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Alex Reyes is not the Cardinals’ Andrew Miller

Over at Viva El Birdos, Zach Gifford published his first article on why it makes sense to put Alex Reyes in an Andrew Miller type role. He asked for our thoughts, so I will provide a few counterpoints.

After the Indians’ reliever’s dominant postseason, baseball fans across the nation are wondering: “who is the next Andrew Miller?” I have since read many articles trying to answer that question. Usually, I don’t like those articles; too many people are writing about how average starters can become Miller in the bullpen. However, Zach Gifford’s article on Viva El Birdos had me thinking for a little bit.

To begin with, Alex Reyes is not an average starter. He has ace potential, and the Cardinals just need to figure out what to do with him until he reaches it. Secondly, Zach’s argument makes sense. He brings up the fact that the Cardinals current rotation is fine and the fact that Reyes may not be able to throw many innings as a starter anyway; both valid points. And finally, the Cardinals could benefit a lot by adding another dominant reliever, regardless of where he comes from. Nevertheless, I still think that trying to create another Andrew Miller out of Alex Reyes would be a mistake, and here’s why.

We’re missing what really made Miller so great

In the playoffs, Miller faced entire lineups. He faced at least 8 batters in five of his ten postseason appearances. However, that is not feasible in the regular season. In fact, after he was traded to the Indians, Miller never faced more than 7 batters in a single outing. Right now, the narrative is about how much he pitched. However, what really made him great was who he got out, not how many people he got out.

Miller’s task in Cleveland was to come in and face the heart of the order in close games. It didn’t matter when, but if the 1-2-3-4-5 batters got to the plate, then Andrew Miller was coming in the game. All Miller did was shut down the best hitters in the game before hitting the showers each night.

From September 17 to September 26, Miller pitched in four games. Here are the batters that he faced for those games:

9/16: Victor Martinez, J.D. Martinez, Justin Upton, Erick Aybar
9/17: Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, J.D. Martinez, Justin Upton, Casey McGehee, James McCann, Jose Iglesias
9/20: Christian Colon, Whit Merrifield, Eric Hosmer, Kendrys Morales, Salvador Perez
9/21: Billy Burns, Jarrod Dyson
9/26: Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, J.D. Martinez, Justin Upton, Erick Aybar, James McCann

Broken down by place in the batting order, that looks like this:

screen-shot-2016-11-21-at-8-58-00-pm

Francona called Miller’s name for the toughest outs, and the lefty shut down the opponent. Against those 20 batters, Miller recorded 11 strikeouts against just two hits and no walks. Forget length! If you can take out the middle of the order like that, then anybody can pitch against batters 7-8-9.

Francona and Miller kept that trend up throughout his stay in Cleveland this year. Here is that same chart for 103 batters that Miller faced as a member of the Indians in 2016:

When graphed against a uniform distribution, that looks like the following:

The red line is Miller, the blue line is a uniform distribution, and the shaded area is the area between the two curves, meant to give you an idea of how Miller compared to that uniform distribution. I should note that neither curve should be continuous, although I have made it look as such. Those totals are relative to 103 total batters faced.

The takeaway is that Miller has been going against the top of the order since he was traded to the Tribe. Don’t let that 9th spot fool you, either. Miller faced the 9-batter first six times, meaning that he was really facing the last batter just to get to the top. The major league on-base percentage in 2016 was .322. Despite all of the high OBP guys that Miller faced, he gave up a minuscule .155 OBP against. In the playoffs, Miller’s volume is what astounded everyone. In the regular season, who he shut down was what made him so incredible.

Alex Reyes can’t beat the best yet

Reyes certainly has the stuff to become an incredible pitcher. However, he struggles against the opponents’ top batters. To be clear, that is nothing to be ashamed of at this point in his career. Nevertheless, if we are going to have the Miller debate, we must also note his stats in this area. While Miller shut down the top of the order, Reyes survived it until he got to weaker opponents. Here is what his OBP against by lineup spot looks like:

screen-shot-2016-11-22-at-1-22-29-am

Another way of saying those above numbers is that batters 1-5 had on OBP of .349 against him, while batters 6-9 had an OBP of .227. If Reyes is going to dominate from the bullpen, it certainly won’t be against the opponents’ best. Andrew Miller was superman for the Indians. When Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Kyle Schwarber come to the plate, Miller can stop them. Reyes cannot do that yet.

