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March 17, 1999

Pitcher Usage and Result Patterns: Florida Marlins

Focus on 1998 Marlins starting pitching

by Jeff Bower and Christina Kahrl

The Jim Leyland managing today managed very differently from the pre-1997 models. Working for the Pirates, Leyland was comparable to Felipe Alou in his careful handling of starting pitchers, but in 1997 things changed. The first victim was Alex Fernandez, who went down with a torn rotator cuff after being repeatedly overworked late in the year. All of baseball got to witness Leyland's new heavy-handedness in the NLCS and World Series, as he pushed Kevin Brown and Livan Hernandez to the brink of exhaustion. Though Leyland's 1997 transformation is difficult to excuse, it is easy to understand. After all,
1998 Overall Pitcher Use Patterns
Days rest -> 2 3 4 5 6+ CS Totals
Starts 1 4 84 52 19 2 162
QS 1 1 30 19 7 2 60
%QS 1.00 .25 .36 .37 .37 1.00 .37
BQS 0 0 9 2 0 0 11
%QS+BQS 1.00 .25 .46 .40 .37 1.00 .44
Avg # pitches 90 78 98 94 91 95 96
earlier in the decade, Leyland's excellent Pirate teams came oh-so-very close, but never made it to the Series. Now he was working for a despot who had raided the free-agent market in an effort to buy a championship. Leyland was chosen to lead the Huziengites to baseball's summit. Tired arms were not a major concern, as long as the end justified the means. That "logic" was not applicable to the 1998 Marlins, as they were never going to contend. During the well-documented sell-off of players following their championship, GM Dave Dombrowski was able to obtain a lot of young talent in spite of a compromised bargaining position. Surprisingly, Leyland decided to stick around and work on the Fish Farm in 1998. It was a poor decision for both Leyland and the young Marlin moundsmen, as Leyland didn't return to his pre-Blockbuster ways, and the arm slagging continued. As gruesome as it may be, let's look at what happened. You may want to have any young children present leave the room.

Florida opened the '98 season with a rotation that had a combined total of 23 major league starts, with 23-year-old Livan Hernandez having logged 17 of them. Leyland rode his "veteran" brutally; asking him to throw nearly 4000 pitches in the most blatant abuse of a young hurler since Phil Garner led a corn-fed Cal Eldred to the slaughterhouse. Incredibly, Hernandez went the whole season without missing a start, and posted a respectable 52% for Quality Starts plus Blown Quality Starts (QS+BQS). Leyland tried to defend the mishandling by employing a strict five-man rotation after the first month of the season, while making a few self-serving acclamations about how Hernandez gets stronger as the game goes on. It's possible that there is some truth to this, as Hernandez, working deep into most games, had only 3 Blown Quality Starts (BQS) in 33 starts.

Eric Ludwick was the only other member of the original five who had previously started a major league game. 1998 was a great opportunity for the 26-year-old to establish himself in the majors, but he managed only six starts sandwiched around three trips to the disabled list. The good news is that the injuries were not to his throwing arm and they enabled him to dodge Leyland's Little Shop of Horrors. The bad news is that he further dimmed his once-bright star, and will be pitching elsewhere in 1999.

A pair of left-handers out of the bullpen in '97 got the chance to start for the Marlins in '98. God only knows why, but Leyland picked 22-year-old Felix Heredia to begin the season as a starter (his only real starting experience over the previous two seasons having been in winter leagues). Heredia was roughed up in his new role in spring training, and after two ineffective starts, Leyland ended the experiment. Heredia moved back to the bullpen, and eventually north to Chicago. From the outset, Leyland should have gone with Kirt Ojala, who had been a starter throughout his long minor league career. Ojala was finally moved from the bullpen into the rotation after the All-Star break. He did a pretty good job with 7 QS+QBS in 13 tries, and Leyland was surprisingly modest with his pitch counts.

Following the fire sale, and in conjunction with Ludwick's fragility, there were spaces in the rotation for Rafael Medina and Andy Larkin, a couple of Triple-A starters with histories of arm problems. How did Leyland treat their tender appendages? Do you remember the wood chipper scene in Fargo? The 23-year-old Medina opened the season as the third starter and didn't log a quality start in four tries before being shut down with a sore shoulder. Four months later he returned, and under Gentle Jim's watchful eye, averaged 116 pitches per game in his last eight starts. Andy Larkin logged 3 QS+BQS in his first three starts, flashing the talent that has been obscured by injury. He followed that with only 3 QS+BQS in his next 11 tries, while making visits to Charlotte and the bullpen. Only his frightful ineffectiveness prevented another physical setback, as he was worked extremely hard on the rare occasions when he did pitch well.

