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The Miami Marlins' best outfield is back

It may be early in the 2016 season, but the Marlins are already once again showing off one of the best outfields in baseball.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Once upon a time, we christened the Miami Marlins' outfield as the best in baseball. It was not an outlandish claim at all, with Giancarlo Stanton coming off a near-MVP season and Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna going through seemingly breakout campaigns. Then in 2015, Stanton broke his hand and missed half the year, Ozuna went through all sorts of problems and was not getting good power results, and Yelich struggled early before recovering back to his norms. It seemed the Pittsburgh Pirates outfield, the only main competition for the Marlins' crew, had surpassed them.

That may still be the case in 2016, with Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco playing as well as they are right now, but at least the Marlins are back in the picture.

Player, 2016 wOBA/wRC+ Avg WAR Player, 2016 wOBA/wRC+ Avg WAR
Giancarlo Stanton .390 / 141 1.2 Andrew McCutchen .353 / 120 0.8
Christian Yelich .413 / 155 1.3 Starling Marte .388 / 143 1.6
Marcell Ozuna .366 / 125 0.7 Gregory Polanco .362 / 126 1.1

The two sides are pretty evenly matched thus far in 2016. The Pirates are the better defending team apparently, with the Marlins the better hitting squad so far. The point, of course, is not that the Marlins may have a better outfield than the Pirates right now, but rather that the clubs are comparable and that Miami's hiatus as one of the better outfields in the game is over.

The team's ascent back up among the best outfields in the game has nothing to do with the continued success of Giancarlo Stanton, which comes to no one's surprise. Stanton has 10 home runs and is once again still a dominant hitter in the middle of the Marlins' lineup. It is the performance of the other two hitters in the outfield that has Marlins fans interested again in this discussion.

Yelich: The Breakout

By all accounts, Yelich is undergoing some sort of breakout campaign. It is still too early to get too excited, but Miami fans have to be thrilled by this development. Yelich is hitting the ball harder and not swinging at pitches outside the strike zone. He has dropped his strikeout rate as a result and the increased exit velocity has led to better-than-expected power. His ISO is up to .186 on the season, which is a huge benefit to a guy who already makes solid contact. He still has not hit a pop-up so far this season.

Yelich still has his warts. His ground ball rate is at a still-high 59 percent, though it has dropped slightly from career norms. No matter how hard he hits the ball, hard-hit grounders will only turn into singles and not extra-base hits. It will up to Yelich to continue to work on making good contact at better launch angles conducive to line drives rather than worm-burners. However, the drop in strikeouts, increase in contact thanks to improved plate discipline, combined with his divine swing are signs of legitimate improvement. This is the kind of improvement that turns decent hitters into star players, and while I am not ready to commit to that, so much has changed for the better that Marlins fans have to be excited.

Ozuna: The Bounce Back

Ozuna's case is more of a return to form rather than a change in ability. He still seems to strike out and walk at about the same rate as he always does. After all, his plate discipline numbers are exactly the same as they were last season and over the course of his career. In fact, Ozuna is even making less contact this season than usual, oddly enough.

The biggest thing to return to form for Ozuna is his power. We discussed this last season; Ozuna owned the second-highest exit velocity for batted balls on the entire team, hitting pitches at a 92.5 mph. That ranked 18th in baseball among hitters with at least 100 recorded batted balls. This year, Ozuna is hitting the ball similarly hard, but the difference is that instead of sending it onto the ground or into gloved hands, they are getting past defenders for extra bases. Last year, Ozuna's ground ball rate was at 48 percent. This season, it is down to 43 percent. The number of batted balls Ozuna has hit in the vaunted "line drive" angle between 22 and 28 degrees, where a hard hit ball provides great value, is at 2.2 percent of all batted balls so far for Ozuna, which is more than the 0.7 percent rate he put up last year. The ten batted balls he has hit at this valuable angle have averaged 96 mph, meaning they have been highly valuable swings.

In other words, Ozuna has always had this power, as he was showing it last season. But with a small adjustment to get more liners and fly balls rather than grounders, he has turned that power back into the kind of thing we saw in 2014. He is hitting more ropes on a line with the kind of strength he has always had, and that has turned into more homers than before.

The Marlins still have to shore up their early jitters on defense in the outfield, but the bet is on the athleticism of this trio standing out. The team's offense will regress at some point, but for now, these three guys have put themselves back on the map among elite outfields in baseball. The two youngest players, Yelich and Ozuna, have rediscovered and emphasized their strengths to good returns so far in 2016.