Marlins' Pitching Carrying Them Through May

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 20: Starting pitcher Josh Johnson #55 of the Miami Marlins pitches during the second inning against the Cleveland Indians during inter-league play at Progressive Field on May 20, 2012 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

Yesterday, the Miami Marlins got a good performance from Josh Johnson, who has strung together three straight solid starts, en route to a 5-3 victory over the Cleveland Indians. That is the 14th win for the Marlins in May in 20 contests, and that record owes a good deal to the pitching staff of the Fish. Before Sunday's victory, the Fish were tied for third in ERA and second in FIP in the month of May, and their peripherals behind these numbers were also pretty good.

Marlins, May Stat Rank
K% 17.0 T-24
BB% 7.7 9
HR/FB% 5.5 1
GB% 48.7 4

That set of numbers is highly intriguing. The Marlins are indeed succeeding at pitching in 2012, and particularly in the month of May. But are they doing it in a way that is particularly sustainable for future performance? It is worth asking if the success of May can realistically extend into June and beyond.

Strikeout Rate

The lack of strikeouts by the Marlins is a little off-putting. When you look at the pitchers on the staff, you would expect a decent number of strikeouts, yet this month the Marlins were scraping the bottom of the strikeout barrel amid the likes of the Indians (16.8 percent), Chicago Cubs (17.0 percent), and Boston Red Sox (17.4 percent). Let's take a look at the starting staff to see who is lagging in the whiff department.

Player K%, May K%, 2012 K%, ZiPS Proj
Josh Johnson 18.3 19.1 22.1
Mark Buehrle 11.6 13.1 13.5
Ricky Nolasco 8.6 12.4 18.7
Carlos Zambrano 20.0 19.0 19.7
Anibal Sanchez 19.6 25.0 21.8

As you can see, all but one player on the Marlins underperformed his projected strikeout rate in May thus far. But for some players, that is not as much of a concern. Sanchez has not underperformed that mark by much, and that could be very easily be due to random variation. The same can be said of Mark Buehrle, who was never much of a strikeout artist anyway; in fact, the presence of Buehrle in this rotation is a very clear indicator as to why the Marlins are low on the strikeout list to begin with.

For the other two starters, there were some performance indicators that could have something to do with their lack of strikeouts. Johnson's health has been questioned consistently this season due to his rough opening month, but he posted good peripherals throughout the month of April and has actually had worse strikeout and walk rates in May than last month, not to mention the fact that he allowed his first three homers of the season this month. Nevertheless, the real interesting indicator on which to keep an eye is his velocity; prior to his last start, Johnson's velocity had been sitting at 92.7 mph, and while yesterday's game represented a better number (93.4 mph), this could have something to do with his decreased effectiveness.

As for Nolasco, something seems very clearly wrong above and beyond what we have already know about Nolasco's classic struggles with runners on. His strikeouts are way down this year, around the level of Mark Buehrle after a 2011 season that also saw his strikeouts fall. His velocity is also down, but we are not looking at as sharp a decline as Johnson's. Nolasco has possibly lost something else that is making him even less effective than years before.

Walk Rate

Player BB%, May BB%, 2012 BB%, ZiPS Proj
Josh Johnson 8.5 7.5 6.7
Mark Buehrle 5.8 4.1 5.3
Ricky Nolasco 5.7 6.2 5.3
Carlos Zambrano 10.4 10.2 10.9
Anibal Sanchez 5.4 6.4 8.1

Mark Buehrle and Carlos Zambrano are performing right in line with their projections. For Buehrle, that is no surprise, as he is nothing but a beacon of consistency, good or bad. For Zambrano, this is enjoyable if only because he is well-known for being temperamental and difficult to deal with, yet on the mound this season for the Marlins, he has been nothing short of consistent with his peripheral performance, at least when compared to his expected values.

Anibal Sanchez may very well have become the best pitcher on this staff by working on his control and throwing more strikes, but it is difficult to tell because, at this point, that is not entirely as evident as his spike in strikeouts has been. Nevertheless, either is a very welcome addition. As for the two players who have suffered changes, it is not surprising that it is these two. Again, Johnson's loss of velocity has to be affecting him in multiple areas, and this could be one of them. As for Nolasco, hitters have stopped offering at his outside pitches, leading to a diabolic choice of more strike-throwing that has classically gotten Nolasco in trouble or more walks.

Home Run Suppression

Player GB%, May GB%, 2012 GB%, Career
Josh Johnson 45.1 52.1 47.9
Mark Buehrle 52.9 45.9 45.9
Ricky Nolasco 41.0 48.8 40.8
Carlos Zambrano 53.3 49.0 48.3
Anibal Sanchez 51.3 50.7 44.4

Player HR/FB%, May HR/FB%, 2012 HR/FB%, Career
Josh Johnson 11.1 6.1 6.8
Mark Buehrle 5.6 10.2 9.8
Ricky Nolasco 11.1 10.0 10.8
Carlos Zambrano 0.0 7.1 8.8
Anibal Sanchez 7.3 8.2 7.9

This is where the Marlins have made their bread and butter. With the exception of the ever-consistent Mark Buehrle, the Marlins have all suppressed home runs at a rate better than their career mark. How they have done it is the more interesting part, as players who have lower-than-expected home run per fly ball (HR/FB) rates are likely to see faster regression than those who have adjusted by earning more ground balls. Zambrano and Sanchez have both induced more grounders in terms of rate in May than in their careers, and naturally those guys are doing the best in terms of keeping the ball in the park this month.

Ricky Nolasco and Josh Johnson did not have the same success with grounders that they did in the first month, so naturally they have allowed more long balls this month than the other three. However, overall for the 2012 season, they have each outperformed their career average in grounders, and neither has really benefited from a superior HR/FB rate. These changes are more likely to stick going forward, though some regression is still expected. If they can continue this trend (and, for what it is worth, both pitchers increased their ground ball rates from their career marks last season as well, indicating a possible trend), they should be able to help themselves suppress more long balls.

It is worth noting that, at least in the case of the Marlins' starters, the dimensions of the new stadium have not necessarily benefited their home run numbers. With the lone exception of Zambrano, each Marlin is about where you would expect them in terms of allowing homers on fly balls, meaning that the Marlins are not artificially suppressing jacks at their home park. Either that or the team is allowing an abnormally increased number of homers in road stadiums, which has not appeared to be the case early on.

Sustainable?

If the Marlins continue to struggle to strike out hitters, these numbers will eventually fall. We know that Zambrano and likely Sanchez are due for some big backward regression, but that will be tempered in part by the positive regression we should expect from Johnson, who should be on his way back from that ugly start. Buehrle is as consistent as ever, and Nolasco may be the only one among the five who has suffered a setback from previous years.

As for the bullpen, the Fish have the distinction of being sixth in the league in FIP among relief corps, but their ERA is further back (14th). For them, it is a matter of getting Heath Bell in line while allowing the better pieces to continue to pitch their game. The bullpen is undoubtedly not as good as last season's, just on the basis that some of those pitchers from last season have come back down a bit to earth and that Bell is struggling so mightily. If he returns to form, the bullpen should at least be around league average, even after regression on their extreme home run suppression.

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