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Nearing midpoint of Spring Training, Marlins on historically bad pace

Through 11 exhibition games, the Marlins have struggled in every facet of the game. Should we care?

Marlins outfielder Jesús Sánchez at Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium prior to a 2023 Spring Training game against the New York Mets
Jesús Sánchez is among the few bright spots for Miami, slashing .316/.350/.421 with two stolen bases.
Kevin Barral/Fish Stripes

We have grown accustomed to the Miami Marlins playing well during Grapefruit League Spring Training games. In the 2010s, they did not have any regular seasons with a winning record, yet they finished .500 or better in spring competition six times during that span. The Marlins were baseball’s best preseason team in 2021 (14 wins, five losses and five ties), then went on to lose 95 games once they began to count.

Most of the discrepancy in those results can be explained by randomness. We’re dealing with small samples and lacking real stakes. Lineups, substitutions and pitching schedules are generated in advance without accounting for specific opposing matchups. These are glorified scrimmages that abruptly end after nine innings’ worth of work.

However, there may be factors inadvertently favoring the Marlins in Spring Training.

The club hosts its camp in Jupiter, Florida, less than 100 miles away from Miami. Anecdotally, the proximity between the two seemingly leads a high percentage of Marlins players to make their year-round homes in South Florida. They’re able to work out with each other during the offseason to build camaraderie. As mandatory report dates approach, it’s not uncommon for them to make the drive up north early, getting a head start on the other Grapefruit League teams.

Also consider the Marlins’ roster composition. Perennially operating on a low payroll, this franchise rarely acquires starting-caliber veteran players, relying instead on young, cheap talent at most positions. There are roster “battles” to split hairs between candidates with brief/non-existent MLB track records. These guys have something to prove during the spring. That does not mean caring about exhibition wins or losses, but they know their individual performances will be scrutinized by decision-makers.

The Marlins’ payroll is up entering 2023. Industry-leading projection systems from FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus agree that this iteration of the team should be better than those we’ve been watching in recent years (median projection of 80 wins). Club leadership has not shied away from talking about playoff contention.

So...what gives?

2023 Grapefruit League standings entering Wednesday
2023 Grapefruit League standings entering Wednesday

The 1-9-1 record is attention-grabbing, but I’m more preoccupied by the far-right columns. Among this spring’s Florida-based teams, the Marlins are dead last in run production by a wide margin and not much better in terms of run prevention. Their minus-42 run differential is nearly twice as bad as anybody else’s (Phillies are at minus-23).

Including Cactus League participants, the Marlins rank 29th out of 30 MLB teams in batting average (.214), 29th in on-base percentage (.281) and 30th in slugging percentage (.292). They have hit the fewest home runs (four) and are tied for 28th in stolen bases (five). The “strength” of the Fish is their 25th-best earned run average (6.63), but no pitching staff has recorded fewer strikeouts (76). Although difficult to succinctly quantify, the most glaring issue has been their fielding—miscommunications, reckless decisions, inaccurate throws, etc.

If not for injuries and a visa-related issue, the Marlins would have gotten about 10 total innings of relief by now from a combination of Tommy Nance, A.J. Puk, Tanner Scott and Huascar Brazoban, and Charles Leblanc would have had 10-15 plate appearances. But overall, it’s been a healthy spring for Miami. If that’s all you care about, I won’t try to change your mind.

MLB has comprehensive Spring Training stats dating back to 2006. Since then, the Marlins have never finished last in the Grapefruit League in winning percentage or run differential. This made me curious to check how previous Grapefruit League and Cactus League cellar-dwellers performed during the ensuing regular season.

Spring Training was abbreviated in 2020, 2021 and 2022 by COVID and a lockout, so I excluded those from the following table:

Teams that had the worst Grapefruit League and Cactus League records, 2006-2019
Teams that had the worst Grapefruit League and Cactus League records, 2006-2019

*MLB postseason qualifier

If Spring Training results were completely random, you would expect these teams to be around .500 in real games. Well, their cumulative regular season winning percentage was .467 and 21 of the 28 had losing records.

The Marlins have 17 more Grapefruit League games to potentially change their spring trajectory and render this analysis irrelevant.