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2017 Marlins Season Review: Brian Ellington

The hard-throwing right-hander had a simple problem last season, but is it fixable?

The Marlins tested him in high-leverage situations with, uh...“mixed” results.
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

In 2017, Brian Ellington continued to show why he’s among the most talented arms the Marlins organization has ever produced. He may not have Jose Fernandez’s devastating changeup or Ricky Nolasco’s durability, but Ellington set a new club record when it comes to consistently lighting up the radar gun.

Highest Average Fastball Velocity in a Season, Marlins History

Name Year IP ERA FBv (mph)
Name Year IP ERA FBv (mph)
Brian Ellington 2017 44.2 7.25 98.2
Carter Capps 2015 31.0 1.16 98.1
Brian Ellington 2016 33.0 2.45 98.0
Erik Cordier 2015 12.1 5.84 97.9
Carter Capps 2014 20.1 3.98 97.4
Source: Baseball Info Solutions
(No, it’s not just you—I don’t have any memory of Erik Cordier existing, either.)

The above data comes courtesy of Baseball Info Solutions, which has been tracking MLB velocity since 2002. Meanwhile, PITCHf/x believes those estimates might be selling Ellington short. It calculated his average four-seamer at 98.5 miles per hour, and measured even more heat once he was recalled from Triple-A after the All-Star break (99.0 mph). He even topped 100 a few times!

How’d that work out for him?

It’s nearly impossible to succeed at the major league level against today’s competition without commanding your pitches. Most of the seven home runs allowed by Ellington came on fastballs down the middle of the plate. When he wasn’t pitching to hard contact, he was working under the stress of free baserunners (16.0 percent walk rate, six hit batsmen).

Ellington established a decent baseline of performance in 2015 and 2016, so his most recent work was a frustrating step in the wrong direction.

Brian Ellington, MLB Stats

2017 42 44.2 48 39 36 7 35 48 7.25 5.80 1.86 -0.6
Career 97 102.2 92 59 53 10 64 98 4.65 4.67 1.52 -0.2
Source: FanGraphs

The Marlins never envisioned using Ellington in a significant role entering his age-26 season. Their top four relievers from the previous year—AJ Ramos, David Phelps, Kyle Barraclough and Dustin McGowan—all returned. Also, the club aggressively sought veteran reinforcements in free agency, courting Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen before settling for Junichi Tazawa and Brad Ziegler. All that depth meant Ellington was projected to miss out on the Opening Day roster.

Hoping to change some minds in spring training, the former 16th-round draft pick responded poorly. He issued 11 walks in 10 13 innings and completed just one perfect outing in nine tries. As expected, the Marlins optioned him to the minors.

Ellington performed well for the New Orleans Baby Cakes in the Pacific Coast League. His earned run average (2.28), strikeout rate (38.3 percent) and batting average against (.136) had all improved from 2016, justifying call-ups in May and July.

There was, however, a curious split between his home and road production. Ellington thrived at the “Shrine on Airline” (0.87 ERA, 10.1 IP, 17 K, 0.48 WHIP), while looking much more vulnerable in other ballparks (3.38 ERA, 13.1 IP, 19 K, 1.28 WHIP).

Not only did that trend hold true on a major league mound—he took it to a historic extreme. His appearances at Marlins Park were adventurous yet fairly typical of his rookie and sophomore campaigns (3.24 ERA, 25.0 IP, 31 K, 1.44 WHIP). On the other hand, opposing batters could not be more excited to welcome him to their cities.

Worst Road Earned Run Average, 2017 (min. 100 Batters Faced)

Player Team ERA WHIP BF
Player Team ERA WHIP BF
Brian Ellington Marlins 12.36 2.39 106
Chris Tillman Orioles 10.87 2.31 142
Christopher Flexen Mets 10.38 2.50 138
Brandon Maurer Padres/Royals 10.08 2.02 139
Jordan Lyles Rockies/Padres 10.02 2.01 160
Source: FanGraphs

But wait, there’s more! Remember when the Marlins relocated a series to Miller Park in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma? Ellington pitched the eighth inning of the series opener on Sept. 15 and got absolutely humiliated by the Milwaukee Brewers (six earned runs allowed). It counted against his home stats, even though the game was literally played in the other team’s city and venue.

If we reclassify that as a road series and “adjust” Ellington’s splits accordingly, his road earned run average skyrockets even higher, to 13.91. Dating back to 1913 (the earliest available splits data on Baseball-Reference), his miserable season ranks as the third-worst on record, better than only Cal McLish (14.51 ERA in 1944) and Glenn Liebhardt (14.50 ERA in 1936).

McLish was a homesick 18-year-old straight out of high school. What’s Ellington’s excuse?
Photo courtesy of the Society for American Baseball Research

It’s all very amusing, but probably not tangible or predictive. Ellington has played professionally since 2012 and didn’t previously have this kind of trouble as a visitor. The main concern for the Marlins is that his overall performance took such a severe dip.

To get back on track, perhaps Ellington needs to reconsider how he’s mixing his pitches. Last season, he pretty much abandoned his curveball in favor of a harder slider, using the latter about 15 percent of the time. His changeup usage also ticked up (from seven to nine percent). Despite those tweaks, relying so heavily on that blistering fastball—accounting for more than 75 percent of his pitches—makes him too predictable.

Ellington has consistently struggled to throw strikes in his three MLB campaigns. One key difference between 2015-2016 and 2017 was his ability to get outs despite falling behind in the count. He’ll either need to be more precise in those situations, or avoid them altogether.

We’re going to learn a lot about Ellington in 2018. Ramos and Phelps were traded over the summer, and the cost-cutting Marlins seem unlikely to pay market value for experienced bullpen pieces again. That means any pitchers with limited service time and a pulse will get opportunities to prove that they belong.