The Miami Marlins are 35-33 on the year, a mark that seems improbable heading into the 2014 campaign. The Fish were supposed to be bottom-feeders in the National League this year, but as Dave Cameron of FanGraphs points out in this Fox Sports article, the Fish are using offense to carry themselves to their surprising start.
Team Year 1 Year 2 Y1 wRC+ Y2 wRC+ Difference Marlins 2013 2014 77 107 30 Tigers 1920 1921 89 116 27 Yankees 1925 1926 94 121 27 Reds 1964 1965 95 122 27 Brewers 1977 1978 90 117 27 Angels 1999 2000 80 106 26 Tigers 2003 2004 80 106 26 White Sox 1980 1981 86 110 24 Phillies 1928 1929 86 109 23 Astros 1971 1972 91 114 23
In the first row, you see the 2013 Marlins and the 2014 Marlins. You see last year's non-pitcher 77 wRC+, this year's non-pitcher 107 wRC+, and the difference between the two numbers, 30.
The huge turnaround offensively has left Miami close to contention, but what is most interesting is that the Fish have truly improved their outlook from before the season. This is a team that is down Jose Fernandez, one of the three or four best pitchers in baseball. But as Cameron points out, the combined performance of the team so far has made up for the impact of Fernandez's loss.
Which is why the Marlins are alive today with actual, legitimate playoff odds. Before the year, at FanGraphs, we projected the Marlins to win 45% of their games. Our updated projections think they'll win 46% of their remaining games, even without Fernandez. And if you use current-season numbers instead of projections, then we think the Marlins will win about 52% of their remaining games.
In short, the Marlins project better than they did in March, even though, in March, the Marlins looked forward to a full season of Jose Fernandez.
The improvement from players like Casey McGehee, Garrett Jones, and youngsters like Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna has done enough to overcome the loss of Fernandez fro the beginning of the season. Right now, the Fish are expected to be a better team without Fernandez than the team with Fernandez was projected to be at the beginning of the year.
And that brings the question of contention, which Cameron briefly touches. As we have seen in recent series for the Fish, Miami does not appear to be a long-term competitor, but the advantage Miami has is that they have 35 wins in the bank already. As we discussed earlier in the season, the Marlins can eek out a good end to the season with because they have already banked a certain number of wins and those will always count.
Even if the team regresses to their mean, Miami already started up 35 wins. If you figure that contention requires around 90 victories, that means the Fish need to play .585 win percentage baseball going forward to make it. To do that, Miami needs to somehow produce about 27 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) to establish themselves. Over the course of the remainder of the year, this seems like an impossible task; FanGraphs has Miami projected for about 12 WAR going forward.
What kind of performance would it take for Miami to reach that point? The projections are already expecting a three-win performance by Giancarlo Stanton going forward, meaning his performance is expected to be star-level already. Of the various parts of the depth chart that could see improvement, the performance of Marcell Ozuna and perhaps Garrett Jones or Casey McGehee stick out as improvements.
The starting pitcher side is where Miami could gain the most. The performance of Henderson Alvarez and Nathan Eovaldi so far this season has been spectacular, and if they were to continue their work from this season, they could double their season totals and contribute an additional 1.5 wins to the team's current projection.
But even with all of that, Miami is stretching to be considered worthy of contention. As Cameron says, they still project as a 46 percent win percentage team going forward. But the key for the Fish will be to just stay in the thick of the race. As of right now, the Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals have not pulled away from the rest of the division pack. Hoping for poor performance from other teams is irrelevant, but the Marlins can help their cause by staying afloat. To compete in 2014, the Fish were always going to need good luck, and that has yet to change. But getting wins in the bank right now and continuing to stay close is all the club can do.
The Marlins are not a true contender two-and-a-half months into the season, regardless of the team's effective run differential and astounding offensive performance thus far. Too much has bounced the right way early in the campaign to keep the club afloat. But the longer the team remains close to .500, the better the odds that a hot streak propels them into contention. That goes double for the team if they consider a late-season addition to a spot like the starting rotation. The team's goal in 2014 now should be to hover as close to this level of play for as long as possible. You never know when fortune will favor you, and the Marlins need to be within striking distance if that happens. That is the team's best and only hope for contention as of mid-June.