This week’s Wild Card Series against the Cubs was unlike any other postseason series in Marlins history (for the most part). It had the same result as the previous six: they won! But being matched up with a struggling offensive team in a best-of-three format allowed the Fish to preserve most of their arms. Only six different pitchers were used en route to the sweep. Manager Don Mattingly leaned on his best weapons and they delivered the goods.
However, the upcoming battle with the Braves is going to be a different challenge. It’s a best-of-five series beginning Tuesday with zero days off between games against an opponent that can unequivocally mash.
Many MLB analysts who have not been following the Marlins on a daily basis in 2020 were skeptical of them entering the previous round. At first glance, they looked like a mediocre team that’s “built around pitching” but doesn’t actually pitch effectively (worst in the National League with a 116 FIP-). In reality, those overall numbers are bloated by Mattingly’s handling of lopsided losses, and specifically losses to Atlanta.
For the last week (dating back to Sunday’s regular season finale), he has been able to stay away from the soft underbelly of Miami’s bullpen. That will be impossible during the NLDS—the Marlins need competent work from practically everybody on the pitching staff to complete another upset. They ought to seriously consider some tweaks to optimize the roster for this series.
If we have learned anything from this Marlins rebuild so far, it’s that we shouldn’t rush to judgement about trades involving players under long-term control. That being said, the front office would probably appreciate a do-over on the 2019 deadline deal they consummated with the Rays.
The Fish would be feeling supremely confident about their pitching depth right now with Nick Anderson and Trevor Richards still in the organization. Instead, those right-handers were shipped to the AL in exchange for outfield prospect Jesús Sánchez and reliever Ryne Stanek.
Sánchez made his major league debut in August, flashing his intriguing potential but failing to contribute in a meaningful way (.040/.172/.080, -16 wRC+ in 29 PA). He was not among the 15 Marlins position players who were activated for the Wild Card Series. Expect him to remain on the taxi squad for the NLDS as well.
Stanek, meanwhile, came to Miami with a solid, substantial major league track record. For various reasons, that hasn’t translated to his new club.
During parts of two seasons with the Marlins, Stanek has posted a 6.21 FIP and 6.03 ERA (compared to a 3.96 FIP and 3.55 ERA with the Rays). That FIP is fifth-worst in Fish history among all players with 30-plus innings pitched, and dead last among those who have worked exclusively out of the bullpen; that ERA is third-worst among relief-only options (not quite as disastrous as Junichi Tazawa and Josias Manzanillo).
So...what’s wrong with the hard-throwing 29-year-old?
- Role change—Stanek made nearly half of his Rays appearances as an “opener,” a responsibility that came with a simpler pregame routine and an assurance that there wouldn’t be any inherited baserunners. But since the trade, Miami has never used him to start a game.
- Injury/Illness—The right-hander seemed to be an unconventional trade candidate because he was still on the injured list at the time of the transaction due to right hip soreness. Though the Marlins activated Stanek five days later, he was ineffective, contributing only one perfect outing in nine tries during the month of August 2019. Unfortunately, he was also among the large group of Marlins players infected by COVID-19 earlier this summer, which sidelined him for approximately half of the shortened 2020 regular season.
- Diminished velo—Stanek’s average fastball velocity this season is down about two ticks from his 2017-2019 average, according to Statcast. Understandably, batters have been able to track it more clearly and they’re chasing less often on pitches outside the strike zone. This novel virus can affect people in unpredictable ways, so even though several other Marlins pitchers have returned from COVID at full strength, we cannot rule that out as a factor in his case.
- Splitter not splitting—Stanek previously generated good downward action on his split-finger by throwing it with as little spin as possible. From 2018-2019, he had a 1,082 RPM average, one of the lowest/best spin rates in the majors for a splitter or changeup, per Baseball Savant. The results were extraordinary. But he is up to 1,330 RPM in 2020.
Based on all of the above, it’s irresponsible to assume that Stanek will suddenly flip the switch and be successful again. Barring a behind-the-scenes breakthrough during his throwing sessions over the past week, he does not merit any active role for the Marlins against the Braves.
Candidates to fill Stanek’s shoes include veteran right-hander Nick Vincent, who had a dominant stretch during the first three weeks of September before closing out the regular season with a pair of clunkers (6 ER in 1.2 IP). I see him as an unlikely choice, however—the Braves have faced Vincent six times in 2020 and familiarity generally favors the offense when it’s a pitcher who relies on deception over pure stuff.
The Marlins should put their faith in a top prospect instead. Taxi squad arms Edward Cabrera, Jordan Holloway and Alex Vesia each threw on Friday, according to MLB.com’s Joe Frisaro and Jordan McPherson of the Miami Herald. Clearly, the team hasn’t ruled them out yet. In Cabrera’s case, he could join an exclusive club of players who have made their major league debut in the postseason.
Expect the Marlins to wait until Tuesday morning before announcing which 28 players have made the cut for the NLDS.