a manager bring in his best reliever unless he was certain the relief ace would be able to reach the finish line -- lest he cost that reliever a save.

The fireman was dead, and the closer was born. The closer would pitch for three outs in save situations and hardly ever else. An entire generation has passed without progress; Mariano Rivera's first and final years as closer, 16 years apart, are practically identical. In last season's American League wild-card game, the Orioles used six relievers but not their ace closer, Zach Britton, in an extra-inning loss -- waiting for a save that never came. Such rigidity has infuriated some sabermetric writers, who blame Holtzman's formula for managers' mistakes. But closers had grown too comfortable in the role for teams to change. "If they ever tell me, 'Oh, we're gonna start using you in these high-leverage situations,'" Angels closer Huston Street once said, "I'm going home. I'll retire if that ever happens."

And that's the way it was until July 2016, when the Indians declared war on traditional bullpen hierarchy by acquiring the best reliever in baseball and making him a fireman.

BEFORE THE 2008 season, the Marlins traded Miguel Cabrera to Detroit for a package that included Miller, then 22. Miller joined the Marlins' rotation, and he was terrible. Only four NL starters with 100-plus innings pitched had a higher ERA (5.87) than he did in his 107 innings that year. While Cabrera built on his stardom, Miller's struggles got worse. In 2010, his major league ERA was 8.54, and even his Double-A ERA was north of 6. Finally, the Marlins traded him to the Red Sox for pennies, and three weeks later Boston nontendered him.

"It's painful to watch your kids struggle," Kim Miller says. "You don't ever want to discourage them, but is there a point where you have to say you've lived the dream, you've done your best and move on?"

Boston re-signed Miller to a minor league deal that December, and he struggled yet again as a starter. He realized that if he was going to be a big leaguer, it would most likely be as a reliever. His mantra to those around him was simple: "I just want to be a reliable part of a good team."

Boston sent him to the bullpen, where his fastball picked up life and where he could more frequently throw his best pitch -- a sweeping, shoelace-skimming slider that batters hit .170 against last season. He was used first as a specialist, facing mostly left-handed batters, then as a setup man. He had a 2.64 ERA in 2013, striking out a batter and a half per inning, the best rate in the AL that year. After a deadline swap sent him to Baltimore in 2014, he posted a 1.35 ERA down the stretch. He entered free agency that winter as one of the game's premier relief aces, with the power to pick a team that had an opening in the ninth inning.

But he surprised teams by telling them he didn't care whether he was used in a closer role. "I don't know if they believed me or not," Miller says. The Yankees signed him to bolster the back of the bullpen, but after one season as the closer -- he had 36 saves and won the AL's Reliever of the Year Award in 2015 -- they traded for Aroldis Chapman, one of only a few relievers who could rival Miller's stats and his stuff. They bumped Miller back to the eighth inning. "I guess they did believe me," he says now.

So did the Indians, who had seen his public comments. "I buy into the sabermetric-type best pitcher in the biggest spot of the game," says Cleveland manager Terry Francona. "To me, it's common sense. I also think having common sense in the seventh or eighth inning is not always easy."

After the Indians sent four players, including two top prospects, to the Yankees for Miller last July 31, Francona called him and incumbent closer Cody Allen into his office. He told them he planned to use both in the ninth inning, with each getting saves and each, therefore, giving up saves. Both pitchers told Francona to use them however he saw fit. "It helped a lot for me coming over," Miller says, "that the guy who saves mean everything for because that's how he's going to get paid for the next few years would say, 'Hey, I don't care if I get bumped, I just want to win.' I think that set the tone."

Over the next two months, the Indians brought Miller into games as early as the sixth inning to get out of jams or to face the most dangerous opposing hitters. They got four or more outs from him eight times. He struck out 46 batters in 29 regular-season innings for Cleveland, walked only two and held batters to a .139 batting average. He didn't blow a single lead. He earned only three saves, but his win probability added after the trade deadline was, at 2.1 wins, higher than that of all but one closer in baseball.

A typical use case: On Sept. 26, Allen pitched a perfect ninth inning to save a game against Detroit. He retired the 9-1-2 hitters and protected a three-run lead. He did his job perfectly. Miller, meanwhile, faced the heart of the Tigers' order and recorded five outs across the seventh and eighth innings. The leverage of his appearance -- using a mathematical model to measure the stakes of a game, with 1.00 representing an average situation -- was 1.42. Allen's leverage index was just 0.53. Relatedly, Miller improved the Indians' chances of winning by 7 percentage points, whereas Allen added 4 percentage points of win probability.

Fast-forward to the postseason, when Miller entered in the fifth inning three times and pitched multiple innings in all but one of Cleveland's wins. He had a 1.40 ERA in 19 innings -- the most ever by a reliever in a postseason.

