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Maybe the Miami Marlins Just Suck, Or Maybe They Don't

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Jack Dickey wrote a piece on Deadspin that counters my piece yesterday that pointed out that a number of the Marlins' hitters are in for regression to the mean. He counters with a fruitful argument:

There's a numbers-heavy post up on Fish Stripes today suggesting that the 8-14 Marlins are due for a regression and an improvement. Let me make this counterargument: they're not. They might just suck.

I appreciate the viewpoint, and it is completely possible that the Marlins are not in for the regression that the numbers suggest. Those numbers are just the the most likely result based on previous data. They do not account for any scouting information that we may have seen in the first month of the season, and it is feasible, though unlikely, that each and every Marlin has collapsed to below their projections. It would not be the first time that saber-geeks like me have jumped all over a supposedly good offseason and prematurely declared a winner. I was around for a time when people were excited about the 2010 Seattle Mariners, and that certainly did not turn out well.

But let us look at Dickey's points in traditional Fire Joe Morgan fashion and discuss them quote by quote to see if we cannot elucidate some more information.

But! The Marlins do not have many good hitters. (Austin Kearns hit cleanup today.)

I think it is important to point out that Stanton, a better hitter than Austin Kearns, hit sixth yesterday, and Gaby Sanchez hit seventh. It is also important to note that Logan Morrison, the typical starter in left field, was on the bench and usually bats cleanup in Ozzie Guillen's latest iteration of batting lineups. So while Austin Kearns hitting cleanup is absurd (as I pointed out yesterday), it has more to do with bad Ozzie Guillen managing rather than the quality of the team's hitters.

Five of their eight starters have career OPS+ numbers better than 100, league average. (The Mets and Braves have more.)

Sure, I suppose. Using the Mets is a bit on the unfair side, as one of their six starters with a career OPS+ greater than 100 is rookie Kirk Neuwenheis, whom I do not think anyone believes will hit .325/.386/.475 for the rest of his career. But how many lineups actually do boast five of their eight starters as better-than-average hitters? The defending champion St. Louis Cardinals have five. The Cincinnati Reds have six. The Los Angeles Dodgers have three. The Arizona Diamondbacks have six. The San Francisco Giants have four. All in all, only five National League teams can boast that claim, and that does not even get into the type of quality we are discussing among these teams.

Moreover, two of the Marlins' most gifted offensive players aren't so reliable: Jose Reyes is always one misplaced stride away from a middling season, and Hanley Ramirez failed last season after a disappointing 2010.

Absolutely fair point. Ramirez was a wild card entering the season, though the questions on Reyes I think are a little overblown. The projection made before the season counted his good and bad years, so it accounts for the possibility of a bad season within its average results.

Factor in, too, that the Marlins have average hitters at the premium power positions. Sanchez, at first base, didn't crack an .800 OPS in either of his first two full seasons, and Logan Morrison didn't last year, in his first full season.

The Marlins are allowed to have "average" hitters at traditional power positions because they have better hitters at non-traditional offensive positions. Prior to the season, ZiPS projected a .362 wOBA from Jose Reyes; such an offensive performance ranked only behind Troy Tulowitzki among shortstops. In comparison, the 15th ranked shortstop in projected wOBA was Jed Lowrie at .316, meaning that the Marlins held a huge edge at shortstop. The Marlins held a similar projected edge at third base with Ramirez, as his .360 projected wOBA ranks fourth among third basemen and way above the 15th ranked Scott Rolen's .326 mark.

The important part is that, as a whole, the Marlins' offense projected as one of the best in the National league. As pointed out earlier, PECOTA projected them as the second best offense in the National League, and many other projections (though not all) had similarly high claims.

The Marlins have a roster filled with players who are older and worse than you think they are. Ramirez and Gaby Sanchez are both 28! So are ostensible young guns Josh Johnson and Anibal Sanchez! That means, based on lots of available data, that they're finishing their career peaks. (Actually, pitchers peak at 27, so Sanchez and Johnson are already on the way down. 29-year-old Ricky Nolasco bears this out: his strikeout rate went from 9.5 K/9 in 2009 to 6.5 in 2011.)

The fact that they are older is not particularly relevant. Sure, Sanchez and Ramirez are not likely to improve on their previous three-year marks, but no one really projected that. Take a look:

Ramirez, ZiPS Proj 2012 .283 .365 .459 .360
Ramirez, 2009-2011 .303 .380 .480 .375
Sanchez, ZiPS Proj 2012 .270 .348 .436 .345
Sanchez, 2009-2011 .269 .346 .439 .344

The same thing goes for the pitchers.

Player K/9 BB/9 ERA FIP
Johnson, ZiPS Proj 2012 8.6 2.5 2.66 2.71
Johnson, 2009-2011 8.5 2.5 2.64 2.74
Sanchez, ZiPS Proj 2012 8.2 3.3 3.67 3.49
Sanchez, 2009-2011 8.1 3.4 3.66 3.56

In the four examples used above, the projections had those players staying static or declining. As mentioned by DIckey, we know players hit their peak at age 28 on average, so it is understandable to expect Ramirez and Gaby Sanchez to hit about as well, if not a bit worse, than they did in the previous three years, and indeed the projection reflects that. Similarly, the pitchers were expected to remain mostly static, primarily because their best years statistically came in their previous season. So age was definitely being accounted for when those preseason expectations were set, especially when it came to this site's projections.

The bullpen, though? Yikes, at least when it comes to the closer. Last year, Heath Bell struck out the fewest batters per nine of his career, fewer even than when he mopped up for the Mets. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was also the worst he's ever had. His home run rate ticked up, too. Oh, also: he turns 35 in September. As you might have expected, he's been miserable this year. The rest of the pen is a parade of mediocrity: Edward Mujica, Ryan Webb, Steve Cishek (OK, he's been amazing so far), Randy Choate, et. al. Aside from Cishek, it's nothing great.

Sure, it's nothing great. But there are only two types of teams that get bullpens that are great from the seventh inning on: 1) teams that have extraneous money to spend; or 2) teams that have farm systems loaded with relievers. Sure, the Marlins may not have relievers that are household names, but just a year ago, that same relief core minus Bell boasted the seventh-best ERA in baseball, the eighth-best FIP, and the 12th best FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement while working the sixth-greatest load in baseball (515 1/3 innings pitched). So that team of "mediocrity" did much better than average last season and should be at least average this year.

Bell, however, I have no argument against. I was firmly against the deal to start the season, and his struggles have not made him more appealing.

The Marlins may not finish the season last in the NL East. It's early yet. That said, 28 of 49 ESPN experts picked Miami to make the playoffs, and we're reminded once again how easy it is to get caught up in offseason hype.

Sure, possibly. Or it could be that April is being weighed a little more heavily in predicting the skill of the team than what we knew on March 31. I cannot say that I would project the Marlins as still a playoff team as this site predicted before the season began, nor can I say that this poor start is in any way encouraging. But even if I take my fan hat off, I would still not be ready to say that this team sucks. As always, the truth likely lies somewhere in between 88-74 and 8-14.