Miami Marlins housing unusual pitcher success

Kevin C. Cox

On the back of the team's approach of pounding the strike zone, the Miami Marlins are playing host to pitchers showing off success in 2014 in unusual ways. How have Nathan Eovaldi, Henderson Alvarez, and Tom Koehler found success in this system?

Yesterday, friend of Fish Stripes Mike Petriello wrote an article on Miami Marlins starter Henderson Alvarez as a follow-up to Alvarez's tremendous complete game shutout last night. Petriello thought it was worth mentioning that Alvarez is a fascinating player thanks to the way he has generated value this season despite a pedestrian strikeout rate.

There’s also this: Henderson Alvarez throws really, really hard, somehow strikesnobody out, and now joins Adam Wainwright as the only pitchers in baseball with shutouts in each of the last three seasons. Alvarez has two shutouts this year.Martin Perez, inexplicably, also has two. 28 other teams have either one or zero. There may be no more likely pitcher to be tossing up zeroes than the guy with an approach like just about no one else.

He details that Alvarez has a hard-thrown sinker (94.5 mph average this season according to Brooks Baseball) and cannot get anyone to swing and miss (6.8 percent swinging strike rate in 2014). Alvarez's game plan has been to pound the strike zone, keep the ball low, and make for easy batted balls in play.

If you know you don’t have elite swing-and-miss stuff, then painting the corners is a good way to survive that, if you’re able. So far, that appears to be Alvarez’ plan. As he said last night, "I just concentrated on keeping my breaking ball down and letting the batter swing." Down is good, and Alvarez only just turned 24 last week. An unimaginable rookie season doesn’t preclude the ability to improve.

Come to think of it, however, pounding the strike zone appears to be the Marlins' modus operandi this season, as we covered in the linked piece from this past Monday. It seems Alvarez is not the only Marlins pitcher focused on keeping it in the strike zone; four of the team's starters are throwing over 50 percent of pitches in the strike zone, with the Major League average hovering around 49 percent the last three seasons. Two of the Marlins' starters are in the top 10 in that category among starting pitchers this season.

One would think that, as a result, the Marlins are earning their success on the mound in similar ways. But aside from a traditional elite-stuff master like Jose Fernandez, each of the different hurlers throwing in the zone this season have gotten success in different fashions. Alvarez, Nathan Eovaldi, and Tom Koehler each have opted to venture into the strike zone as often as possible, but their great play has been a mixed bag of various successful parts, leading to a Marlins rotation employing the same strategy to unusual success.

Nathan Eovaldi

We have discussed Eovaldi in great detail here on Fish Stripes, but it bears repeating after he smoked the New York Mets for 10 strikeouts in seven innings: Eovaldi is somehow generating strikeouts with foul balls in the strike zone rather than pure swing-and-miss stuff. His swinging strikes have increased this season to 9.6 percent from a standard of around 7.7 percent since arriving in Miami, but that rate has only just started creeping up. Prior to that, Eovaldi was working on nearly a strikeout an inning despite the whiff rate of a ground ball control artist.

He is doing it by not having hitters put it into play, despite the fact that they are swinging more than ever and hitting it into the ground more often. Eovaldi has gotten foul balls on 27.3 percent of his fastballs this year. Contrast that with the 21.7 percent mark by Jose Fernandez or the 14.9 percent rate by Alvarez's sinker. Eovaldi is thriving not because hitters are missing bats (though the increase in whiffs is a sign in the right direction) but because they are always down in the count.

As a result of his extreme strike zone rate, Eovaldi has compiled a top-notch strikeout rate and a minuscule walk rate. His increased location low in the zone may also be contributing to the huge ground ball rate as well. Eovaldi is getting elite results with a hard fastball and limited other offerings.

Henderson Alvarez

Alvarez once had the elite fastball in the sense that his sinker was good at what it was supposed to do: induce ground balls. The pitch is still doing that at a 50.7 percent ground ball rate, but what was interesting so far is the 70 percent ground ball rate the changeup is putting up so far this season. According to Brooks Baseball, Alvarez is throwing the changeup more often, at a 19 percent clip after dipping as low as nine percent last year in an attempt to work on a new slider offering. But the truth was that, back then, it was hard to tell if Alvarez was throwing a true slider or changeup. Now, according to the data and as pointed about by Petriello, he has some distinct differentiation of pitches.

Alvarez_vertical_movement_medium

This, combined with his increased zone-pounding (56.8 percent rate inside the zone) has led to the exact opposite effect for hitters as compared to Eovaldi: they are putting it in play meekly more often. Alvarez throws a hard sinker, but his breaking pitches are not designed to get past people so much as supplement his plan of getting ground balls. Alvarez is getting a few more strikeouts, but the more important result is fewer walks and a 54 percent ground ball rate that has remained stable.

Tom Koehler

Koehler is coming off of a five-strikeout performance in an eight-inning shutout of the Mets, and the game lowered his ERA to 1.99 for the season. However, his FIP of 4.01 betrays his status as the worst of the four Marlins starters around all year. Koehler's strikeout rate matches that of Alvarez's despite better swing-and-miss breaking balls; despite the low strikeout rate, Koehler owns an 8.3 percent swinging strike rate.

The problem Koehler has had in the past is that his fastball has lacked value. He has turned some of that around, but it is questionable as to why that is the case. There was some thought about an increasing trend of vertical release point on the pitch, and his effectiveness has climbed as a result of rising release point. However, it may be too early to make a correlation on those two points.

Koehler's primary improvement this season has been on balls in play, which is still in question only one month into the year. Of the three pitchers listed, he has the most question marks surrounding him, and Miami should be wary not to bank on his success. It should be noted that his zone percentage, unlike the other two starters, has actually decreased since last season and is currently at the lowest of his career.

Can Miami's starters keep up these varying means of success? Is pounding the strike zone the way to go for these guys? Let us know what you think in the comments section!

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