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Miami Marlins starting pitching not a 2013 silver lining

The Miami Marlins' starting pitching staff was supposedly a silver lining to this young 2013 season. However, the truth is that, outside of Jose Fernandez, the staff is actually not pitching all that well.

Ricky Nolasco and the rest of the Marlins' pitching staff may need more consoling once regression to the mean hits.
Ricky Nolasco and the rest of the Marlins' pitching staff may need more consoling once regression to the mean hits.
Marc Serota

The Miami Marlins are struggling badly at the start of the 2013 season, and many parties are to blame. The offense is dead last in the league in wOBA, and one glance at that offense shows that the team is likely to stay around that ranking for the rest of the year. The bullpen is one of the worst in baseball thus far, though it is an obvious small sample size.

Only the starting pitching staff has appeared to be decent for this Marlins team. The staff has a 3.52 ERA collectively, and three of the Marlins' starters are boasting ERAs below 4.00. And this comes after a horrid Wade LeBlanc start that had his ERA jump from 3.29 to 6.75 in one outing. The starting pitching staff has to be encouraging, right?

Well, a look at the numbers of the pitching staff reveals that, outside of phenom Jose Fernandez, this staff has actually been mediocre this season and is being helped by a little bit of good luck.

Marlins, Starting Pitchers K% BB% BABIP LOB% ERA FIP
Ricky Nolasco 12.3 8.2 .250 83.3 3.12 4.53
Kevin Slowey 14.7 6.7 .304 94.6 2.04 4.27
Wade LeBlanc 20.9 7.5 .404 55.1 6.75 3.03
Alex Sanabia 9.8 11.8 .324 82.4 4.91 6.39

When you set aside Fernandez's spectacular early season performance (0.82 ERA, 1.48 FIP, 31.7 percent strikeout rate!), the rest of the staff looks pretty mediocre despite the relatively shiny 4.00 ERA. Only LeBlanc remains a positive sign thanks to his strikeout rate, as this evaluation caught him right after a terrible game. He still appears to be on track to have a nice season and just needs to erase the stink off of the nine-hit outing in 3 2/3 innings that he just had.

But the rest of the staff has little excuse for their failings. After the first start of the season, we were wondering if Ricky Nolasco had reverted back to something like his old form when he struck out six Nationals in a loss. But early in the season, it seems as though he has not fully reverted, as his strikeout rate has dipped since that six-whiff outing on Opening Day. Furthermore, Nolasco has also been allowing more home runs, and it has corresponded to a return to a 40 percent ground ball rate after spending two seasons at around 45 percent. At worst, this could be an early sign that Nolasco has attempted to pitch like his old 2009-2010 self and has gotten all of the same results from back then except the strikeouts. Either way, his pitching line looks worse for the wear and is begging for regression to the mean.

Kevin Slowey is also looking at a heavy dose of regression once his season continues. Slowey has allowed just four runs on the season, and two of those have come off of solo home runs. The remaining two scored from once being on base, but it is not as if those were special baserunners, as Slowey has allowed 24 non-homer baserunners in 17 2/3 innings to start the season. This is not a totally abnormal number; his WHIP of 1.36 is not out of the ordinary given his career 1.30 mark.

What is out of the ordinary is the fact that only two of those 24 baserunners came around to score. Slowey's 94 percent left on base percentage (LOB%) indicates that he is getting especially lucky with runners on base. Indeed, with the bases empty, hitters are bashing Slowey to the tune of a .350/.395/.650 batting line, but once they get on board, they are hitting just .172/.258/.179. This is despite the fact that he is striking out fewer hitters and walking more batters with men on base, indicating that he is not pitching particularly better either. If Slowey had allowed the normal 29 percent of those baserunners to score, his ERA would shoot up to 4.58.

Alex Sanabia's case is one in which he is just pitching poorly. He may have a shot to redeem himself tonight against the Nationals, but thus far he has been significantly worse than even his 4.91 ERA demonstrates. Sanabia's lack of strikeouts is unnerving, as is his high walk total to start the season. Add that to his fly ball tendencies of the past (career 36 percent ground ball rate) and you can see why the future is not bright for Sanabia, even with Marlins Park helping to suppress some fly balls. He needs more strikeouts or at least fewer walks to limit his natural home run damage, but that right now simply is not the case. When he stops stranding 82 percent of his runners and a few more end up on base for his home runs, Sanabia will be in trouble.

The good news for the Marlins is that the organization may not have to put up with two more of these pitchers once Nathan Eovaldi and Henderson Alvarez return to the rotation from shoulder injuries. Given the early performance thus far, it is clear that Sanabia is headed to the minors. The Marlins then have to choose between LeBlanc, who has good peripherals but one bad start thus far, versus Slowey, who has gotten away with mediocre performances by stranding runners at an extreme rate. The bet is still on LeBlanc to hold his rotation spot, but do not underestimate the Marlins' ability to make mistakes in evaluating early-season statistics.

However you look at it, though, the result is that the Marlins' staff is not as much of a bright spot as we would like to think. And with the low upside of guys like Slowey and Sanabia, the Fish cannot wait for the returns of more prospect-like pitchers like Eovaldi and Alvarez.