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2017 Marlins Season Review: Dustin McGowan

Mop-up role is a dirty job. Someone has to do it.

Miami Marlins v Seattle Mariners Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

Ed. Note: Throughout the offseason, we’ll be taking a look back at the performances of the Marlins as individuals in the 2017 season. Mitch kicks things off with the under-appreciated Dustin McGowan.

On Wednesday night, in the do-or-die Game 5 between the New York Yankees and the Cleveland Indians, Andrew Miller came into the game in the fourth inning. Corey Kluber was given the ball to start the game for the Tribe. In the first inning, after forcing a one-pitch out to Brett Gardner, and handily disposing of Aaron Judge with his un-categorical curveball/slider, Kluber tried to sneak a fastball past third hitter, Didi Gregorious. Gregorious promptly turned the fastball around, and dispatched it deep into the right-field concourse.

Two innings later, Gregorius would step to the dish again and to hit another home run. By all other means, Kluber was undeniably dealing; however, as it turns out, the most important numbers in a baseball game are ultimately the ones on the scoreboard. In just the third inning on the road, the Yankees [read: Didi Gregorious] were up 3-0 and had stunned the crowd at Progressive Field.

With two outs in the fourth, although Kluber had thrown just 67 pitches, Terry Francona brought in his secret weapon, former Marlins prospect Andrew Miller. Miller came in and did what he does best, spinning two scoreless innings before handing the ball off to Bryan Shaw, (who I’m pretty sure is actually an accountant, who moonlights as a relief pitcher with a 98 mph cutter).

In the meantime, with Miller in the dugout and the score standing pat at 3-0, the Indians came up in the bottom of the 5th and struck for two runs. After starting the bottom of the 5th with a win probability of 16.6%, thanks to the stifling of Yankees bats post-Kluber, the hits by Roberto Perez and Giovanny Urshela brought the Indians win probability all the way up to 47.4%, making the game significantly more interesting.

This is an important spot — Miller played an integral, indirect role in allowing the Indians to gain so much ground. Whether you want to measure it by runs on the board or WPA, the fact remains: if Miller didn’t come in and hold the score, the runs scored by the Indians in the fifth may have been worth less than they actually were.

Now, to compare pitcher usage in a do-or-die game five with that of the regular season is very much like comparing apples to oranges. The Indians had one of the deepest rotations in the league, so under less pressing circumstances, the manager may be more willing to give the starter a longer leash.

Nonetheless, situations do arise where an opposing team comes in and puts a crooked number on the board early. During the regular season, you can’t rely on Andrew Miller everyday to hold the line. So who do you rely on?

The Mop-Up role. Enter Dustin McGowan. (And exit all this Indians talk.)

Dustin McGowan has been the trusty mop-up man for the Marlins for the past two years. This year, McGowan entered in more low-leverage situations than all relievers except for Nick Wittgren, Hunter Cervenka, and Brian Ellington, and McGowan pitched in 21 more games than the next most seasoned reliever from that group.

Dustin’s role was a unique one. First, on such a shallow rotation, one of McGowan’s main duties was to eat innings. Starting pitching averaged 5.1 innings per start this year, which is literally tied for worst with the Cincinnati Reds. When starting pitching fails to get deep into ballgames, the ball gets to the bullpen earlier.

So when a pitcher like McGowan gets the nod in the 4th or 5th, expectations are that he can take the ball deep into the game. In this aspect, Dustin McGowan did his job; with 77.2 innings pitched, Dustin trailed only Jose Ureña and Adam Conley; two pitchers who were predominantly starters, but are categorized as relievers as well on

In his 63 games, McGowan pitched more than one inning in 29 games; easily the most on the team, and 18 more than second-most Nick Wittgren. McGowan recorded the most outs-per-appearance in relief on the team with 3.7. Finally, Dustin McGowan came into the game with the Marlins losing a team-leading 33 times. Although technically, McGowan entered the game most often in the 8th inning, rest assured he made an ample amount of appearances as well in the 5th, 6th, and 7th innings as well.

This isn’t the end of the inquiry however. McGowan isn’t a backup quarterback; he’s not paid to get on the mound and just throw the ball across the plate. This may be news, but if he wants to keep his day job, he has to be effective in limiting run scoring when he takes the mound.

