A lot of things have gone wrong for the Miami Marlins in 2015. The offense has struggled mightily. The starting pitching has been poor, no matter what the clubhouse apparently thinks. The Fish are heading nowhere fast this season. But they can take solace in the fact that some parts of their team have gone well. For example, the team has had a spectacular bullpen thus far in 2015. A spectacular bullpen is wasted on an overall poor team, but the Marlins' pen has been one of the best in the league regardless of overall record. They are doing their best to hold lost games as close as they have.
Bullpen IP: 276
Bullpen ERA: 3.36
Bullpen FIP: 2.91
Bullpen fWAR: 3.5
Bullpen Rank: 3rd
The Marlins had one horrific performance out of the pen that dragged their ERA through the mud. The team's bullpen ERA ranks at just 11th in the league, but it belies a fantastic underlying performance. The Fish own a 2.91 FIP that is tops in the league. Marlins relievers have the eighth-highest strikeout rate and 14th-best walk rate, neither of which sound terribly impressive. However, the team has allowed the lowest rate of home runs in the league; the Fish are tied with the Mets for just 14 home runs allowed by the pen, and Miami's relievers have thrown 40 more innings than New York's. Only two other teams have allowed less than 20 homers on the year. Miami's pen has allowed fewer home runs than Dan Haren has in more than 2.5 times the innings pitched!
One would think Marlins Park is playing a significant role, and that is probably doing something. But the Fish also boast a robust group of ground-ball inducing relievers. The team's relief corps has the second-highest grounder rate in baseball at just over 50 percent. That is behind only the White Sox' 52.2 percent rate. That combines well with the home stadium's dimensions to make for a suppressed run environment, but as the White Sox showed, mediocre peripherals can tank that. The Marlins have boasted good strikeout and walk numbers, so they can actually benefit from the added homer suppression.
Best Perfomer: A.J. Ramos
Carter Capps has better numbers, but he has only pitched 25 innings this year due to the Marlins inexplicably demoting him during Spring Training. Ramos has been here all year and has looked fantastic, and his play was deserving of at least mild All-Star consideration. Among qualified relievers, Ramos's 1.11 mark was fifth in baseball behind Wade Davis, Mark Lowe, Will Harris, and Darren O'Day. Two of those four players were All-Stars in their own right. Ironically, Ramos's 1.59 FIP was also ranked fifth in all of baseball, behind three All-Stars in Davis, Dellin Betances, and Arolis Chapman.
Ramos has achieved this success with a two-pronged attack. He always had the movement to induce swings and misses, and this year is no different. He is currently posting the highest whiff rate he has ever put up, with a 16.1 percent swinging strike rate among all pitches thrown. Despite mediocre velocity, Ramos's pitches are extremely deceptive.
Part of the reason they had been so deceptive is that he never knew where they were going. Ramos still is not placing pitches in the strike zone, as he has a career-low 44.5 percent zone rate this year. The difference is that those out-of-zone pitches are now fooling hitters too, as they are swinging at 37 percent of those pitches compared to 33 percent last year. That rate ranks 17th among qualified relievers this year, and a number of those guys above him are excellent relievers or closers. This added swing rate on out-of-zone pitches may be helping to contribute to Ramos's sudden drop in walks. The righty is walking just 6.7 percent of batters faced, which is a far cry from his absurd 15.9 percent rate from last year.
All of the drop from his two previous years to this season can be accounted by the extreme drop in baserunners. Ramos's stuff is still inducing the lightest contact possible somehow, as hitters are batting .207 on balls in play against him and hit homers on just three percent of fly balls. Overall, Ramos's 17.1 percent hard-hit ball rate is the fifth lowest among his reliever friends. In almost all aspects, Ramos appears to be the fifth-best reliever in baseball this year, and he has been a boon to Miami.
Worst Performer: Steve Cishek
Cishek has recovered from his early struggles that earned him a Double-A demotion, but his overall performance from earlier this year is still ugly. He has posted a 5.14 ERA with a decrease in his strikeouts and an increase in his walks. Overall, his 3.61 FIP does not look terrible, but it was a far cry from the baseline that he had established from 2012 to 2014 serving as the closer for the team.
The Marlins could not deal with Cishek's poor pitching as the closer in late game situations and turned to Ramos, who continues to be fantastic. Cishek did not spend long in Double-A, having hung out there for two weeks before coming back to the bullpen in a smaller role. Since that return, he has thrown 8 2/3 innings and put up a reasonable 1.04 ERA with eight strikeouts and three walks. Batters still hit .333 on balls in play on Cishek, so they still were making better-than-expected contact, but the interesting thing to note is that this occurred despite a higher ground ball rate. Cishek seemingly abandoned the grounder as a primary weapon last year in favor of more strikeouts via the slider. In his return, Cishek dropped the rate of sliders down from 49 percent before the demotion back down to 40 percent afterward. This has bumped his grounder rate early on above 60 percent since the return.
Combine that with a bump in velocity up to 92.3 mph from mid-91 mph before the demotion and you can see improvements on the way. But this still does not negate the struggles from the start of the year.
Key Second-Half Performer: Carter Capps
Capps is a fascinating player to watch. His delivery appears borderline illegal; when I watched the Marlins play the Yankees over at Yankee Stadium live a few weeks ago, you could hear the audible groans by Yankee fans at the delivery. Nothing about it looks right or appropriate, yet it has made Capps into one of the most unhittable pitchers in baseball. The delivery essentially extends his stride and makes it so that fastballs, which are already coming in hard at an average of 99 mph as it is, appear even faster because they travel less of a distance out of his hand.
Then he throws an 84 mph slurvy offering that seems to be devastating hitters with impunity. Last year, Capps quietly threw more or less the same pitch and got a whiff on 63 percent of swings. That is a patently absurd number. This year, that rate is up 77 percent. Combine that with the newly endowed fastball getting 37 percent whiffs, and you can see how Capps has been essentially untouchable all year long.
The numbers are staggering. In 25 1/3 innings, he owns a 1.42 ERA, 1.26 FIP, and a 49.5 percent strikeout rate, Capps always had the stuff to strike hitters out, and he always had reasonable control, but now every one of those things is spiraling out of control for opposing hitters.