One look at the Miami Marlins and you might confuse them for a mediocre team. Outside of Jose Fernandez and that elite outfield of Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, and Marcell Ozuna, no one is really excelling. The back of their rotation is not pretty. Even the two starters behind the Marlins have not been of fantastic quality, as Wei-Yin Chen and Adam Conley have seen their share of struggles. Why get excited about this Marlins club, fresh off three of four wins against a contender NL team in the Pirates?
One thing pointing against the Marlins is how they have done this. The team somehow owns a negative run differential. The Marlins have actually been outscored by their opponents by a total of 11 runs, which makes their 29-25 record seem less "real." As we know, run differential is a better determinant of how well a team played in that previous time period than actual win-loss record, in part because things like one-run wins and losses are often fluky endeavors. Based on that, it would be easy to point to the Marlins and say that their team is likely to face some regression to the mean in a bad direction.
That may very well still happen, but something should be pointed out with regards to using more advanced measures to evaluate the Marlins. For example, take a look at the team's rankings in FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement for both position players and pitchers.
Position Players: 7.7 wins, 10th
Pitchers: 5.2 wins, 11th
The Marlins rank highly both in position player and pitcher WAR. Ranking near tenth in both run-scoring and run-preventing aspects of baseball has to be a positive sign for the Fish. But how can that be? They are not even scoring runs efficiently! How can the team be outscored in real life but actually be hitting well overall?
It simply is far too difficult to deny that Miami is hitting well. Disappointment from guys like Stanton at the plate has had counterpart strong performances from the rest of the outfield and Derek Dietrich among others. Overall, Marlins nonpitchers are hitting .280/.340/.427, good for a .331 wOBA that is five percent better than the league average. That ranks eight in all of baseball among nonpitchers, around the same mark as teams like Baltimore Orioles and Detroit Tigers.
The Marlins' pitching staff appears the weak link to the roster, since it has prominently featured poor pitching from two of its five starting pitching spots. However, when you have a starter like Jose Fernandez carrying the rotation, these things tend to even out a little more. Despite mediocre play from Tom Koehler, Jarred Cosart, and Justin Nicolino, the Marlins' top three starters are holding the fort by combining for four of the team's five-plus wins from the pitching side.
How can this difference come up? You would not be surprised to hear that the Marlins have been relatively unclutch so far this year. While hitting well overall, the team is hitting just a .276 wOBA in high leverage situations. Those are the plate appearances that have the most impact on winning and losing a game, the "clutchiest" opportunities, if you will. The team is faltering in those instances, which are often chances to drive in runs to help overcome a deficit or take on a lead. The Marlins have yet to hit well in those places, and that has led to fewer runs than expected from the team's raw performance of hits.
Of course, as a team, there is no reason to suspect that the Marlins are unable to hit well in the clutch. There is no suggestion that the Fish are an unclutch team as a whole, and the far greater likelihood is that this kind of thing will equilibrate over time.
FanGraphs sees that in the team as well, at least in terms of how it has performed so far. When using BaseRuns, which is a run estimator based on the raw hitting and pitching data that has been compiled, it pegged the Marlins as a 29-25 team, exactly what the current record states. It turns out that that ranks 10th in the league among best performances so far in a context-free assessment. By BaseRuns, the Marlins should have had a run differential of about +19 runs.
Does that move the needle in terms of projection for the Fish? So far, it does not. The team is still expected to be just about a .500 club; according to FanGraphs's system, they suspect Miami would finish out the year 55-53, leaving them at 84-78 on the year. However, that does not mean that the chances of Miami cracking a playoff spot have not budged. The team did bank four wins above .500, and those wins cannot be taken away going forward. The team may be most likely to reach 84 wins, but FanGraphs has the Marlins' chances of a playoff spot at 25.6 percent! That is up from around 18 percent to start the year.
If you will recall to start the year, there was a premise that there were seven real contenders for playoff spots in the National League, with the Washington Nationals, New York Mets, Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals, San Francisco Giants, and Los Angeles Dodgers duking it out for those five coveted openings. Miami's 25.6 percent winning percentage ranks eighth in the NL right now, just three percentage points behind the Cardinals. By weathering the early storm, the team has at least given itself a decent opportunity at playoff baseball so far this year. If it keeps up its early performance, it could be close to a shot at the postseason.