The Miami Marlins do not do many things consistently, but the team often harps on one of its founding talking points over and over again. Under the leadership of Perry Hill, renowned fielding instructor, the Marlins consistently talk about defense as one of the key principles of the team.
"Twenty-seven outs, no more."
That would be the Marlins' mantra -- engrained in each player's mind and found on workout shirts with "DEFENSE" emblazoned in bold block capital letters.
"We're not a team that really can overcome mental errors or mistakes right now," Marlins catcher Jeff Mathis said. "We're in tight ballgames every night, so it's really on us to play some error-free ball on the field and take advantage of those runs that we get or tack on at the end of the game."
Ever since 2003, when the Marlins boasted four Gold Glove-caliber defensive infielders, the team has emphasized fielding, at least to the media and to outward appearances. But as we have come to see in years past, the Fish speak one game regarding defense and act in another fashion on the field. Since the 2005 fire sale, the Marlins have boasted one of the worst defenses in baseball. Whether it was using Hanley Ramirez as a shortstop for years to no avail or playing Logan Morrison in left field to fit an extra bat into the lineup, the Fish have consistently chose offense over defense.
The team is now working to rectify those things, as it has made recent decisions that eschew offense for defense. The Fish began starting Jeff Mathis over the struggling Rob Brantly and it has fielded a supposedly excellent defensive shortstop in Adeiny Hechavarria all season long. These moves should go towards helping repair a defense that was decidedly below average last season, right?
The problem is that the results have not yet supported the process. Both Mathis and Hechavarria hold no offensive value whatsoever, so their defensive play needs to make up for their poor performance at the plate. In the case of Mathis, we have known for years that that has never been the case, and yet the Marlins and their affiliated media have constantly praised Mathis despite his struggles at the plate.
But in terms of his defense, he has been solid enough at throwing out baserunners, with a 37 percent mark that is behind only seven other catchers with at least 50 starts. Overall, Mathis is somewhere between one and five runs above average so far this year, according to the metrics. But the Marlins media quoted one particualrly concerning statistic.
Since June 16, Miami's starting pitchers have allowed three or fewer runs in 49 of 62 games. Mathis' catcher's ERA is 2.79.
Rookie Rob Brantly, who was optioned to Triple-A New Orleans on Aug. 8, held a 4.45 catcher's ERA with seven passed balls. He had moved his locker next to Mathis' so he could learn from the nine-year veteran, taking notes and communicating with pitchers.
This is especially concerning because catcher ERA is well-known to have a small predictive value from year to year. Mathis's catcher ERA was often cited as the reason why he was a superior option to a significantly better hitter in Mike Napoli. The Marlins are using the same relatively flimsy excuse to send Rob Brantly to Triple-A. Admittedly, Brantly appeared as though he could use the time in the minors, but the path of following catcher's ERA as a statistic to use measure defensive performance is a dangerous one with few benefits.
As for Hechavarria, he has had a recent spat of errors but has otherwise looked solid defensively this season. As Hill puts it, there is no reason to panic just because he has a few bad games in a row. The problem is that, according to the advanced statistics, Hechavarria has struggled more than expected. The three most often cited advanced defensive stats have him between six and eight runs below average this season. Prior to the run of errors that has him at the lowest fielding percentage among all National League shortstops, he was still rating as a below average player.
The defensive statistics are not necessarily correct, and the fact that all three correlate does not make them perfect measurements. We know that Hechavarria has a strong defensive reputation, It is possible that he has been as positive for the defense as Hill said, but the numbers so far do not support that, and the truth is probably somewhere in between. The important thing is that, like Mathis, Hechavarria has been an empty spot in the lineup, and if there is any chance he has been that and a below-average shortstop, the Marlins need to rectify the problem. As he is currently hitting, he needs to be significantly better on the field to create value for the Fish.
The Marlins have two examples of players whose defensive value are important to their overall worth on the team. The Marlins would like to believe that these two will go along way to helping the franchise, but with their questionable defensive value and what the Marlins are valuing in them, perhaps the defense is still a major question for this franchise still.
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