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The Miami Marlins and the difficult road to contention

The Marlins are impressing with a number of exciting victories over the Washington Nationals and six straight wins overall. But the road to contention is still going to be a challenge. Here's why.

There are still many pitfalls for the Miami Marlins to trip over this season.
There are still many pitfalls for the Miami Marlins to trip over this season.
Rob Foldy

Last night, the Miami Marlins won their sixth straight game and assured themselves a series victory over the Washington Nationals. The win pulled Miami within five games of the NL East division race and four games of the Wild Card. This is the closest the Marlins have probably felt to the playoff race since May or June, when the Fish were still rattling off wins and the other NL East squads were still struggling. Despite a difficult start to July, Miami's chances of a playoff berth are back up at around five to 10 percent.

Wait, why are the odds so low?

This is an important point regarding just how difficult it is to make the playoffs in this harsh new playoff atmosphere. Miami does not seem like they are facing an insurmountable lead in the Wild Card race, but the sheer number of participants in both races makes the odds for Miami still slim. Let's look at a few reasons why this year's Marlins are still long shots for the playoffs.

Lucky Fish

There was a lot of disappointment and lamenting the injury of Jose Fernandez last night, as the Marlins pulled ever so closer to the division lead. The prevailing thought was that, if Miami had just Jose this year, they would be leading the division or the Wild Card race!

But even replaying the season with the extra three to four wins that Jose Fernandez would have provided by season's end probably means erasing some of the good luck Miami has had this season. After last night's 3-0 victory, Miami is 53-53 but still boasts a negative run differential, as the team had scored 17 runs less than they have given up. The Marlins have the run differential of a 51-55 team. The two-game difference may not sound like much, but the Fish are already behind the eight ball as it is. The fact that they are playing a bit above their heads makes their odds of staying near .500 going forward a bit worse.

One reason why Miami is outperforming their Pythagorean expectation based on run differential is that they are excelling in one-run games. Traditionally, those should be coin flips, since there is little separating a win from a loss in a one-run contest. But the Marlins are a whopping 25-16 in one-run contests, the best record in baseball at a .610 win percentage. If you gave Miami an even record on those games, the Fish would be down four games instead.

Stiff Competition

All of that tells you that Miami has played over its head, but you can tell that from the team's projection. A number of players still are not expected to continue this sort of pace going forward, and the Marlins' odds at the playoffs are based on that meek projection. FanGraphs bases their odds on projections by Steamer and ZiPS systems. Heck, MLB.com even features Baseball Prospectus's projections, based on their own PECOTA projection system, and that leaves the Marlins at just a four percent chance at the playoffs.

But beyond the team's baseline talent level is the sheer number of competitors in these races. Let's toss out the expectations of the Marlins going forward. If you suspected this team was a true-talent .500 team, how likely are they to catch up in either of these races? Well, consider this scenario:

- For the Marlins to catch the Braves and Nationals within the next 20 of their 56 games, Miami has to go on a serious tear. A 15-5 record in the next 20 games, combined with .500 marks for each of Washington and Atlanta, would leave the Fish in a dead heat with both teams for the division lead. But that is a whopping 75 percent win percentage for Miami and a .500 mark for two different teams.

What are the odds that this happens? If the Marlins are truly a .500 team, and we assume a binomial distribution for winning baseball games, then we can estimate the odds of a 15-5 or better run in the next 20 games to be at 2.6 percent. But in order for us to overtake the Braves and Nats, they have to perform at .500 as well. Assume a .545 expected win percentage (their current records). The chances of them doing .500 or worse in the next 20 games is 42.6 percent. That means that the odds Miami catches these two squads for the NL East division in the next 20 games is at just 0.4 percent!

You can extend that further. What if you wanted to catch them in 40 games? The Marlins have a 7.6 percent chance of winning at least 25 of the next 40. The Braves and Nationals have a 33.9 percent chance of winning 20 or fewer games in the next 40. The odds of that happening in the next 40 games is 0.9 percent.

You can see why this is difficult. The odds get worse as you add other teams to the mix. The Wild Card picture would look even more confusing. And that's before you consider the possibility of Miami playing over their heads. So despite an excellent run of wins for the Fish, the Marlins are still long shots for the division crown or playoff berth as of right now.

But the games are not played on paper or calculations, and the Fish have plenty of season to go. With each win, they do climb a little closer to contention, so let's have some fun and watch what the Marlins can do.