The Miami Marlins have long discussed their desire to be a "pitching and defense" sort of team. The brain trust's impression of the 2003 World Series team's success is that that club was built around a strong starting rotation and defensive Gold Glovers. They were not wrong, though the team was eighth in baseball in non-pitcher hitting as well. The truth is that the 2003 team was a well-balanced club that excelled everywhere, but it did carry a strong reputation for defense.
This has not been the case since that time period.
The Marlins bungled through most of the 2006 era teams with poor defensive alignments. Whether it was Hanley Ramirez trying to play shortstop, Dan Uggla trying to play second base, or Miguel Cabrera trying to play defense, the Fish never found a group that could field, even though said group could definitely mash at times. Since the breakup of that team, the Marlins have wandered around trying to recreate that 2003 defensive squad and relive their favorite historical point in time. Finally, in 2015, they may have found a group that can actually play defense.
Since the 2004 season, the Marlins have only posted two campaigns with a positive defensive contribution rated by either team UZR or team DRS.
The Marlins ranked eighth in total UZR as a team and third in total DRS. They were 11th in defensive efficiency, which is the rawest measure of defense possible; the Fish converted 70 percent of balls in play into outs. Compare that to the 2014 outfit that converted just 69 percent of their plays into outs.
The team did a significantly better job on defense, and one look at the roster from 2015 compared to last year's squad makes the reason obvious. The team improved upon its Gold Glove potential trio in the outfield by acquiring two infielders who bought into their system with great raw skills. Martin Prado has always had the benefit of flexibility on defense, but this season, tasked only to play third base for the Fish, he excelled again. Prado was worth around nine runs above average at third this season according to DRS or UZR. Prado avoided errors in a big way throughout the season, leading to great numbers in that department; his five runs above average on errors according to UZR was the best mark in the league.
Meanwhile, Dee Gordon got to play second base full time for the second year in a row, and the results were significantly better. Given that Gordon was a former (failed) big-league shortstop, it should not surprise anyone that he would play better while covering fewer balls in play on the right side of the infield. However, he was just about average with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2014, so it was surprising to see him play at a Gold Glove level for Miami this year. Like Prado, Gordon avoided errors as part of his advantage on the field, having cut his errors in half since last year. However, he was also a perfect keystone partner for Prado and Adeiny Hechavarria, as the unit combined to convert double plays at a high level. Gordon is credited three runs for having converted double plays at a higher rate than his counterparts; that is essentially tied with the best second basemen in the league.
However, it is Hechavarria whom the Marlins have to be happiest about. The Marlins have been claiming for years that he is a Gold Glover despite the numbers pointing otherwise. However, he completed a dominant defensive season among the best of any shortstop this year. Hechavarria also cut down on his errors this year, but he definitely got to more baseballs in 2015. According to BIS data, Hechavarria got to 83.3 percent of balls within his zone of responsibility, which is the highest rate among shortstops this past season.
This may be due to the adjustments that infield coach Perry Hill has asked the infield to make. The Marlins have had the legendary infield coach for a few years, but he has not had significant talent with whom to work in years past. Now, not only did he have a chance to work with a known talented veteran like Prado, but he also got a raw talent with athleticism and speed in Gordon. Combine that with the adjustments to move Hechavarria closer to his left, which has traditionally been an issue, and it seems everything finally clicked for the infield this season.
The outfield struggled comparatively speaking, with Christian Yelich regressing a bit from his Gold Glove year in 2014. Marcell Ozuna had a down campaign in the outfield as well and was demoted for a good amount of time, forcing Yelich to play center field for a fair amount of the year. This cost Yelich runs via his arm, as he was not better able to control the running game. However, Giancarlo Stanton played well for most of the year, but his year got cut off fairly short after the hand injury.
The Marlins made huge strides defensively this season. The infield played a major role in this, and this does not even consider the addition of J.T. Realmuto over incumbent catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. The team's talent finally combined with proper coaching to form a formidable barrier around the infield, which was long a problem area defensively in Miami. This season's defensive play should be a building block for future campaigns.