The Miami Marlins sent out 36-year-old starter Brad Penny, a former Marlin last in a Fish uniform in 2004, back onto the mound 10 years later in a different Marlins uniform last Saturday. Against the Cincinnati Reds, things did not go so smoothly for the newly acquired Penny; he gave up two runs (one earned), but did so with four walks and four hits allowed and only three strikeouts. Of course, Miami is spinning it as a relative success and an example of "fighting" on the mound for the team's other young starters.
Penny's return on Saturday night wasn't picture perfect. He labored with command, walking four and getting into many deep counts over five innings. But he minimized damage, showed composure while pitching at his own tempo.
Manager Mike Redmond hopes some of his young starters were paying attention.
"For young guys, sometimes when it starts to snowball, it leads to the big inning," Redmond said. "We've seen that a few times this year. With veteran guys, they continue to make pitches, knowing they're only one pitch away from getting out of any situation. We saw Brad do that."
That is all well and good, but in order for the Fish to get better play from Penny, they will have to get more than just this battling from the veteran righty. The Marlins replaced Jacob Turner, a younger pitcher with loads of questions regarding ineffectiveness, with Penny in order to get back into the playoff race. The team cannot afford to get more ineffectiveness from their replacement.
What are the keys to Penny's success in 2014, five years removed from him being a regular, uninjured starter in the big leagues? There are a few things we can take from his 2009 and 2010 seasons that might help.
In 2010, Penny made nine solid starts for the St. Louis Cardinals, and he succeeded primarily on the back of ground balls. He was never really an impressive strikeout pitcher, even when he was a borderline All-Star with the Marlins and Los Angeles Dodgers; his highest strikeout rate in a single season was 18.8 percent. But Penny embraced that wholheartedly by the time he reached the late 2000's and his stuff was beginning to deteriorate, and he got his final lesson from the Dave Duncan-era Cardinals, who taught two-seam fastballs and ground ball tendencies to pretty much everyone.
Before the injury, Penny was getting grounders on a career-high 52.8 percent of batted balls, and that was helping limit his home runs. The 0.65 homers per nine innings were even a relatively fair assumption given the number of fly balls he was giving up; his xFIP, which corrects FIP for home runs per fly ball rate, was barely higher than his ERA or FIP.
He did all of this by appearing to add a splitter to his repertoire. After rarely throwing a pitch considered a splitter, he bumped that usage up to double his career rate in 2010. Of course, the classification system being used may be confusing a splitter with a number of other slower, more sinking fastballs. After the injury, he went back to his career splitter rate but increased his two-seam rate up to over 30 percent. If we add up all of his non-four-seam fastballs together, you can see a rise in the trend starting in 2010.
Some of that included time when he was a less effective pitcher, but indeed the ground ball rates stuck throughout the increase in sinking fastball usage. Given that Penny never racked up whiffs at a huge rate anyway, he might be better served just trying to keep the ball on the ground. In his first Marlins outing, he only got six grounders out of 15 balls in play, so that needs to increase.
Keep it in the Zone
It may seem obvious to some people, but attacking the strike zone is not for everyone. If you cannot keep it low in the strike zone, being "effectively wild" may be the next best option. But without swing-and-miss stuff, Penny may not have the option to throw all over the place as he did on Saturday night.
Penny's location was all over the place, and not focused primarily low in the strike zone. If you are a regular reader of this website, you would know that the Marlins' pitching staff seems to have a fetish for attacking the strike zone, and it does seem to be an emphasis of the coaching staff. Penny needs to get in line with that thinking, especially since that is what he used to do when he was last successful.
In 2009 and 2010, Penny's best results came when he was throwing pitches in the zone at about a 53 percent clip. That would rank right below Henderson Alvarez and Nathan Eovaldi this season but above Tom Koehler and Jose Fernandez. The Marlins have seemingly made Koehler into an acceptable back-end starter just on the back of throwing strikes, and that is with a pitcher without a real sinker to his name. Koehler isn't exactly able to locate the fastball low in the zone like Eovaldi and Alvarez have, but he does not have the benefit of sinking fastballs. Penny does, and that should help him keep the ball down and in the zone going forward.
This will cut down on walks, which should be considered Penny's biggest enemy going forward. With suspect stuff in a 36-year-old man's frame, Penny is not going to blow anyone away. His only "out" pitch is a curveball that is years past fooling anyone for strikeouts. He needs to drop the walk rate to Eovaldi/Alvarez levels in order to be a decent pitcher. Keeping it low in the strike zone can help, but too low and you face the issue Jacob Turner had in not being able to control the bottom half and bottoming out too many pitches.
Penny has a lot of work left to do to be a capable starter in the big leagues. The Marlins are hoping he finds a semblance of his 2010 self and starts controlling the lower half of the plate. If he can do that, he can find back-end rotation success in Miami.