Dan Straily was a curious acquisition for the Miami Marlins this past offseason.
What to make of a former 24th-round draft pick who had been traded three previous times? How can the same pitcher who allowed a National League-worst 31 home runs in 2016 also hold opponents to a measly .220 batting average on balls put in play? Was Straily even good during his “breakout” year? FanGraphs (1.2 fWAR) and Baseball-Reference (4.3 bWAR) vehemently disagree.
President of baseball operations Michael Hill didn’t shy away from setting high expectations for Straily’s 2017 season. Via the Sun Sentinel, he praised the right-hander’s ability to “move the ball in and out and keep hitters off balance...We feel like he will be a great fit in spacious Marlins Park.”
Heading into his 10th start with Miami, Hill’s evaluation has held up pretty well! Straily is thus far the undisputed ace of the rotation, leading all healthy starters with 48 2⁄3 innings pitched and a 2.18 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The 3.70 earned run average is on pace to be a career-best. There’s no ambiguity about his overall value, as both Wins Above Replacement estimates—0.7 fWAR, 0.8 bWAR—are nearly identical. The right-hander has been especially effective at home, posting a microscopic 1.95 ERA and .121/.240/.225 opponents’ slash line through five outings.
Meanwhile, this season is quickly slipping away from the Fish. They trail the NL East-leading Washington Nationals by double-digit games, and face a similar deficit in the NL Wild Card race.
Contending throughout the summer will require some bold adjustments. Utilizing an extra outfielder with Straily on the mound is likely too radical to implement midseason, unfortunately. Such a unique defensive alignment is best learned and repeatedly rehearsed in a low-stakes, spring training environment...but would it work? Let’s consider the pros and cons.
Limited infield action
Among qualified NL starters in 2017, Straily has pitched to the sixth-lowest ground ball rate (36.4 GB%). Historically, he’s been even more extreme in that regard. FanGraphs’ batted ball data goes back to 2002. Of all the pitchers to complete at least 500 innings since then, Straily’s career 34.3 GB% ranks in just the fifth percentile.
What’s the point of positioning any of his teammates on the infield dirt? Mainly to catch pop-ups (notice all the red in the above image). Straily is MLB’s leader this season when it comes to infield fly ball percentage (21.7 IFFB%), and it’s not even close.
But do the Marlins really need six players—pitcher, catcher, shortstop, first/second/third basemen—to handle those? Probably not.
Cracking down on extra-base hits
Here is the insane stat that inspired this whole piece: Straily has allowed 18 extra-base hits, but only 10 singles. That ratio (1.8 XBH/1B) is totally unprecedented for a qualified season. Just a handful of other 2017 qualifiers are allowing more extra-base hits than singles so far, all of them trailing Straily by plenty:
Lowest Batting Average Against in a Qualified Season, Marlins History
Sid Fernandez is the only pitcher in MLB history to finish a campaign with a ratio higher than 1.0 XBH/1B. Even then, he “achieved” it during the strike-shortened 1994 season, and barely pulled it off (56 XBH, 53 1B).
The larger point here is that when Straily struggles, it’s because balls are getting hit past the first line of the defense.
Fielders can’t do much to prevent them from sailing over the fence. That was the theme of the entire 2016 Cincinnati Reds season (record-setting 258 home runs allowed by their pitching staff, with Straily leading the way).
However, Marlins Park has a consistent track record of preventing long balls. And regardless of whether games are home or away, the team can cover more grass with a fourth player in the outfield.
A roster with plenty of versatility
Admittedly, the Marlins would be better suited to experiment with this later in the season. Right now, they’re lacking the ideal personnel.
Center fielder Christian Yelich has a nagging hip injury. You’d need a rangy shortstop, but Adeiny Hechavarria remains sidelined with a left oblique strain. And Martin Prado (right hamstring strain) is arguably the key cog.
This alignment hinges on a player who can toggle between third base and shallow left/right field territory (depending on the handedness of each batter). Prado has spent 2,189 MLB innings as an outfielder and with strong results (14 DRS, 11.3 UZR/150). Derek Dietrich, too, logged 398 innings out there (mostly in 2015). Although nobody is clamoring to see more of that, he might have more success in this particular setup. After all, there wouldn’t be any walls to worry about.
Looking deeper into the organization, Mike Aviles and Steve Lombardozzi could also be useful in this role.
Would there be exceptions? Game situations that demand bringing an extra body back into the infield?
Well, duh. Bunting would create chaos otherwise. Whenever the opposing batter is a threat to lay one down, the Marlins would revert to a conventional defense.
Of course, that’s the beauty of how Straily’s been pitching—he has allowed barely one baserunner per inning this season (.270 OBP). Those fortunate enough to get on are often already in scoring position, and deploying four players to the outfield should go a long way toward preventing some of those extra-base hits from happening.
Above all else, Straily was an intriguing asset on the trade market because of his limited major league service time. He’ll remain under Marlins control through at least the 2020 season, leaving tons of time to determine the best way to utilize his talents.
Now, they have at least one bold idea to consider.