The Marlins have turned their greatest weakness into a strength. There’s no coherent explanation for how a team widely believed to have the worst major league roster in the NL East—one that also lost so much talent and experience due to a COVID-19 outbreak—approaches the one-quarter mark of the 2020 season with the outright division lead, but this is part of it. What are we talking about here? Baserunning.
Last season’s Fish stunk at that. Collectively, that group had inefficient base-stealers. They were reluctant to stretch for an extra base on balls in play (such as advancing from first to third or second to home on a single, or first to home on a double). The bottom line is, the vast majority of players to reach base during the course of their 2019 games got stranded there.
FanGraphs’ Base Running metric pegged the Marlins as MLB’s most counterproductive team a year ago (-23.9 BsR). Over the course of the traditional 162 games, they cost themselves multiple wins with their legs alone.
But these Marlins who are currently settled atop the standings have had no such issues. Entering Saturday:
They are (comfortably!) on pace to collect more steals during this shortened 60-game season than their predecessors did during a full-length one. Attempting thefts 1.46 times per game is the second-highest rate in franchise history, trailing only the 2002 Marlins.
Middle infielder Jonathan Villar tops the Marlins with five stolen bases in 2020 and he has yet to be caught—unsurprising for a veteran who averaged 40 per season from 2016-2019 and is only a few months away from his first taste of free agency. Villar is the MLB leader in BsR dating back to the start of last season. Super-utility man Jon Berti is one behind him. That production was expected from him too considering that he had the bright green light from Don Mattingly throughout the second half of ‘19 and rarely failed in those opportunities.
That being said, the Marlins weren’t projected to be such a juggernaut in this department. Unforeseen impact role players have made the difference. Most notably, outfielder Magneuris Sierra, whose days with the organization were believed to be numbered because he had run out of minor league options and lacked discipline in all aspects of his game. But a new, selective plate approach is earning him more favorable counts, boosting both his walks and balls in play. From there, his talent takes care of the rest.
Magneuris Sierra turns a ground ball up the middle into a double— Fish Stripes (@fishstripes) July 26, 2020
Speed Demon pic.twitter.com/Z6Ujm5I6VA
Then we have Eddy Alvarez. The Marlins’ middle infield depth and the abbreviated MLB schedule made it difficult to envision him getting consistent reps. As of this writing, however, the 30-year-old is playing frequently against right-handed pitching.
Both Alvarez and Berti have stolen home plate already in 2020; no Marlin did that last summer.
Also worth mentioning, the coaching staff under Mattingly underwent some changes last offseason. Previously, the Marlins stationed Trey Hillman at first base and Fredi González at third base. González left for Baltimore in 2020, Hillman shifted to third base and Billy Hatcher was hired to coach first. Whatever they’re doing to communicate with players during games, keep it up.
No matter how well the Marlins continue to perform, there is a shake-up coming to the active roster. Miguel Rojas and Jorge Alfaro are obvious upgrades at shortstop and catcher, respectively, once fully recovered from their bouts with COVID-19. At least one of Harold Ramirez or Garrett Cooper would be under consideration to be activated (although both have minor league options remaining). Depending on who gets subtracted to make room for them, that could alter the “identity” of this offense.
In the meantime, the Fish have sprinted out to an improbable head start in the NL pennant race. It reflects well on the players’ competitiveness, the coaching staff’s ingenuity and the front office’s diligence.