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2014 Miami Marlins Midseason Report: Starting pitching

The Miami Marlins have succeeded despite the team's starting pitching, which is the exact opposite of what was expected in 2014.

Drew Hallowell

At the beginning of the 2014 season, the Miami Marlins appeared to be a team that would depend on the success of their starting pitching. After all, they had Jose Fernandez, the young ace destined for stardom after a Rookie of the Year campaign that could have ended with a Cy Young as well. The Marlins boasted two other young starters with good numbers and two seemingly serviceable back-of-the-rotation players.

Flash forward to the middle of the season, and the Fish have proven this otherwise. Jose Fernandez was injured, taking the wind out of his sails and that of the Marlins' season. The back of the rotation has been horrific, and Miami has had to depend on call-ups from the minors to try and deliver. Only one bright spot truly remained.

The Numbers

Starters Strikeout Rate: 18.4 percent
Starters Walk Rate: 6.8 percent
Starters ERA: 4.05
Starters FIP: 3.63
Starters FanGraphs WAR: 5.8

What was supposed to be a good unit turned out to be less than stellar for the Fish. With the injury to Fernandez, Miami had to turn to Henderson Alvarez and Nathan Eovaldi to carry the rotation, and despite early successes, only one of those two has performed up to the challenge of replacing Fernandez as team ace for the season. Meanwhile, Jacob Turner and Tom Koehler have slipped significantly, and Miami has struggled to replace the rotation spot that Fernandez left.

Miami's rankings for starters are merely average. Their strikeout rate is in the bottom half in baseball, but the team's tiny walk rate helps keep them among the league of average starters. However, the ERA does not come off well; it ranks just 21st in all of baseball, and comes with a home park that suppresses runs slightly.

Midseason MVP: Henderson Alvarez

Alvarez is the no-brainer midseason MVP for the rotation. With Fernandez down, the team needed Eovaldi and Alvarez to step up, and the latter came through in spades. He followed up his season-ending no-hitter from last season with a flurry of complete-game shutouts that left most Marlins fans and national media surprised. Just how is this guy, who was getting crushed just two seasons ago in Toronto, pitching so well?

He has done it by doing exactly what ground ball pitchers have to do. Alvarez's major problem in Toronto was home runs; for a guy with a greater-than-50 percent ground ball rate, he allowed a mammoth number of long balls. Marlins Park fits perfectly with Alavarez's need to suppress homers, but he has done it well on the road as well; Alvarez has allowed just six home runs in over 200 innings in the last two seasons with Miami. Call it a bit of good luck, park effects, and skill to start.

Alvarez's best season in Toronto came when he suppressed his walks. He has done that better this year than he did even last season, dropping his walk rate to 4.8 percent. The way he has done this is by continuing to adopt an ever-present Marlins trend of pounding the strike zone; a whopping 55 percent of Alvarez's pitches have been in the zone thus far. That mark is fifth among qualified Major League pitchers.

Finally, Alvarez has generated just enough strikeouts to not be useless, avoiding the problem he had in 2011 with the Blue Jays. The combination of the three defense-independent factors have allowed his ground ball skills to flourish. Alvarez's three shutouts lead all of baseball, and his 2.34 ERA is fourth in the National League and sixth in baseball among qualified starters.

Grade: A-

Midseason LVP: Jacob Turner

It is difficult to get worse than Turner this season. He won the final rotation spot almost by default, since he was out of options after the Detroit Tigers gave him a Major League contract out of high school and were forced to option him each season. The Fish were expecting big things from their prized return in the Anibal Sanchez / Omar Infante trade, but he has not found any success in the majors beyond 2012.

The biggest culprit is the same thing that is plaguing him this season: command and control. Unlike last season, Turner is not walking a lot of hitters; his 6.2 percent rate is reasonable and comparable to other Marlins starters. But he has not found a way to strike out hitters either, as his 14.6 percent mark attests. And the reason is that he has not been in the strike zone, with just 46 percent of pitches landing here. More importantly, he has not been very close, as many of his pitches miss by a country mile. When he has been in the zone, he has missed badly on spots, getting more locations in juicier parts of the plate. While Alvarez and Eovaldi have focused on attacking the bottom half of the strike zone, Turner has no clue where he will end up throwing his pitches.

This has led to a lot of home runs, which has always been his issue. Unlike Alvarez, whose location seems to have meshed well with Miami's park and combined to give better home run results, Turner's relative wildness has led to too many easy long balls. He has allowed six home runs in 57 1/3 innings, despite a 55 percent ground ball rate that represents a significant improvement.

Turner was demoted to the bullpen, and rightfully so. Miami appears to have another lost pitching prospect from Detroit on their hands.

Grade: D

Second-Half Improvement: Andrew Heaney

Heaney is just three starts into his big-league career, so the jury is still out on his success. But 17 innings into that career, we can see a few things that he has done well and things with which he has struggled. On the one hand, he has done a solid job avoiding walks and getting a decent number of strikeouts and whiffs. On the other hand, he has given up a home run in each start, leading to unexpected long ball problems.

Heaney has all the tools for success, so the early marks are not entirely worrisome. But one thing that is interesting given what we know about his scouting report is that, thus far, he has not approached the game like the other successful Marlins starters. Heaney has thrown just 46 percent of pitches in the zone, much like Turner. Unlike Turner, he has better swing and miss stuff, including a slurvy offering that is getting a whopping 60.6 percent whiff rate on swings. He can probably afford to stay out of the zone more often, but it is still something to watch going forward.

Grade: C+

Other Starters

Nathan Eovaldi: Started out hot, with a huge strikeout rate. The strikeouts have taken a nosedive, and so has Eovaldi's performance since April. But he continues to not walk anyone, which keeps him competitive. And that fastball velocity, you can't teach that. Grade: B

Tom Koehler: Started out hot, with a low ERA. The difference between him and Eovaldi is that he never had the peripherals to match it. Regression has kicked in since April, and his ERA is now closing in on his mediocre FIP. Grade: C+

Jose Fernandez: Started eight brilliant games (seven if you don't count the injury game, which was his worst start by far). He was on his way to another dominant campaign before Tommy John surgery sidelined him for good this seaosn. Grade: C-

Randy Wolf: Started five games for Miami in place of Fernandez, but was awful. Released by Miami, and rightfully so. Grade: D-

Anthony DeSclafani: Starting off exactly the same way as Heaney, but through five starts already, Has allowed a homer in every start. Yet to find his strikeout touch, but cannot boast Heaney's whiff rate on any offerings. He has a far lower ceiling at an older age too. Grade: C