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Cardinals 2020 Player Preview: Will Andrew Miller ever get his feel back?

One year into his Cardinal career, the big Lefty looks like another data point in the Don’t Sign Relievers argument.

MLB: NLDS-Atlanta Braves at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

At the start of last season, I wrote about Andrew Miller losing his feel for his slider. More than most any pitcher you will find, Miller relies not just on one pitch - but one location. He extends those mile-long limbs and bends slider-after-slider into that same spot: Low and in to a right-hander, low and away to a lefty.

Early in 2019, Miller could not hit that corner like he had throughout his years as a dominant reliever. And while his results improved a bit, his line for the season was pretty dreadful:

2019 Stats
73 Games, 54.2 IP, 27 HR, 27 BB, 70 SO, .283 BABIP, 4.45 ERA, 5.19 FIP

That was good for a -0.4 WAR, which ranked him 774th out of 831 pitchers who threw a pitch in the major leagues last season. And even if we assume his crazy HR rate was a fluke, his xFIP - which corrects HR rate to league average - was 4.43.

This is all to say that Andrew Miller’s first season in St. Louis was quite bad, verging on catastrophic. And that was before he got hurt.

Last Monday, Andrew Miller warmed up to enter the game but then never did. Later it would come out that he simply “couldn’t get a feel for the baseball.” He’s reportedly undergone a variety of tests to rule out things like a nerve issue, and while John Mozeliak said he felt better after throwing a bullpen on Saturday, his timeline is still uncertain.

The range of outcomes for Andrew Miller is enormous, and it’s certainly possible he never throws another big league pitch. But assuming he gets past this current problem with getting a feel for the ball, what might we expect this season?

ZiPS Projection
60 Games, 49.2 IP, 6 HR, 22 BB, 63 SO, .306 BABIP, 3.44 ERA, 3.88 FIP

That’s a pretty rosy outlook for Miller, and I think everyone in Cardinal Nation would be more than happy with it. The ZiPS robot didn’t watch Miller last season and it doesn’t know he’s battling some mysterious injury. But whereas we humans are perhaps too aware of those recent occurrences, ZiPS also remembers that in 2017 Andrew Miller was still a dominant pitcher.

Personally, I was never a fan of the Miller signing, as I’m religiously opposed to large free agent contracts for relievers. Most relievers are working with such a limited tool box - elite velocity, one nasty pitch, etc. Once that tool dulls, their value quickly tanks. If they remain effective long enough to even reach free agency, the decline is likely imminent.

Miller will make $11.5 million this season, and if he reaches 110 total appearances between 2019 and 2020, it will trigger a $12 million vesting option for 2021 (with a $2.5 million buyout).

Andrew Miller unfortunately looks likely to be another case-in-point for the Don’t Sign Relievers theory. He was below replacement-level in his first season. Even if he reaches his ZiPS projection - which looks to me more like a best-case scenario - his production will be something more like league average. And the Cardinals have a number of young arms who look capable of posting league-average numbers in the bullpen for arb or even pre-arb salaries.