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Adam Conley working on keeping Marlins rotation spot

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Adam Conley may just be the back-end lefty starter the Marlins have been looking for the last few years.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

It is probably way too soon to jump on the Adam Conley bandwagon, but as the lefty gets ready to visit the Tampa Bay Rays and take them on in yet another September start, you have to start feeling good about his chances at a rotation spot on the Miami Marlins in 2016. Conley was brought up to the majors this year for the first time on June 10, but his first full stint with the club came in August. By the fourth time out, Conley had earned himself a starting gig, mostly on the back of poor performance and injuries from other starters. While the other Marlins prospects who were promoted to start in the big leagues have shown faltering stuff and horrendous strikeout rates, Conley has actually picked up where he left off a few years ago when he himself was considered a top prospect.

Take a look at the comparison between Conley, Justin Nicolino, and Jose Urena.

Player, 2015 IP K% BB% ERA FIP
Adam Conley 55 22.5 7.8 3.93 3.76
Justin Nicolino 67 7.7 7.3 4.16 4.86
Jose Urena 60 9.8 9.1 5.25 4.71

The more well-regarded names are currently struggling to strikeouts in the big leagues, which was a problem for both of them in Triple-A as well. Nicolino posted just a 12.9 percent strikeout rate in Triple-A New Orleans this year, while Urena held a 14.9 percent mark at the same level. Both guys found their strikeout-to-walk ratios suffer as a result, and their promotions have not changed their fortunes thus far.

Conley, on the other hand, has rediscovered the stuff that made him a top prospect after the 2013 season. In Double-A that year, he whiffed 22.2 percent of batters faced. He started off red hot to begin the 2014 season in Triple-A and looked like he was heading for a promotion before getting injured and subsequently losing velocity on his return. His elbow injury was not something that required Tommy John surgery, and the Marlins have to be happy that his numbers played better in 2015 in Triple-A. He whiffed batters at an 18.6 percent rate, a little higher than his mark in the injury-marred 2014 season. On his promotion, he has done better, thanks in large part to a sizzling starter run in August and September. Since August 12, he has held down a rotation spot and thrown 41 2/3 innings with a 26 percent strikeout rate and a 3.89 ERA.

Conley has always had a repertoire that would be attractive to the Marlins. The Fish have been chasing a young lefty starter for a very long time, and while they may have had one in their hands in Andrew Heaney already (3.29 ERA and 3.64 FIP in 101 innings this year for the Angels), Conley always had the tools for success in the majors. He had an average-ish fastball that worked low-90's, like most left-handers, but the key was his plus changeup. The changeup was critical to pitch as a lefty starter against a barrage of right-handed hitters, and Conley has gotten its use down thus far. His slider was fringe-average at best initially, but it seems to be doing a decent job for him in the majors this year.

Trajectory and Movement - from 01/01/2015 to 01/01/2016

Pitch Type Count Freq Velo (mph) pfx HMov (in.) pfx VMov (in.) H. Rel (ft.) V. Rel (ft.)
Fourseam 518 62.48% 91.69 10.16 8.72 3.02 6.13
Sinker 17 2.05% 92.07 11.59 6.86 2.96 6.12
Change 172 20.75% 83.90 12.36 6.06 3.00 6.18
Slider 122 14.72% 84.88 2.74 2.90 2.92 6.19

From the above data by Brooks Baseball, you can clearly see some things that are in Conley's favor thus far. For one thing, his velocity is back up to expected levels. At one point, it was thought he could sit in the mid-90's and throw 93-94 with his four-seamer, but the more realistic goal was always to sit 91-92 mph, and that seems to be what Conley has done. He has seemingly suffered no problems throwing deeper into the season, as he is surpassing his 162nd inning of the year when combined with the minors. Conley has never worked this many innings before, but it has not yet affected any of his stuff.

One look at his changeup and you can see why it appears effective. You can see that both his change and fastball tail away from right-handed hitters with similar amounts of motion. The difference is that the changeup dips a few inches under that fastball in terms of break. Combine that with consistent motions and you can see the deceptiveness in the pitch.

It has been a very effective pitch as well.

Conley, Pitch B/CS Swing% Whiff% GB% SLGCON
Fastball 1.7 42.9 18.5 40.3 .537
Changeup 2.2 58.7 27.7 43.2 .723
Slider 5.3 52.1 27.8 56.0 .440

When hitters have made good contact on Conley's fastball or changeup, they have resulted in some hard-hit balls. However, that seems to be a small price to pay given that Conley has induced whiffs at significant rates with both his changeup and slider. The slider is below average, but when thrown against lefties, it's done its job in the form of a 47 percent whiff rate. The changeup has been effective in the strike zone and has gotten right-handers to miss at a 26 percent clip as well.

All those missed bats add up to a nice strikeout rate, one that is better than all but one starter on the Marlins in 2015. Conley's strikeouts, combined with reasonable control of his two main pitches, have given Miami a legitimate lefty option this year. His lack of control of the slider has hurt against left-handed hitters, as he has walked a staggering 18.4 percent of the 38 lefties he has seen this year. But the right-handed performance has been superb, as Conley owns a 3.52 FIP against right-handers. If he can gather his slider up and reign in his work against lefties, the Marlins may have a left-hander in their rotation starting in 2016 who might actually finish the season in the group. So far, Conley has proven to be ahead of the rest of his prospect teammates in the race for a 2016 spot.