This was radical stuff, given the incentives to maintain the status quo. It's shocking how openly everybody -- including Miller -- talks about the relationship between saves, salary and strategy. "There's an element of [bullpen management] that's about saves because that's a metric that gets valued maybe disproportionately highly, especially in arbitration," says Indians president Chris Antonetti. "You could understand why it would affect a player's motivation."

Consider what happened to Dellin Betances, the Yankees' star setup man. This winter he was eligible for his first big raise under the arbitration process that sets players' salaries before they hit free agency. Betances has pitched in the shadow of a series of elite closers -- David Robertson, then Miller, then Chapman -- but on almost any other team he would be a closer. By any measure other than saves, he had been better in his first three years than the Cardinals' Trevor Rosenthal, who had reached arbitration one year earlier. Betances had pitched 33 more innings than Rosenthal while allowing 10 fewer earned runs. For every three innings they pitched, Rosenthal allowed one more base­runner than Betances. But Rosenthal -- a closer -- earned $5.6 million last year. Betances lost his arbitration hearing and will earn only $3 million this year. Afterward, Yankees president Randy Levine mocked Betances for asking to be paid like a closer.

"It's like me saying, 'I'm not the president of the Yankees; I'm an astronaut,'" Levine said on a conference call with reporters. "No, I'm not an astronaut, and Dellin Betances is not a closer."

Consider the story that the word "save" tells. George Lakoff, the UC Berkeley cognitive linguist who has demonstrated the power of metaphor in political decisions, says the word frames the closer's contribution to a victory.

"It comes from fairy tales," Lakoff says. "In the fairy tales, you have a hero, where the villain is possibly going to take over and win the day and do the terrible thing and so on. And the hero comes in with the magic sword, or strength, or stick-to-itiveness, and he beats the villain." In the fairy tale, there can be helpers -- setup men -- but "they're secondary," Lakoff says. "Tonto isn't the Lone Ranger." The closer is the protagonist. "They get the reward. They marry the princess. They rule the kingdom."

Money was explicit in the Indians' calculation that Miller would willingly pitch in the "helper" role. "To be blunt, he's already been paid," Francona says. "Not having the saves doesn't penalize him as much." Miller's four-year, $36 million contract in 2014 was more than most setup relievers get but $10 million less than the closer he replaced, David Robertson, got as a free agent that winter and less than half of the $86 million Chapman got this winter.

But Miller was willing to pitch in the helper role long before he'd been paid. Says retired reliever Burke Badenhop, one of Miller's best friends: "He's not the only guy without ego. But he's the best guy with no ego."

PITCHING THE NINTH, with no lifeline and the humiliating walk off the field after a game-blowing outing, is difficult. Miller says so, Francona says so, Badenhop says so. Not everybody can get the last out of the game, they all agree.

But in some ways, the job is easier. The closer gets to face whoever is coming up in the ninth -- the top, middle or bottom of the order; the setup man might be called in specifically to face the middle of the lineup. The closer with a three-run lead knows he can allow a run or two and be safe; the setup man with a three-run lead can't give up any without feeling like he's made his closer's job harder.

The biggest difference is predictability. The closer knows when he's coming into the game. He knows when to warm up, when to get himself into an emotional fervor. More important, he knows when he's going to come out of the game.

"It's nice to have that finish line," Miller says. "When I get the guy and my mind tells me I'm done -- and I turn around and Tito's not coming to get me? Usually that's a bad situation. My brain has already shut it down. I've definitely gotten better at that situation as I've been used in more flexible ways. But if your brain starts to go in the wrong direction, it's going to be tough to get out of."

The Indians knew Miller was willing to pitch as a fireman, but they had to make sure they weren't setting him up to fail. "One of our goals is to pitch our best bullpen guys as much as we can without pitching them too much," Francona says. "That's a fine line.

"The challenge is that you get a guy up early and those situations go away sometimes. It's too easy to say every single situation you want him. But if you get him up in the sixth and it goes away for some reason -- and then you get him up in the seventh, and then in the eighth -- you're going to kill somebody. That was one thing I told him: 'When I get you up, I'll get you in the game.' So people would say, 'You took your starter out when he was going good.' I know that, but I kind of made a deal." If Francona uses Miller for a second inning, he'll usually tell him exactly where the finish line is.

"I buy into the sabermetric-type best pitcher in the biggest spot of the game. To me, it's common sense. I also think having common sense in the seventh or eighth inning is not always easy." Indians manager Terry Francona

The formula has backfired at times. In Game 4 of the World Series, Miller pitched two innings with the Indians up big -- the lowest of low leverage, a waste of his bullets. But he had begun warming up before Jason Kipnis hit a three-run homer to extend the lead to six runs, so Francona used him. He didn't pitch the next day, in a much closer game.

