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The Marlins Have Never Had a Truly Dominant Closer

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That might be the necessary piece to propel them into championship contention.

ROBB NEN MARLINS

It’s perhaps a bit extreme to connect this week’s Major League debut of Anthony Bender with the lack of dominance from a Marlins closer, but we all handle #BenderMania in different ways.

In his effective debut, Bender regularly hit 97 with a sinker, generated whiffs with his slider and dialed it up to 98 to end a long at-bat. The 20th round draft pick showed Major League Baseball his talent at 26 years of age and shut out the Diamondbacks for an inning, allowing a single while recording the first two strikeouts of his career. Thursday’s outing—under the added pressure of a tied ballgame—was more of the same.

Meanwhile in Mississippi, last summer’s 3rd overall draft pick Max Meyer made his professional debut for the AA Pensacola Blue Wahoos. He showed professionally what had made him such a highly regarded amateur prospect with his electric stuff, command and feel for his pitches. He has all the potential to be a dominant pitcher at the Major League level, but won’t figure into the rotation picture quite yet. What might make sense, is the back-end of the bullpen even if it results in a Smoltz-like career as both a reliever and a starter. He might be good enough for it not to matter, so long as he’s on the mound.

For the moment the Marlins are set with Yimi Garcia as their closer, a role he’s held for the better part of a month after it was ceded by free agent signee Anthony Bass. The bullpen has pitched relatively well—7th in ERA, but 15th in RE24 indicating a potential cause for their losing record despite a great team run differential. Miami pitchers have failed to hold on when the score is tight, and a part of that problem is their lack of a tried and true option at closer. Throughout Marlins history, this invaluable player type has eluded them.


From the start of Major League Baseball in South Florida, the Marlins rode organizational saves leader Robb Nen and his 3.41 ERA to their 1997 World Series title. For all his contributions to the organization and his reliable performance, he was not dominant as a Marlin, even when compared to himself as his best years and All-Star appearances came after 1997 firesale as a San Francisco Giant.

After Robb Nen, the Marins turned to the man who is #2 in Marlins saves, Antonio Alfonseca. Antonio pitched to a 3.66 ERA from 1998-2001 for a Marlins team that was not competitive in the National League East. Solid yet ultimately unimportant results as the team was out of it.

Antonio Alfonseca fist pump save celebration Fish Stripes original GIF

As fortune turned in 2003 the Marlins pivoted from Braden Looper and his 3.68 ERA as a closer in favor of Ugueth Urbina for their playoff run. The acquisition cost was steep: a prospect package including their 2000 1st round draft pick Adrian Gonzalez and his eventual 43 bWAR career for roughly 2 months of Urbina and his 1.41 ERA as a Marlin.

After that World Series win over Mariano Rivera and the Yankees, the Marlins continued to have high turnover at the closer position. In 2004, journeyman Armando Benitez led the National League in saves as a Marlin with 47 while the Marlins missed the playoffs and other closers outperformed him in other metrics of dominance. RE24, which compares actual performance to the theoretical run scoring expected in the 24 base/out states (factoring in clutch performance better than save totals alone), rated Armando Benitez as #15 in MLB for 2004 among qualified relievers.

RE24 leaders for the 2004 season (qualified MLB relievers) FanGraphs

From 1993 until now the best single season in RE24 belongs to Mariano Rivera in his breakout 1996 season. Rivera road that breakout to a unanimous Hall of Fame induction as the all-time leader in saves. His ability to close out games gave the eventual Yankees dynasty certainty to build around in the late innings.

As a pitcher who could throw in the high 90s with his fastball, he developed a cutter with such sharp break it kept batters from making good contact. He reached a high degree of mastery with his cutter and relied 82% of the time in games recorded on Brooks Baseball.

Total tangent, but absolutely fascinating. Mel Stottlemyre, father of the current Miami Marlins pitching coach, was Mariano’s pitching coach as he emerged on the Major League scene.

Some Marlins make down-list appearances among the all-time RP leaders in RE24. Robb Nen ranks #46 just ahead of #47 Andrew Miller who was mostly a starting pitcher with the Marlins. Brad Hand at #89 also jumps out as another former Marlins starting pitcher that found success in the late innings for different teams.

To contextualize the relative value of a high-end starting pitcher to a high-end closer. Mariano Rivera is 9th all-time in RE24 across all pitchers, just behind contemporaries Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander. Fellow Yankee Mike Mussina ranks 7th on the all-time list. Roger Clemens leads the league with an amazing 761.50 RE24.

These are the single-season RE24 leaders in Marlins history:

FanGraphs

The most recent entrants, Clay Hensley and Kiko Calero, were not even closing games and thus not subjected to the extra pressure of the 9th inning.

The all-time Marlins career leader amongst relievers is AJ Ramos with his career 39.71 RE24. He pitched for the mid-2010’s teams that was perpetually just outside of contention and shy on starting pitching.


Arizona Diamondbacks v Miami Marlins Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

As the Marlins continue to work towards “sustained success” on the field, the closer position is a position to follow. In the past, they’ve attempted to cut corners by trading premium young talent for months of high performance and overspending in free agency.

However, that might not be necessary considering their current organizational depth. Perhaps such a back-end-of-the-bullpen comes from their pool of up-and-coming starting pitching prospects, a familiar name like Meyer, Edward Cabrera, Jordan Holloway, etc. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if Bender ascended from obscurity to stardom?

In the meantime, Yimi Garcia is more than solid as a placeholder. He converted his fifth save of the season on Thursday, lowering his ERA to 2.03 in the process. He hasn’t allowed more than two baserunners in an appearance all year.

Prognosticating this is difficult—with the right adjustments, practically anyone could prove to be a unique weapon in Miami Marlins history.

Poll

Who do you think will be the first truly, reliably dominant closer for Miami?

This poll is closed

  • 18%
    Yimi García
    (22 votes)
  • 37%
    Anthony Bender
    (44 votes)
  • 10%
    Max Meyer
    (12 votes)
  • 21%
    Someone else
    (25 votes)
  • 12%
    Someone else but that person is probably like 16 years old.
    (15 votes)
118 votes total Vote Now