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2016 Miami Marlins Midseason Review: Starting Pitching

The Marlins’ starting pitching staff has been average overall, but that is on the back of one of the strongest performances in baseball’s first half in Jose Fernandez.

MLB: All Star Game-Workout Day Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Marlins’ biggest weakness so far in 2016 appears to be its starting pitching, because the team has gotten weak performances from a variety of starters behind its ace. While Jose Fernandez made the All-Star Game and pitched a stellar first half, only one other starter was able to post an ERA below 4.00 as a dependable option. In order to remain in contention, the Fish will probably have to get better performances from the remainder of their roster beyond Fernandez and surprising young starter Adam Conley.

Team Starting Pitching

Starter ERA: 4.21
Starter FIP: 4.04
Starter K%: 21.2%
Starter BB%: 8.7%

The starters on the team have been a generally a league average crew overall, but that is in large part thanks to the overwhelming strength of Jose Fernandez. The team’s starter ERA overall is 12th in baseball, and its FIP is 14th in the league, but when your best starter is dominating this badly, the team could do better. Balancing Fernandez’s success is the struggles of the back of the rotation, especially the fifth spot. Jarred Cosart and Justin Nicolino have occupied that area with no success.

The club’s starters have done a decent job getting strikeouts, as their rate is ranked eighth in the league. Unfortunately, their walk rate is also the eighth-highest in baseball, signaling that the club has struggled with control. Even Fernandez has had that problem, and Conley has wavered back and forth with it as well.

Best Performer: Jose Fernandez

Well, that’s obvious. Fernandez has been one of the best starting pitchers in baseball, and he has clearly made a massively successful return from Tommy John surgery. Fernandez has worked more out of the strike zone than he ever did before, down to a 49 percent zone rate so far this year. At the same time, his pitches have become more unhittable, as hitters are only making contact on a ridiculously low 68 percent of swings. Fernandez has been missing bats like an elite reliever, except he has done it for six to seven innings every outing. He has the best strikeout rate of his career and leads the majors in that rate with 36.6 percent mark.

He was having trouble with walks earlier in the year, and it seemed as though his command and ability to nibble in the corners was faltering. However, as he tightened up those pitches, even while maintaining elite velocity, he began to approach the corners better and hitters were left useless. His walk rate dropped back down to its current 7.4 percent rate while more or less maintaining that wild strikeout rate. It turns out when you miss that many bats, hitters have few options to score against you, even with a few extra walks. Fernandez’s strikeout-to-walk rate differential is the largest of his career right now.

Fernandez’s 2.52 ERA is a whopping 40 percent better than league average accounting for Marlins Park; this rates as the third-best mark in baseball. His FIP is 47 percent better than league average, the third-best mark in the game. Essentially, right now Fernandez’s only equals are Clayton Kershaw and Noah Syndergaard. Those are some big name rivals.

Worst Performer: Justin Nicolino

Tom Koehler and Wei-Yin Chen would have competed for this ignominious claim, but Nicolino takes it for having been demoted for his troubles. His first start of the season was a promising seven-inning shutout performance against the Dodgers, and yet he struck out only two batters with two walks. It was a harbinger of bad things to come, as Nicolino struggled the rest of the year with performances that emphasized his problems.

This year, Nicolino’s strikeouts were up, thought to a still-meager 10.5 percent rate. He walked 5.6 percent of batters as well, thus maintaining better strikeout-to-walk rate differentials. The problem was that those numbers were still not good enough to compensate for a skillset that had no other positive extremes. Nicolino is not an extreme groundballer, so avoiding home runs was not going to be his path to success. When the good batted ball fortune that worked to his credit last year and that some fans insisted was a real skill disappeared and went the other way, Nicolino looked a lot worse. He has a lot to work on in the minors this year.

Key Second-Half Player: Wei-Yin Chen

Chen had a bad first half, and it is hard to say if all of it is a change of skill or a lot of bad luck. His home run problems are still there, and they are even more prominent thus far with the Marlins. He has allowed 17 homers already in 415 batters faced after giving up 28 last season in 795 chances. At the same time, his strikeout and walk rates are essentially the same as his career and 2015 season numbers. This signifies that, with a little better luck on those fly balls, Chen should look at least like the guy he was last season, especially in the spacious Marlins Park.

The problem is that there is a real concern that Chen is not the same pitcher as he was last year. He is working a lot more in and low in the strike zone and a lot less up in the zone, and that has yielded a lot fewer pop-ups than he got before. The pop-ups were one of the reasons why Chen seemed to perform better than his peripherals would suggest, and he has seemingly lost that skill by working lower in the strike zone. At the same time, the Marlins are a team likes their pitchers working low in the zone, and it is possible they may have influenced Chen in this regard. If that is the case, they probably need to revert him before he becomes a lost cause on the mound.