The Miami Marlins got a nice start out of David Phelps yesterday night against the Washington Nationals, as he put up 6 1/3 innings pitched and only allowed two runs. However, he got away with some things, as he allowed three walks and six hits total while only striking out four batters. Phelps's strikeout and walk numbers are not entirely impressive so far this year, as he has just 16 whiffs to 10 free passes to his name. He also is the owner of a 3.24 ERA and 3.05 FIP due mostly to the fact that he has yet to allow a home run this season.
Usually, this is a good accomplishment, but as you might expect, such a performance cannot last. Phelps has given up a lot of fly balls in his career, and this season is not different. So far, he has allowed a career-high 43 percent of his balls in play to be flies, yet none thus far have left the park. If this trend continues, you would probably expect a decent number of these to start going past the wall, and if they do, Phelps's numbers will not lead to an impressive ERA. Right now, SIERA estimates his ERA should be 4.92 based on these early-season numbers.
He probably is not that bad either, but this does not necessarily instill confidence in Phelps's play. In fact, as I mentioned in yesterday's buy and sell article, I do not have a lot of confidence in any of the Marlins' five current starters. With Henderson Alvarez and Jose Fernandez sidelined with injuries, it appears as though it may be difficult for Miami to continue preventing runs on pitching alone. The Fish will need those two healthy, because right now, the Marlins are harboring five players who are struggling in a variety of different ways.
What follows is the current ranking of those players in terms of my confidence in them. Call it the current starting pitcher confidence index (CI).
5. Dan Haren
Haren may have a 2.70 ERA, but at almost age 35, his creaking bones seem to be resounding based on his numbers. His fastball is dipping further down into velocity hell, as it now sits at 86.3 mph according to Pitch F/X. This is the fifth year in a row that his velocity has declined, and now it is at crafty Mark Buehrle territory. Haren was never a velocity maven, but going from 90 in 2010 to 86 now is a big loss.
This is probably playing some role in his early issues. His strikeout rate is down again, his walk rate is up at its worst since he became a full-time starter. Oh, he has also allowed six home runs in just 30 innings despite pitching 17 of those innings at Marlins Park. Haren's homer problems are not going to go away with lower velocities, so while he is not going to allow this many going forward, it probably will remain a limiting factor in his play. With his declining peripherals, I would not expect a 2.70 ERA to continue for long.
4. Tom Koehler
Koehler was projected to play the worst of the original starting five, so his early struggles are not all that surprising. His home run rate is higher than his career mark, but his career mark never made any sense given his average ground ball tendencies. He has not lost a step in terms of velocity or anything, but the strikeouts are down thus far from a year ago.
Koehler probably will get a few more whiffs than he is now, but it is also possible that teams snuffed out his zone-pounding tactics and that he simply lacks the stuff, or in particular the fastball, to pitch that style. Hitters are hitting 93 percent of pitches in the zone for Koehler right now, though their swing rate remains at normal levels.
Koehler earns some of the benefit of the doubt because he still has some stuff, but he is starting from a lower expected position.
3. Mat Latos
Latos did not endear himself with one terrible start to begin the season. Since then, he has struck out almost 20 percent of batters faced with an eight percent walk rate, both of which are respectable. Overall, he has just a 3.77 FIP to go with a 3.98 ERA in those four starts after the ugly first one. These are acceptable, if underwhelming numbers for a player Miami expected to hold the ace fort down while the team played without Fernandez.
The problem has been that Latos has been unable to go deep into games. Even without that first start, he is only averaging five innings and change per outing. Latos has helped to tax the Marlins' bullpen a little more than expected, and he will have to strengthen up and go a little more into his starts with the team's depth being stretched. The Fish would like to see six solid innings out of Latos. So far, they are surprisingly getting the solid without getting the innings just yet.
2. David Phelps
Phelps posted mediocre strikeout / walk numbers with the New York Yankees last year, so expectations for him were not high. His nice Spring Training got the Marlins interested in him as a potential starter, and so far at least the numbers outside of the home runs have looked good. However, guys like him just do not limit home runs as he has early on.
That being said, the projection systems at least see a player who can put up near-league average ERAs going forward. That would be a bit better than average for a starter, provided he can limit those home runs. So far, so good, but he has to get the ball on the ground a little bit more.
1. Jarred Cosart
Cosart wins this role by default. His play has been the best of all of the starters, but even he is playing above his head right now. That 2.97 ERA is due in good part to the .215 BABIP he is currently posting. Once hitters eventually find some more gaps in Miami's defense, he should allow a few more baserunners and have a little more trouble.
Still, the early indications look good. He appears to have stuck with the zone-pounding the Marlins prefer out of their pitchers. He is walking fewer batters as of right now, and his ground ball rate continues to be high. Currently, that 57.3 percent mark is in the top ten in ground ball rates around the league. Cosart is doing his best to emulate Alvarez and see if that will bring him success. The Marlins are hoping that it continues, because the rest of their starting pitchers are much tougher to trust as of right now.