Fifteen years ago, on September 11, 1998, the then Florida Marlins lost a prototypical 8-2 game against the divsion-winning Atlanta Braves. It was another ordinary loss in a series of losses for the worst team in baseball that year, but the September 11 game was particularly of interest because, on the 148th game of the season, the Marlins lost their 100th game for the first time in franchise history.
It took a bit longer at 158 games, but the Miami Marlins of today just lost their 100th game of the 2013 season last night, in a 2-1 defeat at the hands of the Philadelphia Phillies. While there are four more games left in the season, this loss caps off the second-worst season in Marlins history and yet another difficult chapter in the team's checkered history. Like the last one, this one comes off the heels of a much-maligned fire sale and with a roster left in scraps. Unlike the last one, the franchise did not get to experience the high of a World Series victory before suffering the awful lows; for the Fish, this is the third straight year with 90-plus losses as well.
Many things are similar and dissimilar to the 1998 season, so let's explore some of those comparisons between the two teams.
In 1998, the Marlins' offense hit .248/.317/.373 (.305 wOBA) in one of the more rampant hitting environments in baseball history. Remember, from about 1993 onward, the hitting environment gradually increased until it reached its peak mark around 2000, so this was a time for flourishing offenses. The Marlins' offense, predictably, did not flourish, but the 85 wRC+ (indicating a team that hit 15 percent below the league average when accounting for park factors) was tied for 23rd in baseball. That is far from respectable, but it was at least better than five other teams.
Among the players, four regular Marlins were better than league average that season, with Mark Kotsay and Cliff Floyd both picking up more than two Wins Above Replacement (WAR) over a full season. Craig Counsell did not receive enough plate appearances (just 400 for the season), as did rookie Todd Dunwoody (462) but thanks to varying levels of good defense, they too were better than league average. A few other regulars with lower plate appearance numbers also ended up average or better. Only two semi-regular starters, Ryan Jackson and Gregg Zaun, were below replacement level.
This year's Marlins are significantly different. They are on pace for one of the worst offensive performances in recent league history, and their defense is not so good as to make up for it. The franchise as an entirety is hitting .232/.293/.337 (.280 wOBA), which translates to a batting line 28 percent worse than the league average. The gap between the Marlins' wRC+ and the next lowest team's, the Chicago White Sox, is the same as the gap between the Sox and the 17th-ranked Arizona Diamondbacks and Milwaukee Brewers.
The Marlins as an entire group have totaled -1.1 WAR, meaning their entire set of position players have collectively been below replacement-level, Quad-A scrub performance. Only three Marlins players with more than 200 plate appearances have been league average, and only one has been around the "whole" season (Giancarlo Stanton). No other Marlin with more than 300 plate appearances has been average or better. The Marlins also boast nine players with more than 200 plate appearances who are at replacement level or worse, with the highlight being the league's worst regular, Adeiny Hechavarria, at almost two wins worse than replacement.
The Marlins' pitching staff in 2013 has been respectable, on the other hand. The Fish rank 17th in FanGraphs pitcher WAR, having racked up almost 14 wins above replacement. The team's 3.78 ERA and 3.71 FIP are comfortably around the league average for the season. Those numbers also put them near teams like the Cleveland Indians and Tampa Bay Rays in terms of pitching performance.
The franchise's best starting pitcher, Jose Fernandez, is a Rookie of the Year contender (and some would say favorite). Two more members of the starting staff have also been above average in their time on the field, as Henderson Alvarez and Nathan Eovaldi have both looked like capable starters this season. The rest of the staff may have some struggles, but the franchise has a solid foundation on the pitching side.
The pitchers of the 1998 team were difficult to watch. The Marlins' pitching staff posted a 5.20 ERA and 4.97 FIP collectively in 1998. They totaled more than two wins below replacement, very similar to the Marlins' offense of 2013. The Marlins led the league in walk rate at 10.9 percent as a team and were 23rd in strikeout rate. The team's ERA and FIP were 28 and 21 percent worse than the league average that year, with no other team being worse than nine percent worse on either side.
The best pitcher of the 1998 team among starters was rookie Brian Meadows, and he was no Jose Fernandez. Meadows posted a 5.21 ERA and 4.46 FIP in 174 1/3 innings, giving him a 1.3-win season. The best pitcher overall may have been closer Matt Mantei, who saved a whopping nine games for the Fish that year. The previous year's World Series MVP, Livan Hernandez, was the ace of the staff but played poorly, recording a 4.72 ERA and 5.22 FIP for the year.
Each side had its share of disappointment, so it is difficult to compare which year was more disheartening. On the one hand, the 1998 team was a championship squad the year before and was dismantled afterward. The downfall from World Series champion to worst defense of the World Series is a tremendous fall, and it was a difficult one for fans of the Fish back then.
Then again, with this Marlins incarnation, the disappointment comes not from the performance of last season, but the promise of last year. There was seemingly a promise that the ways of old would dissipate now that the franchise had changed its name and its stadium, but in just one year, those changes were gone and it was back to business as usual in Miami. This franchise sold the 2012 season on a new start, but there was nothing new about the way 2013 started.
So which season ends up being more disappointing? The first fire sale was a heartbreaker and came off a high, while the second enraged the fan base and came off a low. Which one did you think was worse? Tell us in the comments!