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Throwing down the gauntlet for Marlins pitching

What does the pitching staff have to do to keep Marlins Park open for one more month?

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29 games. One month left, and 29 games. In that time, the Marlins have six games to make up behind the Arizona Diamondbacks, Colorado Rockies, Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals in order to make the playoffs since the first time since 2003.

The hype is real. People are excited about this Marlins team. As far as the offense goes, it seems that the Loria Front Office’s vision is finally coming to fruition. There’s never been a reason to rebuild — all we needed was Dee, Realmuto, Yelich, Ozuna, and Stanton as a core to stay healthy and stay hot, and the Marlins can make a run. Even though the Marlins offense is missing key players like Justin Bour, Martin Prado, and an above-replacement level shortstop, the role players are making up the difference, and the Marlins have a month to make up six games to gain a playoff berth.

Yet, one thing that I have seen Monday morning GM’s beat the proverbial dead horse about is Marlins pitching.

It really hurts to hear — sing another song why don’t you! The truth hurts, but the truth is that we do live and die with these players on the mound.

Once a week, we watch Dan Straily pitch five shutout innings before he gives up the game with a four-spot in the sixth inning. Once a week, we sit at our couches and bite our nails as some reliever walks the bases loaded and gets 0-2 on a batter with two outs, just to let up a bases clearing double. And then a week later, we clamor for these players to come out and “do better” when they take the bump.

It’s a hard life to live – but it’s also the nature of the game. In the end, what we — the fans — say shouldn’t matter. Rather, the next day, it’s the pitching staff that has to share a locker room with the batters — the same batters pulling this team up by the bootstraps.

But the time for talk is over. It’s time now for the pitching staff to start pulling on those same bootstraps. The Marlins have just one month left. In essence, the roster expansion has already happened – out of thirteen Marlins pitchers, seven have spent significant time in the minor leagues already. Dillon Peters may be here now, but no one else is coming up to save our staff. Justin Verlander and Miguel Gonzalez aren’t coming to save the day, as both trade deadlines are in the rear-view mirror. Edinson Volquez and Wei-Yin Chen are gone for the season. The Marlins’ hand has been dealt; it’s now time to lay down their cards. Let’s take a look at what pitching needs to do in this last month.

Starting Pitching: Dan Straily, Jose Ureña, Adam Conley, and Vance Worley

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What remains of the Marlins starting rotation has shown glimmers of light throughout the course of the season. Combined, the four players have an ERA of 4.67. Even though the starters have a home run-to-fly ball ratio higher than 10.5 percent, their FIP is 4.56 — lower than their expected FIP. Yet after park adjustment, this corps of starters still has an ERA- of 110.5 and an FIP- of 108 — values 10.5 and 8 percent worse than average, respectively.

When we dig a little deeper, we see that some pitchers are weighing down the collective effort more than others. Far and away the most productive starter of the four is Straily. As now the de facto ace, Straily has an fWAR of 2.3 — 1.6 points higher than the second highest on the staff. Straily’s park adjusted ERA and FIP are 90 and 100, meaning that while Straily’s fielding-independent pitching stat is exactly league average, his earned-run average is ten percent better than league average.

Straily’s biggest Achilles heel is his innings pitched-per-start statistic. “Six inning Straily” averages just 5.2 innings per game. Then, his ERA by inning explodes to 6.43 in the sixth inning, leaving work for at least one long reliever, and two short relievers. We’ll see why this is a problem later.

After Straily, the pitching staff leaves a lot to be desired. Jose Urena is the only other starter with an above average ERA- (91) and Vance Worley is the only starter with an above average FIP- (98). Despite seeing Ureña take strides as far as handling a major-league workload and working deep into games, Ureña actually has the lowest fWAR on the current staff.

Straily, Ureña, and Conley have the same homework assignment — they need to keep the ball in the yard. Straily and Ureña represent odd cases in which their FIPs are larger than their ERAs. As far as batted ball metrics go, all three pitchers have fly ball rates in the 40th percentile with near identical home run-to-fly ball ratios — 12.0 percent for Straily, and 11.4 percent for Ureña and Conley. As a result, they are letting up about 1.30 home runs per game. Given their lower BABIP’s, we can surmise that while batters aren’t causing damage within the confines of the park, they are getting to these starters with the long ball.