In order to put Alex Reyes in that Andrew Miller role, the Cardinals will need to be confident that he can consistently dominate every batter in the lineup. In other words, he needs to be able to put up fantastic numbers in his 1-2 innings of work each night, otherwise a rotation spot is the best place for him. When looking at his numbers in the first time through the order, it isn’t clear that he can do that.

Here, I will stop comparing the two players directly. The point is not to say that Reyes can be Miller, but rather that he can be valuable in Miller’s role. Zach and many others simply believe that Reyes might bring more value from the bullpen in 2017. Well, when pitching from the bullpen, you rarely see the same batter twice. And at first glance, Reyes did very well the first time through the order.

Combining his relief and starting work, Reyes averaged over 11 K/9 through the order once. His FIP was all the way down at 2.16 in such situations. For reference, Clayton Kershaw’s career FIP the first time through the order is 2.37. Unfortunately, it isn’t all good news. Reyes gave up fly balls on more than 40 percent of balls in play. However, he somehow did not give up a home run to the 97 batters he faced for the first time in a game. xFIP reflects this stroke of luck. Reyes’ xFIP sits at 3.53. That is slightly better than what Ivan Nova does the first time through the order (3.71).

Ultimately, Reyes has tantalizing stuff. Regardless, he isn’t good enough to do what Andrew Miller did. In fact, he won’t really come that close. If you are going to take a pitcher out of the rotation for strategic reasons, then that player needs to be dominant. Reyes isn’t at that level, at least not yet. Reyes will have some ups and downs this year, but the numbers don’t suggest that he can be a super reliever. He doesn’t dominate opponents the first time he sees them, and he definitely can’t go up against the game’s best without getting burned often at this stage of his career.

The walks aren’t going away in the bullpen

Alex Reyes’ biggest problem right now is his control. Among the reasons to move him to the bullpen is that he won’t be able to go deep into games as a starter. I agree with that notion, but I don’t think moving him to the bullpen is as much of an advantage as people seem to think. For starters, there is no way he could go two innings every night, like Miller did. Reyes will still walk people in the bullpen. In fact, his walk rate was actually higher as a reliever  (14.7 %) than as a starter (10.7 %) in 2016. If you want him to bridge the sixth and seventh innings, he may need two or three days off each time Matheny uses him.

Secondly, having a reliever who can’t last long still hurts. Obviously, having a starter stop two innings short is more damaging than having one reliever unavailable here and there. Even still, the cost isn’t nothing. I have read many things saying you put him in the bullpen and this problem goes away. I definitely agree that the bullpen can mitigate his high pitch count problem, but it won’t erase the issue. If Reyes throws more pitches than he should in the pen, then the Cardinals won’t be able to use him for some time afterwards.

In general, more innings = more value

My last counterpoint to the Alex Reyes for super reliever argument is this: if Reyes is who we think he is, then he can bring in more value by pitching more innings. As a reliever, he will go no more than 80 innings, and that would be really pushing it. As a starter, he can get up to 160 innings. He won’t double his value as a starter, but those 80 extra innings is worth more than the added value of being able to stop at 25 pitches each night.

This is why I have been throwing around the word “dominate” so much. It is incredibly difficult to make up 80-plus innings’ worth of value, even for a mediocre starter. Reyes should be better than mediocre, meaning he must do that much better in the bullpen to make a move worth it. If he could succeed as Andrew Miller, it might be worth it. However, Miller dominates the game’s best, and Reyes can’t. I just can’t wrap my head around a way in which Reyes makes up an extra 80-plus innings’ worth of value by going to a relief role.

Zach made a really good point about the Cardinals current rotation, and I do agree that they don’t need to shake things up there. That doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t shake things up, though. At some point, I believe Reyes will become a number one or two starter. If he has that potential, then I would argue that it has to be somebody else going to the bullpen. This person wouldn’t be Andrew Miller, either, but the Cardinals would get more value by starting Reyes over, say, Jaime Garcia. Let Garcia get the small bump in effectiveness by going to a relief role. Give Reyes the innings, because he is the guy that can make the most of them.

Cardinals nation, please join in on this debate!

Photo credit: Jeff Curry – USA TODAY Sports

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