The Miami Marlins' relief core has gotten a bad rap.
I take that back. Some of it has gotten a very appropriate rap, but the back end cannot be faulted.
While guys like Bryan Morris and Jose Urena have struggled, the Marlins' back-end trio of A.J. Ramos, David Phelps, and Kyle Barraclough have pitched well so far this season.
|Player, 2016||IP||ERA||FIP||Avg WAR|
|Kyle Barraclough||18 2/3||2.41||2.57||0.5|
It is early in the season, so these numbers may very well stay where they are as their performances regress, but each of those guys is doing a strong job so far in 2016. And it should be noted that none of them are doing it some hard-to-repeat formula for success. Ramos, Phelps, and Barraclough are striking out lots of people, just like most relievers do, while their walk numbers vary by pitcher.
This is not a mystery of any kind; most relievers succeed by striking out a lot of guys, sometimes at the expense of more walks than usually acceptable. Of course, we always wonder whether the Marlins' guys can continue this kind of elite-level performance, because the team's early-innings relievers have been bad so far and the team is going to need the help to keep leads alive.
To try and elucidate that, we can look at their plate discipline numbers to see what those guys are doing well that is causing all of this success. We can also compare that to the best guys in the business in the last few years. The top ten relievers in FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement each must be doing something similarly correct. Can we see it in Ramos, Barraclough, and Phelps?
Compare those 2016 numbers to the ten best relievers since 2013.
The average elite reliever did a few things well. The first thing he did was entice swings, particularly on pitches outside the strike zone. This seems obvious and intuitive; the best relievers have some mechanism via an elite breaking pitch or just generally unhittable stuff in order to get batters to attack out-of-zone pitches. Many of these pitchers have decent ratios of swings in zone to out-of-zone; generally, the ratio of percentage of out-of-zone swings versus percentage of total swings was around 0.65 to 1 the last few years. Only two of the ten pitchers in the above list fell to a ratio below that number, meaning that they got more in-zone swings relative to the rest of the league. One of those guys was Kenley Jansen, who threw around 57 percent of his mostly-fastball pitches in the zone.
The Marlins' three relievers just have not done this as well as these elite players. Ramos is the biggest disappointment, because his profile before this year better fit the guys above. From 2013 to 2015, Ramos got hitters to attack 46 percent of his pitches overall and 33 percent of them out of the zone. This is much more likely to lead to good results, especially since we know that Ramos has a pitch in his changeup that has a spectacular resume and is hard to hit, not to mention his two other breaking offerings.
Phelps is the most worrisome for regression, as he just does not fit the profile of other high-strikeout relievers. Guys usually miss bats by missing them out of the strike zone, and Phelps is not doing that. He's barely missing them overall in fact, as he has a 78 percent contact rate. Much worse, the pitches Phelps has thrown out of the zone just are not inducing swings. It is possible to get those swings even if you are mostly attacking the strike zone, as Jansen does. It does not appear that any particular pitcher approach in the zone is more successful than the other.
Missing bats is a natural extension of this. For Ramos's part, he is at least maintaining his career 70 percent contact rate, and at that level, he probably can get by if he gets more swings like he was last season. Barraclough appears to be the most ideal candidate just in terms of his plate discipline numbers. He still is not getting enough swings, but his ratio of swings and contact rates are not far from Dellin Betances's. Perhaps with a bit more command around the edges, Barraclough can pick up steam and be an elite reliever for this team.
The back of a team's bullpen is all the rage right now following the Kansas City Royals winning a World Series with three top-flight relievers. Miami could approach that with Barraclough looking closer to the form of other elite guys and Ramos having been there before. Next year, presumably Carter Capps could return healthy, though who knows how surgery may affect his unique delivery. Phelps's success so far has been a surprise, but it seems the least likely to continue. But having these options is a good thing for Miami, especially with a team essentially only three decent starters deep.