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Analyzing the Miami Marlins' three "fifth starters"

The Miami Marlins have three current starting pitchers who were expected to compete for one spot on the roster. Who will remain when Henderson Alvarez returns from injury?

Is Alex Sanabia the worst of the three Marlins extra rotation starters?
Is Alex Sanabia the worst of the three Marlins extra rotation starters?

The Miami Marlins have Ricky Nolasco and Jose Fernandez as sure-fire guarantees in the rotation in 2013. Provided neither of these players is traded (and of course that is no guarantee for Nolasco), those two will remain in the rotation for the remainder of the season. But three of the Marlins' current starters were not expected to all be in the rotation. Wade LeBlanc, Kevin Slowey, and Alex Sanabia were all expected to compete for the final rotation spot, but injuries to Henderson Alvarez and Nathan Eovaldi have forced the Marlins' hand, and we are getting an extended look at all three starters.

The Marlins should evaluate the three carefully, because at least one of their pitchers is approaching a return, likely within a few weeks. Alvarez threw a bullpen session on April 12 and should "start a progression and [build] arm strength back up" for the next few weeks, according to manager Mike Redmond. It is possible that Alvarez can return in the first week or two of May, and that would prompt the immediate removal of one of these three pitchers from the rotation.

The Marlins are likely pondering which of these three pitchers to replace from the rotation. Fish Stripes is here to help. Let's break down each pitcher's early season concerns.

Wade LeBlanc

LeBlanc is likely the best pitcher of the three involved, as he has had the most recent major league time and the best recent major league performance. Last season, he posted a 3.67 ERA and 4.04 FIP while working as both a starter and a long reliever. The Marlins are fairly comfortable with LeBlanc, as this is his second season with the organization.

But in terms of early performance, LeBlanc's certainly looks as though it is the worst of the three. His 6.27 ERA early in the campaign is not doing him any favors, and he has had the most recent bad performances this season, as he struggled through his last two starts (7 2/3 innings, nine runs allowed, six strikeouts, five walks). Superficially, the decision seems fairly easy to remove LeBlanc.

But when you dig a little deeper into his performance, you can see that LeBlanc has actually just been himself all season long.

LeBlanc, Season K% BB% GB% HR/FB% ERA FIP
2013 18.0 9.0 34.4 7.4 6.27 4.00
2012 15.1 6.7 34.4 7.2 3.67 4.04

He has struck out more and walked more batters, but those numbers have essentially evened out. He has allowed home runs at the same depressed rate as last season, and he did so on the exact same ground ball rate. LeBlanc is getting almost exactly the same peripherals as last season, but his results have been skewed by a hit parade in the last two games, leading to a .397 BABIP. His FIP is almost identical to last season's.

None of this is to say that LeBlanc should be trusted to keep his home run rate this low. But given that the other two pitchers are showing anomalous performances thus far this year, maybe LeBlanc deserves more consideration. It cannot help that LeBlanc has a history of usage in long relief that could also influence manager Mike Redmond's decision.

Kevin Slowey

Slowey has the best ERA on the staff at 1.92, and that alone should keep his spot in the rotation safe. But how he has gotten that ERA is also an interesting question. His 15.5 percent strikeout rate is the lowest he has posted outside of 2011, and his walk rate of 6.2 percent is the highest he has ever posted.

How has Slowey prevented runs with some career-worst performances? For one, he has only allowed two home runs thus far this season when his career home run rate suggests he should have allowed two more. Slowey's fly ball rate is almost exactly the same as his career mark, suggesting there is some regression to be had there, even with Marlins Park likely helping him out. But the other, more concerning issue is his fluky good performance with runners on base. Slowey has struck out the majority of his hitters with the bases empty, but even with a 19.0 percent strikeout rate in that situation, hitters are still bashing him with a .315/.362/.593 (.404 wOBA) batting line. But with the bases empty, he has just four strikeouts in 39 plate appearances but has allowed a .167/.237/.176 (.194 wOBA) line. This has all led to Slowey's immense 91.2 percent strand rate.

Slowey may currently have the best ERA on the pitching staff, but that ERA is built on a glass house. But his FIP of 3.72 is still somewhat believable, even if the home run rate is expected to rise quite a bit. After all the regression is said and done, Slowey may still deserve a spot.

Alex Sanabia

Sanabia is having a confusing season, and the confusing year continued yesterday when he induced 12 swings and misses out 109 pitches (11.0 percent swinging strike rate) and got only three strikeouts in the Marlins' 10-6 loss to the Cincinnati Reds. For the season, he now has a 10.7 percent swinging strike rate, which puts him on par with some elite strikeout pitchers in baseball, and a 10.3 percent strikeout rate, which puts him on par with a bad Triple-A pitcher.

In the above-linked article, we noted Sanabia's issue is that he simply cannot control his pitches early in the season. His swings and misses are happening, but that may just be because he is throwing nowhere near the plate. Take a look at his pitch location chart from yesterday's game.


via Brooks Baseball

He is missing the plate all over the place, leading to a huge spike in balls and 14 walks in just 23 innings to start the season. That, in turn, has been the primary cause of Sanabia's 5.09 ERA and 5.99 FIP.


Looking at all of these pitchers, each has a clear and present flaw that is difficult to ignore. Each also has an intriguing aspect to their game that has manifested in 2013. The most promising of the three pitchers is Sanabia in terms of youth, but his performance is also the most concerning. The whiff rate is fantastic and worthy of note, but it may be in part because of the problem with his lack of control; hitters may just be swinging often enough for now that they are missing on bad pitches outside the zone rather than being fooled by good stuff. With all those whiffs, Sanabia still has not pitched well, and if hitters start laying off of his bad pitches, things may get ugly.

The other two veteran starters have similar problems to each other in terms of home runs, and both are due for some regression. LeBlanc is in for some positive movement, which is why he should remain in the rotation. Slowey has looked good enough that he deserves to hold his spot, given that even his peripherals are decent. The only pitcher who is struggling in both true and underlying performance is the confusing Sanabia, and he should be the one to leave the rotation when Alvarez returns.