Even with a reduced payroll, even if J.T. Realmuto gets traded, no matter how much star talent the other NL East teams add to their rosters, there is an opportunity for the Marlins to improve upon last year. That’s because many of the most intriguing pitchers from the 2018 staff are poised to grow into more significant roles after being limited by inexperience or injury. Five of them in particular demonstrated filthy weapons that can help them escape jams (or avoid them altogether).
We can quantify this filthiness using FanGraphs pitch values. The unit of measurement is runs above average per 100 pitches thrown. I considered any pitch type that a player used at least 100 times for the Marlins in the majors last season, and only players who remain in the organization entering 2019.
1) Trevor Richards’ changeup (2.45 wCH/C)
The numbers and the eye test agree: Trevor Richards has a gift.
The changeup is often the last weapon to develop for a young pitcher, but Richards leaned on it heavily as a rookie. It represented 32.2 percent of his total pitches, according to Statcast, and accounted for 77 of his 130 strikeouts (59.2 percent).
Teammate comparisons do not do it justice. Richards’ changeup compares favorably to MLB’s most elite starting pitchers from 2018, one spot below NL Cy Young award winner Jacob deGrom and slightly ahead of Chris Sale.
2) Pablo López’s changeup (2.22 wCH/C)
Pablo López has a much more conventional pitch mix. The changeup was his fourth-most-used pitch—behind the four-seamer, sinker and curve—and reserved primarily for left-handed batters.
The results were outstanding: .125 batting average and .150 slugging percentage against with zero home runs in 45 plate appearances that ended with a change.
On talent alone, López is perhaps the safest bet on the Marlins 40-man roster to stick in the starting rotation long term. As a Tommy John surgery survivor whose season was bookended by shoulder issues, you’re just concerned about his durability.
3) Nick Wittgren’s four-seam fastball (2.16 wFA/C)
Big opportunity upcoming for Nick Wittgren. Assuming the Marlins don’t splurge on free-agent relievers at the last moment, he has a major league spot secure for the foreseeable future.
You might be surprised to learn that among all Marlins pitchers with 100-plus innings since 2016 who are still in Miami, Wittgren’s 109 adjusted earned run average is (by far) the best.
The right-hander doesn’t intimidate opponents with four-seam velocity (92.1 mph last season). Quality of Pitch is likewise unimpressed with the horizontal/vertical break and rise on the pitch, which rank near the middle of the pack.
Wittgren’s success hinges on throwing first-pitch strikes and keeping balls in play relatively close to the ground.
4) Adam Conley’s slider (1.98 wSL/C)
Adam Conley, on the other hand, experienced a massive velocity spike when the Fish reimagined him in a bullpen role. Batters must be prepared for mid-90s heat...and that makes the breaking ball extra lethal.
Conley only had a couple dozens MLB relief appearances prior to last July’s trade deadline, yet there were contenders already convinced of his filthiness.
The Marlins are betting on more consistency from Conley at age 29 and proven performance in save situations to further augment his value before flipping him for prospects.
5) Caleb Smith’s slider (1.67 wSL/C)
There was never much doubt about the potential of Caleb Smith’s slider. He just had to create pitcher-friendly counts to use it in.
Now that Smith knows where his fastball is going, he is in position to finish people off. Left-handers and right-handers alike put up a futile resistance in 2018; all but one of the 10 home runs against him were the results of other pitches, even though he trusted the slider 27.3 percent of the time.
KKKKKKaleb is grinding towards a spot in the Marlins Opening Day rotation, assuming no setbacks in his left shoulder rehab.
Honorable mention: Sandy Alcántara
Expect Sandy Alcántara to crack next year’s edition of this list. The top Marlins pitching prospect fell short of qualifying with both his changeup (2.78 wSL/C) and curveball (2.52 wCU/C) due to a lack of major league reps.
The combination of Alcántara’s velocity and movement will induce plenty of swings-and-misses and weak contact. The question is whether his control can reach an acceptable level.