This year, Dustin McGowan had a harder time doing that. McGowan raked up an ERA of 4.75 and a FIP of 4.81, which respectively were 13 and 14 percent worse than league average. Both values were good for sixth-worst amongst Marlins relievers. McGowan had the second-worst fWAR on the team, beating only Brian Ellington, and tying with Justin Nicolino and Junichi Tazawa at -.3. McGowan’s weakness this year was the longball; trailing only Adam Conley (who is only credited with two relief appearances) and Justin Nicolino, McGowan otherwise had the highest HR/9 on the bullpen staff, with 1.51. Luckily, he was able to even out his FIP by cutting down on walks; McGowan’s 3.13 BB/9 ranks eighth-best out of Marlins relievers.

For comparison’s sake, last year with the Marlins, McGowan sustained a HR/9 of just .94 and with a BB/9 of 4.3. Ultimately, his FIP evened out to 4.19 — only four percent worse than league average. Also from 2016-2017, McGowan’s BABIP jumped from .241 to .286, which explains his jump in ERA from 2.82 to 4.75.

As far as win probability statistics, McGowan netted a win probability added of just .05 over the season. After accounting for leverage, that figure became -.33. But while these metrics are further indicators of his mediocrity this season, I think an unlikely stat comes to the rescue to justify McGowans’ worth: the win.

Myself and many other baseball journalists and sabermetricians have touched many a time on the unreliability of the win statistic in the past. For starting pitchers, there are too many arbitrary rules governing how to earn a win, and too many factors outside of the control of the pitcher, to actually reap value from the stat. Here’s a tweet concerning some NLDS pitchers on their starts this past week:

You can tell that Strasburg pitched well without knowing whether he got credited with a win or not. The win is severely losing traction as a reliable statistic for starting pitchers.

One of the aforementioned reasons why the win isn’t a good indicator of value for starters is because starters have to pitch at least five innings to qualify. After that, the win goes to whatever hurler pitched in the last half-inning where the winning team last attained the lead.

As it turns out, I believe Dustin McGowan’s most significant stat this season was his record: 8-2. Eight wins was good enough to rank second best among all relievers in Major League Baseball. Through July 5th, when he most often pitched in the fourth, fifth, and sixth innings, McGowan raised his record to 5-0. He obtained his first loss on July 18th when he was made to pitch in the eighth inning. His last loss came in an 11-13 slugfest with the Phillies in Game 153.

Why exactly does this stat matter for McGowan, and not for most other pitchers in the league? It’s because of the precarious nature of his role.

McGowan’s Wins

Date Miami Opponent Final Score Innings pitched Record Days Rest IP H R ER BB SO HR ERA AB Average Leverage Index Win Probability Added RE24 Entered Exited Entered Exited
Date Miami Opponent Final Score Innings pitched Record Days Rest IP H R ER BB SO HR ERA AB Average Leverage Index Win Probability Added RE24 Entered Exited Entered Exited
Apr 30 MIA PIT W,10-3 5th-5th W(1-0) 1 1 1 0 0 2 1 0 4.15 4 1.48 0.051 0.48 5t --- 0 out d1 5t 3 out d1 5t --- 0 out d1 5t 3 out d1
May 30 MIA PHI W,7-2 4th-6th W(2-0) 10 3 3 1 1 0 3 1 3.86 11 0.22 0.023 0.44 4t --- 0 out a7 6t 3 out a6 4t --- 0 out a7 6t 3 out a6
Jun 2 MIA ARI W,7-5 5th-6th W(3-0) 2 1.2 0 0 0 0 1 0 3.62 5 1.63 0.236 1.65 5t 1-3 1 out tie 6t 3 out a1 5t 1-3 1 out tie 6t 3 out a1
Jun 9 MIA PIT W,12-7 4th-5th W(4-0) 0 1.1 0 0 0 2 0 0 3.03 4 1.23 0.02 -0.12 4b --3 2 out a4 5b 3 out a3 4b --3 2 out a4 5b 3 out a3
Jul 5 MIA STL W,9-6 5th-6th W(5-0) 1 1.1 1 1 1 0 1 0 2.98 5 0.73 0.037 0.48 5b --- 0 out a4 6b 1-- 1 out a4 5b --- 0 out a4 6b 1-- 1 out a4
Jul 28 MIA CIN W,7-4 7th-7th W(6-1) 2 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 2.75 3 1.59 0.086 0.48 7t --- 0 out tie 7t 3 out tie 7t --- 0 out tie 7t 3 out tie
Aug 1 MIA WSN W,7-6 5th-6th W(7-1) 2 2 0 0 0 1 0 0 2.77 6 0.66 0.104 0.96 5t --- 0 out d3 6t 3 out a1 5t --- 0 out d3 6t 3 out a1
Aug 25 MIA SDP W,8-6 6th-7th BW(8-1) 2 1.2 2 1 1 0 2 1 3.72 7 0.89 -0.197 -0.86 6t -2- 1 out a1 7t 3 out d1
Entered/Exit Key: a = ahead, d = down, t = top of the inning, b = bottom of the inning

