If you told Miami Marlins fans that the team would be in last place in the NL East by the end of April, fans would shrug. If you told them that the team would have a 12-13 record by the end of the month, they probably would be ecstatic. The Marlins have actually started off very well in 2014, having posted the best April record since the 2011 season.
But what is even more interesting about the Marlins' start in 2014 is something that I noticed during the weekly "The 30" articles by Grantland's Jonah Keri. Here's a part of the latest one.
Since that point, the Marlins have played two games at home against the division-contending Atlanta Braves and snuffed them out to the tune of an 18-3 drubbing over the games. That leaves Miami with a run differential of +21 runs. The Marlins may have a record just a game under .500, but they own a Pythagorean record of a 16-11 team. In fact, that +21 run differential is the fourth-best run differential in baseball! Yet somehow Miami is still ranked among the worst teams in baseball.
It is also worth noting how well Miami is doing in its underlying statistics. The Fish hit .266/.331/.411 in April, which was good for a .327 wOBA. They also allowed just a .239/.303/.375 batting line in the month. That line most closely resembles a player like Dexter Fowler (.237/.307/.363, .302 wOBA) this season. If you take the pitching wOBA against for the Marlins to be an even .303, you are looking at a wOBA differential of +0.024. A week ago, Dave Cameron of FanGraphs looked at wOBA differential early in the season and saw a number of good teams ranking highly in that department. This mark as of the end of April matched the mark the Los Angeles Dodgers had as of that article.
All of this is to say that the Marlins have been very good to start the 2014 season, yet they have received no recognition as a team playing better than expected. Part of that is understandable, because it is still April. While the team may have already recorded those runs in the books, they did not contribute to a better record for the Fish. Miami still needed more wins out of those past runs, because it is unlikely they will continue to repeat this performance.
A few Marlins players are not expected to continue to play at this level. Four or five of the team's regular position players are hitting over their heads, while only one is underwhelming his projections, and if those players trend the opposite direction, you can see how an offense expected to be one of the worst in baseball could turn sour shortly. On the pitching side, a couple of pitchers are throwing over their heads as well behind Jose Fernandez, and that may not continue as well.
But a few of those players outperforming expectations are not veterans on good luck streaks, but young players who could very well be establishing themselves. Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna, and Nathan Eovaldi all figured to be part of an important future for Miami, and they are all currently posting excellent numbers. If just one or two of those guys turns out to be an All-Star level or close to that in 2014, the Fish could point to some real improvement in 2014, and the performance in April would reflect some of that. Not every stat in April is fully predictive, but some of those performances should stick better than others.
This concept is evident in the updated team projections by FanGraphs. In the article about banking wins early in the season, I noted that the Marlins had improved their expected performance already after just one strong week.
If the Fish went 10-3 to start and finished the rest of the year with a .460 winning percentage as previously projected by FanGraphs' depth charts, that would leave them as a 78-84 team, which is probably at least an eight-game improvement over preseason projections.
The team went on a seven-game losing streak after that first Saturday, but they still finished with a respectable record by the end of the month. And the projection for the rest of the season, as a result of the strong early play, jumped up to even better levels for Miami. Whereas I noted that FanGraphs was expecting a .460 true-talent winning percentage, now the site is projecting a .473 true-talent team. Over the course of a full season, that is a 76-win team. Thanks to a .500 start to the year, the Marlins have upped their expectations from the border of 70 wins up to a six-game improvement. In fact, that .473 clip is only the fifth-worst projection for the rest of the season, which is an improvement over the second-worst mark they likely held before the year. If they played at that rate the rest of the way, Miami would be expected to finish the year with a 77-win season, which would a huge first step in overcoming the ugly 2013 year.
The hot start is not permanent, and May still holds plenty of challenges for Miami. The team won its first game in May in comeback fashion, putting down the Atlanta Braves and finishing off a sweep. They need to continue that kind of success in order to slowly turn the doubters into believers. The potential for growth in players like Ozuna, Yelich, and Eovaldi, true prospects who have each brought some interesting things to their games this season, gives Miami a chance at true improvement. It's too early to tell, but not so early that we can still dismiss Miami as a pushover.