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Miami Marlins starting pitchers pound the strike zone

The Miami Marlins have had a successful season from the starting rotation, and one possible reason for that is that their starters have all been pounding the strike zone all season.

Nathan Eovaldi has been among the most successful strike-zone pounders on the Marlins this season.
Nathan Eovaldi has been among the most successful strike-zone pounders on the Marlins this season.
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week, we talked about the struggles of Miami Marlins starter Jacob Turner and found that one of those problems he has had is that he has failed to find the strike zone consistently. The interesting part about that discussion is that the rest of the Marlins starters have been hanging around in the strike zone on a consistent basis. In fact, the Marlins, outside of Turner, have been living in the strike zone all season long, and that may be contributing to their surprising success this season. After all, Marlins starters are boasting a 3.77 ERA and a 3.84 FIP, both numbers that rank ninth in baseball,

Let's take a look at that chart again from earlier this week and expand it to include all Marlins starters with at least 70 innings on the mound.

Marlins starters, 2013 Zone% BB%
Nathan Eovaldi 55.7 9.0
Kevin Slowey 54.9 4.6
Jose Fernandez 54.7 8.4
Henderson Alvarez 52.6 6.2
Tom Koehler 51.7 9.3
Ricky Nolasco 49.1 5.3
Jacob Turner 45.7 10.4

Again, it is no surprise that Turner's walk rate is the worst of the group of seven starters when his zone percentage, or the percentage of pitches seen in the standardized strike zone, is the lowest. But the rest of the Marlins are not just decently proficient in staying in the strike zone; they have made it a league-leading habit. As a group, Marlins starters pound the strike zone more than any other team in baseball, at 51.5 percent of pitches in the zone. The Cleveland Indians rank second at 51.3 percent, and 10 teams total have rates at or above 50 percent.

When you look at the individual leaderboards, you can see that effect. The Marlins have four starters in the top 20 pitchers in zone percentage among guys with at least 70 innings. Nathan Eovaldi ranks fifth in that list, while Henderson Alvarez ranks 19th. The only other team with more than one starter on that list is the Atlanta Braves, who have Julio Teheran and Mike Minor there. It is safe to say that Miami has been working within the zone a large amount of the time.

Is that a product of the team's philosophy? It is difficult to tell. Pitching coach Chuck Hernandez does not have much information in terms of philosophy, and beyond that, most coaches would tell you to throw strikes more than anything else. In his previous job with the Detroit Tigers in 2006 to 2008, his teams ranked near the bottom of the league in zone rate, so it does not seem like his particular influence is in play here.

Maybe it comes from above the coaches and in the organization? I have never heard of the Marlins specifying strike zone work as a minor league or developmental strategy, but since 2006, Marlins starters are fifth in baseball in zone rate. That is with a largely intact group that had players like Josh Johnson, Nolasco, and Anibal Sanchez featured for most of the time. That may very well be a possibility.

How important is it to be in the strike zone? We mentioned the averages for this season, but among all qualified starters since 2010, the numbers are more in favor of pitching in the zone. The average ERA for the ten highest zone percentages since 2010 is 3.67, while the average FIP is 3.82. On the other end of the spectrum, the ten lowest zone percentages led to an average ERA of 4.47 and an average FIP of 4.16. That sounds like a difference of at least half a run per nine innings, which would amount to 10 runs, or a little more than a win, per season.

Three out of four expected pitchers on the Marlins' staff for 2014 have been attacking the strike zone consistently. But what about the results? Of the three who will likely be in next year's rotation, Eovaldi and Fernandez appear to have the stuff necessary to work in the zone. Both pitchers have blazing fastballs, and putting those pitches in the zone leaves hitters with the dilemma of trying to catch up to the pitch or watching it for a strike.

Alvarez's stuff is far less potent, but his presence in the strike zone is important because he needs to control walks thanks to a low strikeout rate. It is worth noting that, among the low-end zone percentages, four perennial ground ball leaders were on the list, and none performed all too well. In order to avoid the same fate as guys like Derek Lowe, Jason Marquis, and Jake Westbrook, Alvarez may have to work his inferior in the zone to get decent results, but that risks problems with more hard contact and possible home runs.

Overall, it is a good thing that all of the team's young starters are pitching to get strikes, as the benefits seem to outweigh the risks overall. Pitching in the zone certainly fits well for two of the Marlins' three future starters, and Turner's development may depend on him following suit. This is something to keep an eye on as we watch the evolution of these four players continue.

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