The 2021 Miami Marlins fell short of their goals mainly due to a lack of offense. They ranked near the back of the pack with 623 runs scored (14th in the NL, 29th in MLB), a .298 OBP (15th, 29th) and 158 home runs (13th, 28th). Arguably their three most effective offensive players—Starling Marte, Adam Duvall, and Garrett Cooper—were either traded or missed significant time due to injury. Miami would finish the season 67-95.
But what if I told you, despite committing a league-leading 122 errors, that Miami was not only among the best defensive teams in the National League, but one of the best in all of baseball?
According to Fielding Bible, the Marlins’ collective 55 defensive runs saved (DRS) ranked 7th of 30 teams. Miami also finished as one of 6 teams with positive run-prevention numbers at 5 or more positions alongside Texas (5), St. Louis (8), Houston (7), Tampa Bay (6), and the New York Mets (6).
It should be mentioned, the correlation between defensive metrics and team success is not particularly strong. The 2021 Rangers, a team that lost 102 games, led all of baseball in the aforementioned category, saving 86 runs with their gloves. Also, it would seem that the Marlins don’t wholly believe in their DRS estimation, otherwise it stands to reason that they would have retained infield coach Trey Hillman rather than replace him with Al Pedrique.
The coming season looks to be the team’s first with Lewin Díaz as the everyday first baseman. In just 258 2⁄3 innings at first, Díaz finished tied with Paul Goldschmidt with 9 DRS, most among all players at the position. Miami’s 14 runs saved at the position ranked tops in the majors—no other team amassed more than half that total.
Barring health setbacks or a surprise post-lockout trade, Miami will get a full season of stellar defense from the other end of the diamond, too. Third baseman Brian Anderson enters what could be a make-or-break year regarding his future with the club. Limited to just 67 games in 2021 (oblique strain, followed by left shoulder subluxation and surgery), Anderson maintained his reputation as an above-average defender at the hot corner. Per DRS, he saved 3 runs in 554 2⁄3 innings, adding 0.4 dWAR courtesy of his glove.
If Anderson misses time or struggles to re-establish himself as everyday caliber, Joey Wendle gives the Fish a solid fallback plan. Wendle posted 2 DRS in his 766 innings at 3B with the Rays last season.
The Marlins team overall actually has room to improve defensively from 2021 to 2022. At the catcher position, out goes Jorge Alfaro, who while consistently underperforming at the plate (.399 SLG, 70 OPS+), has been a below-average defender behind it (-11 DRS since 2019). He was traded to the San Diego Padres in a glorified salary dump. Taking the majority of the starts in his place, Jacob Stallings is coming off a Gold Glove-winning Pirates campaign (16 DRS).
At the very least, the Marlins have been trending in the right direction. In 2019 and the COVID-shortened 2020, they finished tied with Boston for 16th in total DRS. In 2018, they finished 11th.
Further changes to the Marlins roster heading into the 2022 season could ensure that the forward progress continues. As currently comprised, their leading internal candidates for center field are Avisaíl García and Bryan De La Cruz, both of whom are better suited for corner spots. The often-discussed Ketel Marte and Cedric Mullins are prime trade targets if the front office is prioritizing further offensive reinforcements, but don’t sleep on Harrison Bader of the Cardinals. He provides substantial value on both sides of the ball (15 DRS and 116 OPS+ in 2021).
Moving forward, should the bats begin to complement an already formidable starting rotation and defense, that should pry Miami’s long-awaited competitive window wide open.