"I told our whole bullpen that if we do this enough -- because I think it's right -- it'll backfire a game or two," Francona says. "It has to. I still believe over the course of a lot of games, you're going to be right a lot."

IF THE REST of the league is going to follow the Indians' lead, if the tyranny of the save is going to be torn down, there are at least three things that need to happen -- besides, of course, showing that it can work.

The first is that there needs to be something that replaces the save. In 2010, sabermetrician Tom Tango suggested a new stat: Any time a pitcher increased his team's chances of winning by 6 percent or more (measured by the win probability added statistic), he'd be credited with ...whatever this new thing was going to be called. But the naming of that new thing was tougher, as suggestions improved from "fires extinguished" to "douses" to, at last, "shutdowns." The negative equivalent -- a 6 percent decrease in WPA -- would be "meltdowns." FanGraphs added the stat to its leaderboards the following year.

The shutdown remains a fringe, sabermetric stat, but Miller is aware of it -- he had a career-high 37 in 2016 -- and so are many GMs. One stat-savvy executive refused to endorse it, fearing any quote would be used against him in some reliever's future arbitration hearing. Which is the point: If enough people use shutdowns, they'll be worth money. If they're worth money, relievers will want them.

The second necessity is to change expectations. Relievers need to know what is expected of them if they're going to be comfortable, and they need to be comfortable to thrive. So the Indians -- and teams across baseball -- have begun resetting expectations for their relievers early on. "When I was coming up, it was like they were grooming closers," Miller says. "Like getting a three-out save in Lakeland, Florida, in front of 15 people is going to prepare you to close a game in the playoffs. That mentality is going away."

Throughout the minors, only 50 pitchers got 15 or more saves last year, fewer than half as many as 10 years ago. Only two relievers in Cleveland's entire minor league system collected 10 or more saves last year, and across the four full-season affiliates, 38 pitchers earned at least one save.

The third imperative is to demonstrate to relievers that stardom awaits no matter which innings they dominate.

"If the fireman role were to come back," Miller says, "and your best reliever was the guy who got out of the first big jam, and that became the role that garnered the most attention -- if the star reliever and the highest-paid reliever in baseball was Dellin Betances -- all the guys that are trying to cut it here would rather be Dellin. Guys are going to follow what's getting the most attention and what's the most rewarding."

THESE STORIES WE tell are always more complicated than they first appear. Miller was willing to sleep in that closet because he's adaptable. OK. But there's more to it than that: Miller wanted to sleep in that closet. That closet gave him the chance to be part of the team in a way that having his own apartment or hotel room wouldn't have. That house gave him friends he's still close to, friends he still plays fantasy football against and friends he visits during the offseason. That closet gave him a chance to prove to his teammates that he wasn't a spoiled bonus baby and that he valued the minor league life, even if he wasn't likely to be there long.

"[Miller is] not the only guy without ego. But he's the best guy with no ego."
Retired reliever Burke Badenhop, one of Miller's best friends

That's the irony in Miller's story last year: You tell it as a story about a guy who submitted himself to a lesser profile. But it turns out to be a different story. Miller won the 2016 ALCS MVP award in Cleveland's win over the Blue Jays. He finished ninth in Cy Young voting, ahead of all but one AL closer. He became a bigger star than he had ever been as a closer, one of the biggest stars of last October -- and the first "modern" fireman. And when he hits free agency in two years, his ability to be the closest thing to Rollie Fingers since Rollie Fingers will make him an even more appealing option to many teams. Of course, he couldn't have known any of this as a prep star in Gainesville in 2003, when he turned down the Rays after they drafted him in the third round. Or when he signed with the Tigers out of North Carolina in 2006. Or when he slept in a closet. Or when he struggled as a starter for the better part of his first six years.

Jerome Holtzman didn't invent the save, by the way. That story is wrong. It was actually created by Allan Roth, the in-house statistician for the Brooklyn Dodgers in or around 1951. Roth was, 20 years before the Society for American Baseball Research was formed, a godfather to future advanced analytics wonks. He gave us platoon splits, run differentials, spray charts, isolated power -- and the save. He would distribute save totals to writers, including Holtzman, who tweaked the formula and lobbied for a unified definition, but if you want to blame somebody for the save, start with the stathead. Or don't blame anybody. Roth and Holtzman just wanted to tell a story.

The save, like WAR, was born of good intentions; it answered a question that wasn't being answered before, and it did it in a way that added value to our understanding of the game. And then, when it got loose, it took on a life of its own. It hardened into something that stopped growing. It ceased to inform and began to demand. It helped drive innovation, and then, as it grew into maturity, it became stubborn and resisted innovation. The save made it too easy for too many people to stop looking. If the save teaches us anything about the stories we choose to tell, it's how important it is to keep sight of what gets left out.