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2016 Miami Marlins Midseason Review: Bullpen

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The Marlins’ bullpen is a tale of three strong performances amid a sea of bad play.

Chicago Cubs v Miami Marlins Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images

The Miami Marlins felt the back of their bullpen was a relative strength, yet the team still aimed to improve it with the addition of Fernando Rodney. The club figured that adding another potentially elite arm in the Rodney of 2016 would further bolster what they presumed was already a solid aspect of the roster. Shortening the game is something that the defending World Series champion Kansas City Royals did in their run to the title, and Miami wanted to do something towards that.

However, adding depth to a bullpen that spent a lot of bad innings on mediocre veterans may not have been a bad idea, because while half of the pen has been good this year, the other half has been atrocious.

Team Bullpen

Bullpen ERA: 3.74
Bullpen FIP: 3.97
Bullpen K%: 24.3
Bullpen BB%: 10.6

Like the starters, the team’s bullpen is striking out plenty of batters. As a group, they are whiffing 24.3 percent of batters faced, which ranks ninth in all of baseball. Bullpens are designed to get strikeouts, as hardthrowing fireballers come out of the pen regularly to dominate opponents. The Marlins’ best relievers have all racked up strikeouts, with Kyle Barraclough whiffing an absurd 38.2 percent of batters to lead the way.

However, Miami also has trouble with control, and no one displays that better than Barracough himself. He is walking 15.9 percent of batters faced, and he is only a bit ahead of All-Star reliever A.J. Ramos, as the closer is giving out free passes on 13.2 percent of chances. These walks have mitigated the benefits of the strikeout for Miami.

This overall has left Miami with an above-average ERA as compared to the league average, but the team’s rank is decidedly average. This is in large part due to a bullpen that has featured bad veterans like Dustin McGowan, Craig Breslow, and Chris Narveson to start the season rather than promoting prospects like Nick Wittgren and Brian Ellington and allowing those higher-variance players to sink or swim in the bigs.

Best Performer: David Phelps

With apologies to Ramos and Barraclough, Phelps was the one guy who was picking up tons of strikeouts without walking hitters. His 30.8 percent strikeout rate came off the back of an improved fastball out of the pen but also off of an oddity in missed bats on balls in the strike zone. Phelps is throwing a huge number of strikes on the year, on the order 57 percent of his pitches into the strike zone. Somehow, he is missing a lot of bats specifically in the strike zone, as hitters are only putting up a 79.4 percent contact rate in the zone after Phelps spent all of his career with batters hitting 91 percent of his in-zone pitches.

It is impossible to tell whether just the velocity increase is going to be enough to maintain that strong performance on in-zone pitches. Phelps’s stuff is not exactly electric like Ramos or Barraclough in terms of movement or velocity. Nevertheless, he is still striking out a large number of hitters, and that has not come with walks, as evidenced by his 7.7 percent walk rate. When you throw that many pitches in the box, batters do not have a whole lot of chances to walk, so Phelps’s lack of free passes has helped Miami.

Phelps has become a revelation out of the pen, but he may be the most difficult guy to project going forward because of his unprecedented method of success. Is he the next Burke Badenhop in terms of successful bullpen conversions or the next Clay Hensley in terms of one-time wonders with mediocre righty stuff out of the pen?

Worst Perfomer: The seventh inning pitchers

It would be unfair to any one player to nail down the worst performer. The entire set of guys upon whom the team depended to throw the sixth and seventh innings before the crew of Barraclough, Phelps, and Ramos arrived did not work out well. The combination of guys like Bryan Morris, Breslow, McGowan, and Jose Urena really struggled all throughout the season, and their problems almost undoubtedly led to Miami acquiring Rodney.

None of those players pitched well, but at least Urena was a young guy. The team made the mistake of trusting veteran free agents signed to minor league deals based on just a few Spring Training innings of decent play. They should have known that beforehand and turned to younger talent that had actual upside.

Key Second-Half Performer: Fernando Rodney

The Marlins paid a steep price to acquire Rodney, the former closer for half a season for the San Diego Padres. To make up for that value, Rodney needs to be a top-shelf reliever playing the eighth inning role for the Fish. He does not have to be closer level to be useful, and Marlins fans will probably always conflate Rodney’s performance with the cost it took to acquire him in 2016, but he still needs to be a reliever with a true-talent ERA less than 3.00 to help complement Ramos, Phelps, and Barraclough in a potentially elite foursome in the back of the pen.

If he does that, the Marlins can get some major value by securing his cheap team option next season without having to pay the bonuses of closing out games, since Ramos is the club’s closer. If he does not, Miami paid a lot to get a mediocre rental whom they will release next season. A lot for both sides rides on this second half.