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Jose Fernandez and the Marlins' what-if game

The Miami Marlins might have stayed in contention if Jose Fernandez had stuck around for much of the 2014 season.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the Miami Marlins have been eliminated from the playoffs mathematically, Fish fans may look back and wonder about what might have been in the 2014 season. After all, there was a very clear turning point this season for the Fish, and it happened on May 16, when Jose Fernandez underwent Tommy John surgery and signed up to miss the rest of the season. Fernandez's elbow injury was unfortunate and (depending on who you ask) difficult to determine. But had Fernandez hung around throughout the year, how well would the Fish have done?

To some degree, this is a simple calculation. The Fish have sent a vast majority of pitchers to throw in place of Fernandez. The Marlins had initially planned a rotation of Fernandez, Nathan Eovaldi, Henderson Alvarez, Tom Koehler, and Jacob Turner. Presumably, the pitchers who are not those guys were the ones assigned to replace Fernandez's starts and innings. Fernandez had thrown eight starts. The Marlins probably would have had him finish at least 32 starts on the year, as is customary for most starters. Presuming he missed an odd start here and there, 32 starts seems reasonable.

The following are a collection of the pitchers who threw for Miami who were not the ones named above or Jarred Cosart, who was acquired midseason.

Marlins, 2014 GS IP ERA FIP fWAR
Brad Hand 15 82 1/3 4.59 4.09 0.4
Anthony DeSclafani 5 24 1/3 7.40 4.61 0.0
Randy Wolf 4 20 2/3 6.10 5.02 -0.1
Andrew Heaney 4 20 2/3 6.53 6.18 -0.2
Brad Penny 4 19 5.21 4.60 0.0
Kevin Slowey 2 9 7.00 3.69 0.1
Brian Flynn 1 4 11.25 3.13 0.1
Total 35 180 5.70 4.52 0.3

In a total of 35 replacement starts, these Marlins pitchers have been essentially replacement level. Once again, this perfectly displays the concept of replacement level; the Marlins asked a combination of freely available veteran pitchers and young prospects to replace one of the team's best players, and what it got was a shoulder-shrug of a performance overall. The performance would probably look worse using more ERA-based WAR metrics like the formulation by Baseball-Reference, so I am comfortable simply calling Miami's replacements as worth zero wins.

From there, you have to calculate how much Fernandez would have provided. At the time of the injury, he was on a league-best pace, having put up 1.6 wins worth of value according to FanGraphs in just eight starts. But if you tack that onto his career pace, you would expect that Fernandez, in 149 innings (his going innings rate for 24 starts), would produce 3.8 wins. But if you regress some of that data, as you should, you might see Fernandez expected to produce something closer to 2.7 wins in that same time period.

What does that mean for the math? That means that if Miami had kept Fernandez instead of losing him for the season, they might have expected to be 2.5 to four wins better by the end of the year. If we look at that effect on the standings right now, the Marlins may be around where the Braves are right now: at or near mathematical elimination, just a few more days away.

This goes to show you the power, or lack thereof, of having a superstar player on board. The Marlins might have been closer to the playoff race, but this team was flawed enough that it needed help in at least one or two other positions before considering contention this year. Having Fernandez would have been spectacular, like adding a Zack Greinke fresh to the roster, but adding one player is not enough. Miami had enough holes on their team that they needed to add more than just an injured star to be a playoff club in 2014.