The opposite goes for The Vanimal – Vance Worley’s stats represent an anomalous contrast to Straily’s and Ureña’s. As far as keeping the ball in the yard, Worley is managing just fine — he has a HR/9 of .70, the lowest on staff the by a large margin. On the other hand, Worley’s BABIP is a monstrous .358, allowing his ERA to soar over his FIP by almost two whole points. After park adjustment, Worley’s ERA is 42 percent worse than league average.

Starting pitching is obviously extremely important. Setting the tone for a win from the outset is the best way to give an offense a chance in a game. There is certainly room for these starters to improve in their last five or six starts. If they want to bring their teammates into October, they need to make the necessary adjustments.

Long Relievers/Mop-Up Crew: Justin Nicolino, Brian Ellington, Dustin McGowan

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Perhaps the most important reason why the starters need to improve is to keep the ball out of the clean-up crew’s hands. Out of the four classifications of pitchers, this group has the least impressive stats. The law firm of McGowan, Ellington, and Nicolino have an average ERA- of 128.3 and an average FIP- of 115. They have the highest WHIPs on the team, the highest home run-to-fly ball ratio, and the only collective negative fWAR.

This is a weird grouping indeed, and one that doesn’t particularly help Dustin McGowan’s stats. Despite having the same fWAR as his two classmates, McGowan does have an ERA- three percent better than average (97). Again, the culprit seems to be home runs. Dustin needs to work on lowering his home runs allowed.

To his credit however, McGowan has accrued eight wins this season. While it’s normally a sacrilege for any respectable sabermetrician to cite “wins” as a valuable metric, McGowan’s record reflects an important aspect of his game. In eight contests this year, McGowan has been thrown in the game as a reliever, and has suffocated offensive production long enough for the Marlins to take the reclaim the lead and win the game. This is exactly what you want your long reliever to do.

Baseball is a long game; being able to count on a pitcher like McGowan to resuscitate a game is an invaluable and incredibly overlooked asset. While his fWAR may not reflect kindly upon his efforts, McGowan’s win percentage added of .54 does, and it shows that he is a crucial piece of the Marlins puzzle.

The other two pitchers in this group lack any of the same redeeming qualities. Nicolino’s time in this group may be short if he joins the piecemeal rotation as the fifth starter. Brian Ellington just needs to reign in his deified rocket arm to throw more strikes. You can throw 100 mph all day long, but if you walk the first two batters in the inning, you’re only going to hurt your team. Ellington’s RE24 shows of -11.28 shows that he often leaves the game in worse conditions than he comes in with, and in just 30 innings pitched, he has racked up a BB/9 of 6.90 and an ERA- of 149.

The bottom line is that this group just needs to be better. In this last month, there will be days where the starter is going to get beat. No matter the score, no matter the team in the other dugout, runs still need to be suppressed in order to give your boys a chance to win. This group would do well by taking a page out of the Dodgers’ book, and begin setting the stage for some epic walk-offs.

Short Relievers/Young Guns: Odrisamer Despaigne, Drew Steckenrider, Jarlin Garcia

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This group of upstart, young relievers has answered the bell and has provided much-needed support to the Marlins pitching staff. In a combined 97.1 innings this year, the short-relief team of Despaigne, Steckenrider, and Garcia boasted the lowest ERA, FIP, WHIP, BABIP, HR/9, HR/FB ratio, and highest K/9 and WPA out of the four groups of Marlins pitchers. While abbreviated success over a small sample size may be responsible for the inflated numbers, the fact remains that these players will continue to be called to action in the coming month.

Jarlin the Marlin has been a welcomed success this year for the Fish. Garcia has an ERA- of 69 and a FIP- of 88. With the second-highest WPA out of the pitchers in this article, Garcia has been doing his job as a relief pitcher — keeping the game level and giving his offense a chance. By keeping the bases empty (.95 WHIP) and his BABIP down(.227), Garcia has shown his worth as a stalwart in the ‘pen.

