The Miami Marlins have a problem: they leave a lot of runners on base.
The Marlins actually have hit well this season despite claims to the contrary. Marlins nonpitchers have hit .282/.342/.425 in 2016, and that represents the 10th-best batting line in baseball. Led in large part by Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna, the roster is actually hitting well, but it is struggling to bring runners home. Before the weekend, Baseball-Reference posted this tweet about the league as a whole:
It probably feels like your team is leading the league in LOB, but see who is actually leading right here: https://t.co/5Y17TX41py— Baseball Reference (@baseball_ref) July 1, 2016
And when you actually check the leaderboard, the Marlins are indeed leading the league in runners left on base. Before Sunday’s finale versus the Atlanta Braves, the Fish had left a whopping 622 runners aboard and they were one of only two teams so far (the other being the Pittsburgh Pirates) who had left more than 600 runners on base so far this year. That has played a big role in why Miami has scored only 339 runs so far this season.
And you know what? Part of that is understandable, as I pointed out when I first saw that tweet
If you think it's odd that we are leading in LOB, it shouldn't be. #Marlins nonpitchers are 6th in OBP in baseball, 27th in ISO (MJ)— FishStripes (@fishstripes) July 1, 2016
Combine that with a rash of pitchers hitting poorly in Miami and all of a sudden you have a hard time bringing runners home, right? Well, that is probably partially right. As I have mentioned before, there are only two things you can do to score runs. One of them is to get on base, and the Marlins do that very well. The team is still sixth in OBP overall with a .342 mark among nonpitchers, behind only the Cubs, Red Sox, Giants, Rockies, and Pirates. This is particularly strange because the Marlins do not get on base via the walk at an impressive pace. Giancarlo Stanton and Yelich walk often, but the majority of this roster is a low-walk team. Marlins nonpitchers are tied for 21st in baseball with a 7.8 percent walk rate.
No, the Marlins get aboard not due to an average or above-average walk rate, but they do so with contact. It would not surprise you to hear that even with Stanton’s enormous 30-plus percent strikeout rate, the team as a whole is one of the best in the game at avoiding the strikeout. Miami’s hitters have whiffed in 18.6 percent of plate appearances, and that is the sixth-lowest rate in baseball. The team’s contact rate corresponds well with that, as they make contact at an 80 percent rate that also ranks sixth in the game.
Miami makes a lot of contact, and this is something the Fish have always wanted in their players. But once they do make contact, they do not hit the ball very hard. The Marlins have a .143 ISO that ranks 27th in baseball. The second part of scoring runs is moving runners over, and small-ball enthusiasts aside, the easiest way to do this is to get the power game going. Despite Ozuna, Stanton, and Justin Bour being on the team, the club still does not generate enough power. It is harder to move runners to home without the extra base hits to goose scoring.
However, power in and of itself is not necessary. For one, there are certainly small-ball ways to advance runners, though they often come at the cost of extra outs. More importantly, not getting outs is a way to eventually bring runners home, even if it is "station-to-station." The Marlins so far have been an average baserunning team, so it is not as though they are lead-footed and are costing themselves chances on the bases. You can definitely win by doing this.
However, if the problem were simply in the lack of power, Miami would have scored probably along the lines of 358 runs, at least according to the BaseRuns model that FanGraphs uses. BaseRuns is the most accurate run estimator that has been developed in that aspect of baseball research, and the FanGraphs-run model puts Miami as having scored 19 fewer runs than they should have.
Where did those 19 runs go? It likely went towards the team’s problem with hitting with runners on base. While the Marlins overall are hitting about five percent better than league average, they are hitting two percent worse than league average with runners on base. The team boasts only a .272/.341/.407 line with runners on, which is not terribly far away from what they did overall but includes a slightly worse ISO. Performing worse with runners on board is playing a role in leaving so many runners on base.
One might say that this is a bad thing, to hold such a distinction. While it is certainly not ideal, the Marlins are at least getting runners on base. You may note that the third-ranked team on that left-on-base list is the Boston Red Sox, who own the second-best batting line in the game. Fourth on the list is the San Francisco Giants, who own the fourth-best line in the game. And fifth in that list is the Chicago Cubs, the league’s best -hitting team. At the bottom of that list are teams like the Philadelphia Phillies, Cincinnati Reds, and San Diego Padres. Good teams get on base more often, so good-hitting teams will leave more runners on base. The Marlins may not driving runners in at the most efficient level, but they are at least on the positive end of the spectrum by getting more runners than other teams.