There are a few reasons why the Miami Marlins are in the position that they are in, with the Fish near the top of the National League East. One of them is their bounce back offense, but that area of the team is currently struggling. But one place on the position player side where the Marlins are not struggling is in the outfield, where the Fish are, according to Beyond the Box Score's Scott Lindholdm, boasting the league's best outfield.
The table Scott shows is based on Baseball-Reference Wins Above Replacement (rWAR), and the metric has Miami's outfield amounting to a whopping 8.1 WAR so far during the season. Considering that, before the season began, the Fish were probably looking at an outfield projection of about eight wins, the fact that the team has done in less than half a season is extremely impressive.
So how have they done it? It helps to have one of the best outfielders in baseball on your side to start. Giancarlo Stanton has been dominant throughout the year so far, leading the National League in home runs and batting .303/.398/.595 (.414 wOBA) on the season. Stanton is finally healthy, with two whole and healed legs underneath him, and it is showing on the defensive side of the field, where he has finally returned to being a net positive. According to most wins metrics, Stanton has been almost twice as productive this season in 329 plate appearances as he was all of last year in over 500 chances. Having a healthy and productive Stanton plays a major role in that top outfield.
But if it was just Stanton who was producing, Miami would rank closer to the middle of those rankings. Instead, the Fish have two other productive players in the outfield in Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich. Ozuna has found his power stroke after struggling to lift the ball out of the park last season. His 12 home runs tie him for 12th in the National League, and his batting average has been just good enough in the balls in play department to make up for his high strikeouts.
But were that all to be on Ozuna's side, he would be just an average player thus far. Depending on your defensive system of choice, however, Ozuna has been an average to Gold Glove-level center fielder. The eyes side with Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), which says that Ozuna has been worth one win on the field already. When you watch him and his cannon arm at work, it is sometimes hard to argue.
We have been seeing plays like that for each of the last two seasons with Ozuna, who is blessed with a cannon of an arm to match the one in right field in Stanton. Together, the two form an outfield duo that seems impossible to run and advance bases on, and that is a large part of the team's outfield success.
The last part of that trifecta comes from the highly balanced Christian Yelich. Last season, he was mostly fortuitous to bat .380 on balls in play, leading to a .288/.370/.396 (.341 wOBA) batting line. This year, he is hitting just .316 on balls in play, but his line of .259/.342/.418 (.337 wOBA) is almost identical. Yes, he still strikes out too often for a player lacking power, but this season he has at least shown some pop; Yelich has hit six home runs and has a better-than-league-average ISO. Meanwhile, he is still walking in 11 percent of his plate appearances and getting on base at a decent clip, making his offensive performance above average.
But again, it has been defense that has helped Miami's outfielders build value. After mixed results last season, Yelich has firmly established himself as a good left fielder with strong range and athletic ability. This sort of play has become the norm for Yelich in the outifeld.
Like all young outfielders, Yelich takes the occasional awkward route to the ball, but he has the speed and ability to catch back up and make most plays. Unlike the team's other two outfielders, Yelich's arm is not an asset, but that problem is mitigated by playing left field and having less room to throw.
Yes, the Marlins' three outfielders are playing well at the plate, particularly Stanton. An MVP season is not out of reach of the Marlins outfielder if he continues on a tear and leads the National League in homers by the end of the year, even if Miami falls out of contention. But the success of the team's outfield overall has come not only from the emergence of power in Ozuna and Yelich but in their collective defensive ability. The Marlins have the best outfield in baseball so far in 2014 because they are challenging to be the best defensive outfield in baseball. That distinction has helped to separate the Fish from other strong outfield trios, and it will be how this group derives value going forward. With a struggling infield both offensively and defensively, Miami's position players need all the help they can get from their outfield production.