Though Steckenrider and Despaigne have only spent a short time in the bigs this year, they have taken advantage of said time. Steckenrider’s park adjusted ERA- and FIP- are an absurd 66 and 60, respectively. Steckenrider is limiting walks, getting punch-outs, (12.71 K/9, 24.5% K-BB ratio), and forcing ground balls.

Although Despaigne has been thrown to the wolves in three spot starts, the numbers support that he is doing an efficient job of creating awkward at bats (BABIP .272), and keeping the ball in the yard (.32 HR/9). The versatile pitcher will probably see action in a number of different roles in the coming month.

Overall, all three of these pitchers have enjoyed their cups of coffee in the Majors. Ownership — present and future — has its eyes on this group, and how they contribute in this last month will weigh heavily on their future membership with the team.

Set-up Pitchers/Closers: Kyle Barraclough, Junichi Tazawa, Brad Ziegler

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Did somebody say coffee?

At the beginning of the year, the Marlins front office set out to create a super bullpen. By taking our already adept crew of David Phelps, AJ Ramos and Barraclough, and merging them with the infinite wisdom and reliability of proven relievers Brad Ziegler and Junichi Tazawa, the Marlins had supposedly created a bullpen capable of addressing and dispatching any and all batting lineup challenges.

Here we are at the beginning of September, and all that is left is Ziegler, Tazawa, and Barraclough. Each of these pitchers has been on the DL. Each of these pitchers has enjoyed relative success this season. Each of these pitchers has taken their licks as well.

Barraclough has been the best out of the group this season. With an ERA- of 84 and a FIP- of 84, he has accrued a WPA of .96 and an fWAR of .6. Barraclough’s repertoire includes a hard fastball and a wipeout slider that he throws for 41.4 percent at 5.6 runs above average. While he could see increased returns from issuing fewer walks, Barraclough essentially does everything you want a late inning arm to do: he gets strikeouts, he keeps the ball in the yard, and he gives his team a chance to make plays.

While Brad Ziegler is a talent at limiting walks, he is less efficient at keeping runners off the bases by other means. Ziegler’s BABIP of .340 means that he is either getting hit hard or getting bad luck. Either way, the high mark accounts for his ERA- of 109.

To really put these numbers into perspective, out of the three pitchers in this category, Brad Ziegler has the highest WHIP at 1.54. Given that Ziegler takes the walk out of the equation, it means that he is essentially letting up more hits in an inning than Barraclough/Tazawa allow hits and walks in an inning combined. Pair that with the fact that he’s allowing just .21 HR/9, and it’s clear that Ziegler is struggling mightily with getting outs.

Tazawa has been an enigma. Earlier this season, I wrote about a brief and surprising hot streak for Tazawa. Since then, he has reverted to his earlier disappointing form. The numbers on the year aren’t good — a 132 ERA-, a 122 FIP- and an fWAR of -.3. Tazawa needs to work on reducing home runs; his HR/9 and home run-to-fly ball ratio are easily the highest in this grouping.

As the elder statesmen in the bullpen, this group needs to rise to the occasion. The numbers are by no means the worst. However, these three pitchers will be relied upon by Don Mattingly to get the crucial outs in these upcoming games. Walks and home runs will not be tolerated; they need to set the tone for our corps of younger pitchers and make a routine out of “taking care of business.” Hopefully, the others will follow suit.

Well there it is. Consider the gauntlet: thrown. These pitchers aren’t going to change their stats tremendously over the next couple of months — what’s done is done. Nevertheless, each of these pitchers have shown bright spots at some different points during the season. And that’s ok — the lineup has done the exact same thing for the past three season. What these pitchers need to do is tap into their talents and strong suits, and apply them with all they have this last month. It’s easier said than done, but it’s not too much to ask. There’s a reason why these pitchers are playing at the highest level.

It starts with five solid innings of starting pitching. The starter then passes the torch, to one pitcher from the next group. The game isn’t pitching, it’s accountability — don’t worry about the men on base, the next pitcher, the numbers on the scoreboard. Just get the outs you’ve been assigned to get. If everyone does their job, the offense will have a chance. And if the offense has a chance, there’s not a team the Marlins can’t beat.

Statistics courtesy of

Statistics current as of 9/1/17