“This is a situation where you need a punchout right here.”
That’s J.P. Arencibia, color commentator on the Aug. 11 FOX Sports Florida television broadcast. In the bottom of the sixth inning, the Blue Jays have runners on second and third with one out. The Marlins are clinging to a 1-0 lead behind the excellence of right-hander Elieser Hernandez, but he is beginning a treacherous third pass through the Toronto lineup. Star shortstop Bo Bichette is at the plate.
Ahead in the count 0-2, catcher Francisco Cervelli wants Hernandez to overpower Bichette. Cervelli sets up for a fastball up and in. But Hernandez, digging deep for extra velocity, yanks it glove side. It’s a non-competitive miss.
Cervelli wants to try again and Hernandez dials it down from 93 miles per hour to 91 to get it over the plate. Problem is, he catches too much of the plate.
Bichette crushes it for a three-run home run.
Overall, Hernandez has enjoyed a huge breakout for the Marlins in 2020—the only runs that he has allowed through three regular season starts came on Bichette’s swing. However, it’s a sobering reminder that he cannot get away with many mistakes against major league hitters due to his below-average velo.
The current Marlins pitching staff is loaded with soft-tossers. What does that mean for their sustainability? And how much should be expect the composition of the roster to change in the coming weeks?
According to Statcast, this is the fastest pitch thrown by a Marlin this season, a Sandy Alcantara four-seamer at 98.8 miles per hour. The second-fastest (98.6 mph) and third-fastest (98.5 mph) pitches were from the major league debuts of Jorge Guzman and Jordan Holloway, respectively. On Baseball Savant, you can scroll through all Marlins pitches in order of descending velocity. Each of the top 81 have something in common: they were thrown by individuals who are not currently on the club’s active roster.
Alcantara and Holloway tested positive for COVID-19 last month during the infamous outbreak in Philadelphia. So did hard-throwing relievers Yimi García, Ryne Stanek and Adam Conley. (Conley hasn’t thrown a pitch during the 2020 season, but he made it onto the Opening Day roster and consistently touched the mid-90s with his heater last year.) Guzman was optioned to the Marlins’ alternate training site following his one and only appearance.
Losing 18 players to the injured list—the majority of them pitchers—in the midst of the season put the Marlins in an extremely vulnerable position. While there were several depth players in Jupiter who complemented the roster nicely, most of the reinforcements came from outside the organization (trades, free agency and waiver claims). In doing so, the team also needed to prioritize immediate availability over long-term potential.
The makeshift product has been...unique.
Entering Tuesday, the Marlins have MLB’s lowest average fastball velocity. I’m defining that as the average of all four-seam fastballs, two-seam fastballs and sinkers. Miami’s staff is collectively throwing those pitches at 91.1 miles per hour, as measured by Statcast (h/t Baseball Savant); the gap between them and the 29th-ranked staff (Cubs, 91.9 mph) is the same as the gap between 29th and 19th (Astros, 92.7 mph).
Check out where the Marlins have placed among the 30 teams in fastball velo each season of the Statcast era, particularly the drop-off from 2019:
- 2015: 92.9 mph, 13th
- 2016: 93.6 mph, 2nd
- 2017: 92.5 mph, 22nd
- 2018: 92.7 mph, 15th
- 2019: 93.6 mph, 8th
- 2020: 91.1 mph, 30th
Some of the year-to-year change is attributable to Alcantara’s illness—he threw far more total fastballs for the Marlins last season than any other pitcher—and the departure of Tayron Guerrero (who had severe struggles despite consistent triple-digit heat). A member of the Marlins pitching staff in both seasons, Jordan Yamamoto was recently optioned to the alternate site, having lost two miles per hour off his rookie fastball. Even manager Don Mattingly admitted that the velocity drop is to blame for his ineffectiveness (11.42 ERA, .485 xwOBA in 8.2 IP).
But for the most part, this is about the new personnel. Daniel Castano (88.9 mph average fastball velo) has logged more innings than Alcantara in 2020. The Marlins have been stuck with Brian Moran (81.8 mph) over Conley, James Hoyt (88.5 mph) and Nick Vincent (88.0 mph) over García and Stanek, etc.
Overall, Miami’s pitching results are solid! The staff has posted a 100 ERA- entering Tuesday, which is precisely league average. It’s been 10 years since the Marlins finished a season with such good run prevention, per FanGraphs.
Unfortunately, there appears to be serious trouble on the horizon. Even including their blowout loss to the Mets, Marlins pitchers have allowed a .267 batting average on balls in play. If maintained, that would be far and away the best mark in franchise history and among the best in MLB’s modern era. But that’s difficult to imagine when their pitchers are getting barreled 10.8% of the time (second-highest rate in the majors). Also consider the disparity between their weighted on-base average allowed (.321 wOBA) and expected weighted on-base average allowed (.354 xwOBA).
MLB Network’s Craig Mish reports that Alcantara is a realistic candidate to rejoin the Marlins for their upcoming road trip. Beyond him, the timelines for other impact arms are vague. Consensus top 100 MLB prospects Sixto Sánchez, Edward Cabrera and Max Meyer—all of whom possess plus fastballs—are members of the club’s player pool. However, even with Sánchez and Cabrera already on the 40-man roster, there’s been no indication that they’ll be called up in the near future.
This MLB season is progressing quickly, particularly for the Marlins who need to play games practically every day the rest of the way to compensate for their COVID-19 related postponements. Currently flaunting a solid 9-7 record, they have eight games over the next seven days against the division-rival Mets and Nationals. During that span, the pitching staff will be largely unchanged.
The return of high-velocity pitchers would raise the ceiling of the 2020 Marlins, but they cannot be expected to dig the team out of a deep hole in the standings. The replacements will need to snap this losing streak and keep the ship afloat a little while longer in order to make the goal of a playoff berth more than just a pipe dream.