Dustin’s wins show that he added value to the Marlins in a number of different circumstances. The key for a pitcher like McGowan is to hold the line. From a Bill Belichik-esque point of view, McGowan just has to do his job: eat innings and pass the torch to the next guy with the flame still lit. It appears that he did just that in 2017. Sometimes, McGowan came in to hold the lead and bridge the gap — see June 9th. Other times, he came in to keep the game close, and give the Marlins a chance to get back into the game — see August 1st. Of his eight wins, only one was “snaked” — see August 25th, where he gave up the lead, but the Marlins bailed him out. While his record gets him to the top of the leaderboard, amongst other MLB relievers with similar records, McGowan stands out as having the worst fWAR on the page.

The bottom line is that while his advanced metrics don’t do him justice, he did do the Charlie-work for the Marlins this year. As a fanbase bearing scars from a myriad of unreliable relievers, Marlins fans don’t easily forget the bygones of a reliever’s blown leads and saves. McGowan isn’t responsible for many of said blown games. Instead, he has quietly occupied an important spot in the bullpen.

The 35 year-old McGowan is an unsigned free-agent heading into 2018. Given that many believe that the Marlins’ roster is about to get blown up, it’s very uncertain whether McGowan will return to the team or not. Coming off of an impressive season in 2016, the Marlins rewarded him in 2017 with a one-year deal worth 1.75 million dollars — the most he has made in a season. Considering that he took a step back this year, he may not obtain such a lofty salary for 2018, regardless of who he signs with.

Still, McGowan occupies a unique niche on the spectrum between old-school and new-school baseball strategy that may best reflect his potential value. This year in the playoffs, we have witnessed the promulgation of a relatively new phenomenon — “bullpenning.” While I believe that Terry Francona really championed the trend with his liberal use of Andrew Miller in the 2016 playoffs, many teams have recently adapted the strategy: giving a starter a shorter leash and lighter burden, in order to even the workload and get peak efficiency out of all of a team’s pitchers. Instead of relying on a starter to go six innings, and calling on two set-up men and a closer to end the game, hypothetically, a starter can be asked now to pitch three or four solid innings, before relinquishing the game to two or three long relievers. As we saw in the AL Wild Card Game, with the season on the line, the strategy can very easily work — as it did for the Yankees.

However, it would be impossible for a manager to be so cavalier with his bullpen for an entire season. Pitchers like David Robertson, Wade Davis, Aroldis Chapman, Tommy Kahnle, and Cody Allen are being asked to throw more innings than they’re used to. When the adrenaline is pumping in playoff games, they can rise to the challenge. But in the day-to-day grind of a 162 game season, if you want to implement a bullpenning gameplan, you need a gritty, experienced long reliever that will eat more innings, go on shorter rest, and get smarter outs than striking out every single batter.

That’s where Dustin McGowan comes in. Although by new-school metrics he falls short of the mark of a desirable short reliever, he could easily fit into a new-school pitching regime. McGowan could come through in spades for a team wishing to have their starters pitch four-to-five solid innings before passing the torch to the bullpen. After all, that is what he did for the Marlins — on a team with the lowest average amount of innings pitched by starters, McGowan pitched 77 innings over 63 games for a team that finished just eight games under .500. While the individual numbers aren’t pretty, if you take a step back from the trees to look at the forest, Dustin McGowan’s value manifests itself. It will be interesting to see who takes advantage of it in 2018.

Statistics courtesy of and