Can the Miami Marlins Play Wade LeBlanc-Types In Their Rotation?

MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 04: Pitcher Wade LeBlanc #23 of the Miami Marlins throws against the Milwaukee Brewers at Marlins Park on September 4, 2012 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)

The Miami Marlins have a lot of thinking to do regarding their future, and that thinking process starts now as the team evaluates a number of September call-ups and players who will be auditioning for the 2013 season. The Marlins have many important decisions to make regarding next year's team, and any players who are not immediate free agents are essentially rehearsing for parts in a play for next year.

One of those players is Wade LeBlanc, who made another middling outing last night in the team's 8-4 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers. LeBlanc posted a quality start in its technical definition, allowing three earned runs in six innings. However, he also struck out only one batter and gave up a homer among his 12 fly balls and 14 balls in air overall. LeBlanc, to his credit, also only allowed one walk and settled down past the first inning in which he gave up all three runs.

For LeBlanc, this season may be an audition, and given his decent success in the pen and rotation, it may have been a successful one. But his play brings up an interesting team-building question for the Marlins in the future. LeBlanc is a pitcher with a career 34.4 percent ground ball rate, meaning he allows too many fly balls to be particularly successful at preventing home runs. But Marlins Park has proven itself to be able to suppress home runs, based on its dimensions and the single-season results.

So the question is whether the Marlins can consider spending less and getting LeBlanc-type pitchers to populate their back-end of the rotation?

The Free Agent Options

LeBlanc pitchers are typically guys who allow a lot of fly balls and have decent control. Just in this free agency, there are available cheap pitching options among pitchers who give up fly balls and are thus homer-prone in other parks and also restrict their walks. I looked through all of the pitchers from 2010 through 2012 with at least 300 innings pitched, a ground ball rate less than 40 percent, and a walk rate of under 3.0 per nine innings. Five names came to the forefront that met these qualifications, with their names listed in the following list in no particular order.

Player, 2010-2012 IP GB% BB/9 ERA FIP
Scott Baker 302 35.0 2.2 3.93 3.76
Colby Lewis 506 1/3 35.3 2.4 3.93 4.01
Shaun Marcum 487 1/3 37.6 2.4 3.55 3.74
Jake Peavy 395 2/3 38.1 2.3 4.14 3.65
Freddy Garcia 379 38.8 2.7 4.44 4.46

This did not include other pitchers with similar qualifications that just missed the arbitrary cutoffs, such as guys like Jeremy Guthrie (40.7 ground ball rate, 2.5 BB/9, 4.45 ERA, 4.70 FIP) and Kevin Millwood (40.7, 2.9, 4.67, 4.42). These pitchers are of varying quality from mediocre fifth starters to options for fourth starters, but they all have a common tie of decent to good control and a tendency for fly balls. All but one or two of the seven examples listed are guys who can be had for less than $10 million per season in investment and less than a three-year commitment, making them interesting options for a penny-pinching organization looking to fill a fifth starter role, for example.

Park Effects

But the magic of a potential Marlins pairing with any of these pitchers is that the Marlins could also give themselves an opportunity to leverage their home stadium with their skills. If a guy like Baker pitched in Cincinnati or Chicago, the smaller dimensions of the park would tend to wreak havoc on their home run totals, forcing them to give up too many jacks. But in Marlins Park, whose dimensions are spacious enough to hold all but the biggest flies, perhaps more of those balls stay in the park and land in the gloves of defenders for outs rather than into the seats.

A prototypical example of such a pitcher/park pairing is Jason Vargas of the Seatle Mariners and Safeco Field. Safeco is notorious for punishing right-handed power hitters in particular, and Vargas is a fly ball pitcher who only has a 37.8 percent ground ball rate since 2010. Since that season, he has allowed just 26 homers in 303 2/3 innings pitched and 1242 batters faced, a rate of 2.1 percent of his batters faced. Compare that to the 45 homers allowed in 281 1/3 innings and 1204 batters faced, a rate of 3.7 percent. Clearly, pitching in Safeco has helped an otherwise decent or unspectacular fly ball pitcher become a solid third starter.

Marlins Park may not be as unforgiving as Safeco against right-handers, but it is a difficult hill for all but the best power hitters to climb. Marlins Park has only allowed 92 home runs in 4951 combined PA, a rate of just 1.8 percent. The dimensions are among the longest in baseball, particularly down both left and right field lines and into the deepest part in center field. Only one area of the stadium, the right field power alley, is smaller than the old Sun Life Stadium dimensions.

Defense First

The one thing the Marlins do need to consider if they will try to find cheap options and leverage their stadium is that they need a good defensive outfield to do so. We have already mentioned that the team should take advantage of the park's dimensions in its team building, and one way to do that is to build around the large outfield with a good outfield defense. Unlike parks like Petco Park, Marlins Park does not seem to be suppressing hits overall as much as it does just home runs, meaning if the Marlins want to go after fly ball pitchers and try to leverage the large dimensions, they are going to need capable outfield defenders to make those fly balls outs rather than doubles.

So yes, it does seem as though it would not be a bad idea to entertain the thought of pursuing fly ball control-type pitchers in the hopes of leveraging their weaknesses in our cavernous park. But since the park does not convert more balls into outs as a whole, the team should prepare itself by finding a good outfield defense as well to supplement these types of pitchers. Once again, it will up to the team's foray into the free agent market in 2013 to find those above average defenders.

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