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2011 Marlins Season Review: Bullpen Success

Steve Cishek was one of the bright spots of an improved Marlins bullpen in 2011.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Steve Cishek was one of the bright spots of an improved Marlins bullpen in 2011. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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We continue reviewing the season that was 2011 with the rest of the Marlins' pitching staff, particularly the bullpen. In 2010, the Marlins bullpen was merely average in overall production, though that is likely below average compared to other bullpens. The front office sought to resolve that problem in 2011 and spent resources on trades for Michael Dunn, Edward Mujica, and Ryan Webb along with signing Randy Choate. As a result, the team's pen actually drastically improved, ranking among the best in baseball.

Even though the pen overall improved, not all parts were positive. It certainly helps to split the pieces of the bullpen into the good and the bad from 2011 and take a look at them that way.

The Good

Steve Cishek 45 54 2/3 24.0 8.3 2.63 2.46 1.0 1.1
Randy Choate 54 24 2/3 30.1 12.6 1.82 3.92 0.1 0.7
Edward Mujica 67 76 21.2 4.7 2.96 3.20 1.0 1.5

There were other parts of the 2011 pen that impressed me, but these three were the best in my view. Cishek in particular really caught everyone's attention with his marvelous rookie season. The strikeout rate was elite, as it should be for a reliever, and the walk rate was plausible for his position. He allowed fewer homers than he probably should have but did surprise me with an impressive 56.8 percent ground ball rate. In the minors, he hovered around the 50 percent mark for ground balls, so we will see if he can continue his strong performance. If so, the Marlins will have a strong candidate for a future closer once the incumbent Heath Bell steps down after his contract is over.

Mujica was one of the two pieces from the Cameron Maybin trade, and of the two, he was the one who impressed the most. Though his sky-high strikeout rate of 2010 in San Diego did not stick around, his walk rate remained as low as ever. He also ceased relenting home runs at a frightening pace, as his 9.9 percent HR/FB rate pointed to some significant regression from his long-ball ways in San Diego. Prior to signing Bell, the Marlins had to feel confident that Mujica could perform in the ninth inning role, as they allowed him to finish games after Juan Oviedo was suspended from the team. Mujica figures again to be in the eighth inning role he occupied for much of last season, and his game figures to continue the same way.

Choate was brought in to serve as the team's lefty specialist, and a lefty specialist he was. The Marlins wisely threw him against lefties in 72 percent of his appearances, thus limiting his obvious righty weakness. When it came to left-handers, Choate delivered; he struck out 28 of the 74 batters he faced from that side while walking only three. He allowed two home runs, but his overall FIP of 2.14 was exactly what the Marlins ordered. As far as his performance versus righties, it was worse, but not as bad as it initially looks. For one thing, of the ten walks to righties that he issued, five were intentional and likely to get him to another lefty. In that respect, the Marlins continued to display their knowledge that Choate was simply unable to handle right-handed hitters.

The Bad

Mike Dunn 72 63 25.5 11.6 3.43 4.30 -0.1 0.7
Juan Oviedo 68 64 1/3 20/5 7.8 4.06 3.96 0.2 0.6

The book on Dunn before the season began was that he had a blazing fastball that could rack up the strikeouts, but he lacked the control necessary to be an elite bullpen arm. Well, 2011 proved that the book was completely right. Dunn's 25.5 percent strikeout rate was best among Marlins relievers with at least 50 innings pitched. The fastball was indeed quite blazing, as it clocked in at an average of almost 94 mph. But his lack of control was unnerving; his 11.6 percent walk rate was only worse than Brian Sanches's among those with at least 50 innings, and Sanches was pressed into part-time starting duty later in the year. Dunn remained mostly in his comfort zone of the seventh and eighth inning but never proved reliable enough to turn to as the season progressed. He began to lose those late inning spots to Cishek and Mujica, and at this point he cannot be considered as more than a seventh-inning pitcher for the team.

Oviedo was the club's closer last season and was coming off the best year of his career. In 2010, he posted a 3.46 ERA with a career-best 2.96 FIP on the back of a drastic change in pitching style; he had gone almost exclusively to a fastball and changeup with much success. However, because he blew eight saves in 2010, the Marlins thought there was a problem and deemed to fix him by tinkering with his selection and getting him to throw the slider more. Just like that, we began to see more of the old Oviedo from 2009. While he did not allow as many home runs, he still gave up a career-high 50 percent fly ball rate after having upped his ground ball rate to over 50 percent the year before. Combine those fly balls with a natural (or perhaps slider-aided) regression in strikeouts and you have a pitcher who took steps back in 2011.