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Marlins' former young pitchers flourish away from zone-based approach

At least two recent Marlins starters traded away have not only gone away from the team's zone-pounding approach, but they have also found new success with new pitches.

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Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Marlins traded a lot of pitchers away in the offseason before the 2015 campaign. The deals sent Anthony DeSclafani, Nathan Eovaldi, and Andrew Heaney away as part of the moves to acquire Mat Latos, Martin Prado, and Dee Gordon. While it is difficult to deny that Prado and Gordon have been positive contributors for Miami, it is also difficult to say that either Nathan Eovaldi and Anthony DeSclafani are not improving under their new squads. Both pitchers appear to have found an answer to their current struggles, and part of that answer has apparently been to work away from the strike zone a little more.

Player Zone% Swing% Contact%
DeSclafani, Career Marlins 56 49 82
DeSclafani, Career Reds 49 49 80
Eovaldi, Career Marlins 54 48 83
Eovaldi, Career Yankees 49 47 81

The differences in zone rate are astonishing. At least in DeSclafani's case, it was a small sample of just 33 innings with the Marlins in which he racked up a huge zone rate, but for Eovaldi, that was at least two seasons of pitching in which he threw the ball in the strike zone consistently. Suddenly, both pitchers went to a new environment, the emphasis on hitting the low strike zone dissipated, and the two pitchers worked out a lot better. DeSclafani went 180 2/3 inning with a 4.09 ERA and 3.67 FIP, putting up a worthwhile season somewhere between one to three wins depending on the source. Eovaldi struck out a career-best 18 percent of batters faced with a 4.20 ERA and 3.42 FIP.

Neither pitcher is all that impressive, and neither is likely to be an ace or top-tier second starter at this point. But both guys made breakthroughs and would look pretty good right now holding one of the team's two bottom rotation spots. And both figured some things out while away from Miami's zone-pounding influence. However, those new changes were not just from not throwing in the strike zone. Both pitchers dropped their fastball rates for effective third pitches.

For Eovaldi, it was his splitter. The pitch was something pitching coach Larry Rothschild was helping to work on before the 2015 season, and Eovaldi was attempting to make it his third pitch. The team and pitcher were not getting great success with the pitch until he changed his grip in the middle of the season, and since that move the pitch picked up velocity up to 88-89 mph on exit velocity. And the pitch has increased in usage almost directly as a result of a decrease in his high-velocity but more hittable fastball. The fastball was inducing a low 14 percent whiff rate last year, but he dropped the fastball usage compared to his time in Miami.

Eovaldi, Pitch Usage% Velocity (mph) B/CS Whiff/Swing
Fastball, Marlins 64.0 96.5 1.5 14.1
Fastball, Yankees 47.4 97.5 1.8 14.9
Splitter, Yankees 21.4 88.8 4.8 29.6

You can see that a much larger difference in the zone rates for Eovaldi is that he now has a pitch that is generating strikes in a less dangerous fashion. Rather than being forced to throw more flat pitches in the strike zone to compensate for a lack of a good third pitch, the Yankees taught or fixed an appropriate third pitch he can use to effectively mix up hitters and locate more outside of the strike zone. The result has been an increase in swinging strikes and strikeouts as a result.

Here's Al Leiter, current Marlins color commentator and MLB Network analyst discussing those very changes (h/t Beyond the Box Score).

For DeSclafani, it was a similar type of change. He added a curveball as an additional pitch to his four- and two-seam fastballs, slider, and change-up. Before the 2015 season, DeSclafani admitted that he had shelved a curveball while he was with the Marlins, and during his short time in the majors, he was told to pick it back up by then Marlins bullpen coach Jeffrey Urgeilles. By the time he reached the end of the 2015 season, he was working to throw that pitch as often as possible, having gotten comfortable with it. After August, he was throwing the pitch about 12 percent of the time, with the gains almost entirely coming out of the fastball.

Eovaldi, Pitch Usage% Velocity (mph) B/CS Whiff/Swing
Fastball, Marlins 68.5 93.4 1.2 13.1
Fastball, Reds 61.1 93.3 1.6 14.7
Curve, Reds 6.5 79.8 2.5 37.3

The effect is not as drastic, so DeSclafani is definitely locating his fastball a little more outside the strike zone. But he restarted and refine a curveball under the watch of the Reds rather than focusing on it in Miami. However it seems to have been a useful addition to DeSclafani's aresnal.

The point here is that Miami failed to capitalize on two opportunities for pitchers who had a shot at team-controlled value. Eovaldi was sold on low when all he needed was coaching to figure out another pitch for him to throw effectively. The Marlins had two seasons to work with Eovaldi and failed to find that ingredient. We do not know why DeSclafani shelved the curveball, but it could have been a useful source of swings and misses for a guy who already looked a bit like a pitcher in Miami's mold. By finding in that curve, a curve a Marlins coaching staff member recommended initially, DeSclafani became a more valuable player.

When was the last time you heard Miami's coaching staff make a positive change to a pitcher, change their style or add a pitch to their repertoire? Latos did benefit briefly from a velocity gain, but that was after his right knee injury had finally healed up in full. Beyond that, we recall the Javier Vazquez velocity leap. You rarely these paradigm-shifting changes occur within the Marlins' developmental system, yet two guys who just recently left underwent those very changes. Furthermore, pitchers like Tom Koehler, Justin Nicolino, Jose Urena, and Jarred Cosart may very well need a major shift to coax more out of their talent. Maybe Miami's brass needs to look more outside the box than usual.