If you were with us here at Fish Stripes for any of the Game Threads last season, you may recall that our authors typically wrapped up our statements with a "Bold Prediction" regarding that particular game's outcome. Predictions aren't easy in a game like baseball, which is affected by so many variables. You may feel, for example, on any given day, that Giancarlo Stanton has a great chance to crush a fastball and send it soaring into the atmosphere, but did you know that he had the flu yesterday and is still feeling the effects of it? Or that it was windy enough in the Windy City today to pull a ball just right of the foul pole? Or that Jake Arrieta had only given up one homerun to a right-hander in this theoretical scenario all season long?
You extrapolate that unpredictability over the course of the season and a lot of what you felt was certain does not materialize. Many thought the Washington Nationals were going to be one of the best teams in the National League and not only did they not win the division but they didn't even make the playoffs. Many thought the Astros weren't quite ready to shed their losing ways but they went from a 70-92 record in 2014 to 86-76 wild card berth in 2015. Closer to home, people felt like the alignment of Yelich, Ozuna and Stanton would produce one of the best young outfields in the game, both offensively and defensively. Unfortunately, because of injury and, at times, ineffectiveness, this did not come to pass.
Nevertheless, fans love playing Nostradamus and I am no exception to that rule, so I have a "Bold Prediction" for the 2016 season: We have enough evidence on hand to suggest that the Miami Marlins will boast one of baseball's best defenses this year.
Perhaps those of us who make it a habit to watch Marlins games wouldn't be surprised if that came to fruition, but it certainly might take some folks nationally by surprise. Google "Marlins defense" if you think otherwise. Go ahead, I'll wait. You might note that the top three results are from our very own Michael Jong.
Michael outlined in his season end defense review many of the positive numbers associated with individual Marlins performances which I wont duplicate here, but I will pull this quote out of said article which I think is illustrative of the overall point:
"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."
Looking at some of the less advanced stats, the Marlins had the third least errors in the game last year (77), were fourth in fielding errors (40), and were fourth in baseball with a .987 team Fielding Percentage. Keep in mind this was in spite of almost all of the regular line-up missing time, save arguably the worst two defenders in Justin Bour and J.T. Realmuto. Back to them in a second.
The 2016 Marlins infield will boast, defensively, an above average third baseman in Martin Prado, a Gold Glove finalist in Adeiny Hechavarria, and a Gold Glove winner in Dee Gordon. Manning the corners in the outfield are former Gold Glove winner Christian Yelich and former Gold Glove finalist Giancarlo Stanton. Inbetween them will be Marcell Ozuna, who despite playing below expectations last season, has played Gold Glove caliber defense in the past, and who may be motivated to showcase himself going forward. By any measure, that is a fantastic group of defensive players.
Of course, virtually every defense has it's weak link(s), and the Marlins are no exception. Enter J.T. Realmuto and Justin Bour. As far as weak links go, though, you could do worse.
Neil Weinberg of Fangraphs posted an excellent article which I highly recommend concerning catcher defense and the problems with evaluating catchers based solely on particular aspects of their game. To sum up, Neil found that J.T. Realmuto was a below average blocker and among the worst framers in the game, but...he was the best at throwing out runners, with the fastest "pop time" in the game. From Neil:
"Realmuto’s average pop time was 1.867 seconds (the league average was 1.975). To put that in perspective, Realmuto’s average pop time was faster than 84% of all throws to second base. He had five of the best 11 throws, seven of the best 25, 12 of the best 45, and 16 of the best 93 in 2015. He only made four throws slower than 1.941 seconds."
That, coupled with Realmuto's minor league performance and the fact that he'll be in his second season, gives hope to the idea that he may be at least a league average catcher going forward, defensively.
Then we get to Justin Bour. Despite his good offensive output last season, he only clocked in with a fWAR of +.3, largely held down because of a -12.9 defensive WAR contribution to the overall number. DRS had him seven runs below the league average, which put him above only Ryan Howard and Pedro Alvarez. He was, in short, not great, but once again there is reason for optimism. He logged the least amount of innings among all qualified 1st basemen; like Realmuto, it was his first full season, and he may improve by further working with Perry Hill. Even if he doesn't however, if you want a defensive downgrade anywhere it is at first base, where limitations in glovework and range can be muffled somewhat by the decreased opportunities at balls in play. The Marlins would be far from the only team playing their worst defensive player at 1st base this season. Playing Bour regularly may keep them from being the absolute best, but it shouldn't keep them from being one of the best.
Injury and disastrous performance will always be looming factors, and the Fish may not be one of the more heralded teams in the sport at the moment, but it would be a significant upset if the Miami Marlins weren't recognized in 2016 as one of the top defenses in all of baseball.