When discussing the success of Nathan Eovaldi so far this season, as we did late last week, it is impossible to ignore his weapon of choice: pounding the strike zone into submission. Eovaldi is second in the majors behind only the immortal Bartolo Colon in terms of percentage of pitches in the strike zone. Clearly, Eovaldi's early season jump in strikeouts and sudden drop in walks is all predicated by living in the zone.
But if you look down the list a little further, you will see another Marlins pitcher in the top 10. Henderson Alvarez currently ranks fifth with a 57.5 percent zone percentage. Scroll down a bit further and Jose Fernandez is there at 19th with a 53.5 percent rate. No other team has three starting pitchers in the top 20 in this category, and only two other clubs have them in the top 30. The Marlins as a team are second in the league in zone percentage, in a virtual tie with the St. Louis Cardinals for the top rank in that category.
Oddly enough, this is not a one-year occurrence. The Fish were first last season by 0.6 percent over the next team, and four of their starters placed in the top 30 of the league's list among pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched. The starters were the same three guys from this season along with Tom Koehler. This season's zone-pounding is no accident, but rather a product of this group's efforts to pitch within the strike zone.
But let's extend that concept beyond the last two seasons. Since the scoring environment began to dip in 2009, the Marlins are sixth in the league in zone percentage, with about 51 percent of their pitches in the zone. This may go beyond a particular group's efforts but rather reflect an organizational interest in teaching this style of pitching. How can we determine where these ideas are coming from?
At first, I believed it was a coaching decision, given that the Marlins were in such high extremes last year and this year and that they did not have the same amount of zone-pounding success in 2012 under old pitching coach Randy St. Claire. The first guess was to look then at the record of Chuck Hernandez, the team's current pitching coach. Prior to his work with the Miami Marlins, he had served three times as a Major League pitching coach, most recently from 2006 to 2008 with the Detroit Tigers. Unfortunately, that did not appear to be a focus of Hernandez's in his past jobs. In 2008, the Pitch F/X data showed that the Tigers were among the lowest-ranking teams in zone percentage, and the BIS data showed the Tigers as 26th overall in the league from 2006 to 2008. He got similar results from the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 2004 and 2005 as well.
If it was not a coaching decision by Hernandez, could it be an organizational philosophy or goal by the Marlins? That would help explain why the trend continued into the seasons before Hernandez. But if you look at the pitcher's of that time period, very few of them had either been raised in Miami's farm system or spent a significant time in south Florida. Prior to this most recent group, the longest-tenured Marlins starters from this time period were Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco, and Anibal Sanchez. Sanchez was a strike thrower at a 52 percent rate, but Johnson never hung around in the zone (49 percent) and Nolasco had been trending downward in that department since making a fundamental change in his repertoire. From 2009 to 2014, the heaviest strike-throwers who spent significant time with the Fish are the three from this era and Javier Vazquez, who threw 192 2/3 magical innings in an otherwise lost 2011 season.
It is possible that the Marlins have targeted strike throwers in their signings. But at this stage, it seems a lot more likely that the Fish have simply run into the best strategy for a group of talented young starters that they currently have. The fact that they have been among the league leaders for some time reflects the team's previous core along with a couple of shrewd signings like the Vazquez one. This most recent group just happens to include three pitchers whose best plan is to attack the strike zone, regardless of the teachings or strategies of the Marlins. It is more likely to be a coincidence, but since it is working for the Fish, we can call it a happy one for now.