Four young Marlins jumped the last rung of the fish ladder and went straight from Double-A to Miami: Brian Meadows, Jesus Sanchez, Joe Fontenot and Ryan Dempster. Meadows began the year in the rotation and made it through the season relatively unscathed, except for a groin pull in late July. His 45% QS+BQS equaled the team's rate, and isn't bad for a fifth starter. Leyland worked him relatively carefully, as he never threw more than 115 pitches in any of his starts. You could argue Leyland seemed to pick and choose whom he abused, with Meadows as one of the lucky ones, but Meadows' good control also helped keep his pitch counts low. That said, Leyland could have been pushing the envelope with him as well, because control pitchers will always have lower pitch counts than power pitchers. Jesus Sanchez was not one of the lucky ones. The talented 23-year-old was dropped into the rotation when Rafael Medina was placed on the DL. Leyland wasted little time in overusing the relatively diminutive (5'10") lefty, as Sanchez threw 146 pitches in his fourth start. A mid-season slump "helped" to keep his pitch counts down, but didn't change Leyland's convictions. Sanchez threw 127 and 137 pitches in his last two September starts--for a 54-108 team! His 4.47 ERA is a better indicator of his potential than his 46% QS+BQS. Four pitchers who started 1998 in Double-A Portland were taking turns in the Florida rotation once 21-year-olds Joe Fontenot and Ryan Dempster were recalled at the end of May. Neither was ready to make the jump to the majors, although Fontenot did manage 4 QS+BQS in 8 outings. Leyland pushed Fontenot hard whenever possible, prematurely ending his season with a sore shoulder in early July. Dempster made eleven starts (3 QS) despite being clearly overmatched at the big league level.

When Eric Ludwick received his May delivery from the Injury of the Month Club, journeyman Chris Hammond was recalled from Triple-A Charlotte. Although Hammond's three starts were unimpressive, his subsequent release was probably unwise. He was the type of veteran pitcher that Dombrowski could afford to let Leyland use at the back end of his rotation, instead of rushing the kids into the fray.

The Marlins knowingly renounced their 1998 title when they dumped their high-salaried players following the World Series. Because of the way Jim Leyland mishandled the young pitching staff, a big chunk of the future has also likely been sacrificed to no good purpose. But should all the blame be placed on Leyland? Pitching Coach Rich Dubee witnessed the carnage and might have interceded. Where was the front office while the abuse was occurring? After making the commitment to youth, the Marlins' organization should have created a plan to maximize their chance for success--particularly for a commodity as precious as starting pitching. Instead, Leyland was allowed to use the youngsters without adult supervision, simultaneously mortgaging their futures and the team's. Fortunately for all concerned, Leyland has left the Sunshine State--albeit a season too late--and John Boles is back to try and pick up the pieces. We'll see if they have been damaged beyond repair.

L. Hernandez       Days rest                 Meadows            Days rest
                3    4    5   6+   Totals                    3    4    5   6+   Totals
Starts          1   17   12    3       33    Starts          2   13   12    4       31
QS              0    7    5    2       14    QS              1    4    6    0       11
%QS           .00  .41  .42  .67      .42    %QS           .50  .31  .50  .00      .35
BQS             0    2    1    0        3    BQS             0    2    1    0        3
%QS+BQS       .00  .53  .50  .67      .52    %QS+BQS       .50  .46  .58  .00      .45
Avg # pitches  84  125  117  109      119    Avg # pitches  65   85   86   70       80

J. Sanchez         Days rest                 A. Larkin          Days rest
                     4    5   6+   Totals                   CS    4    5   6+   Totals
Starts              15   11    3       29    Starts          1    8    4    1       14
QS                   5    5    2       12    QS              1    2    0    1        4
%QS                .33  .45  .67      .41    %QS          1.00  .25  .00 1.00      .29
BQS                  2    0    0        2    BQS             0    2    0    0        2
%QS+BQS            .47  .45  .67      .48    %QS+BQS      1.00  .50  .00 1.00      .43
Avg # pitches       91   97   99       94    Avg # pitches  90   90   94  123       93

Ojala              Days rest                 Medina             Days rest
           2    3    4    5   6+   Totals                         4    5   6+   Totals
Starts     1    1    8    2    1       13    Starts               9    1    2       12
QS         1    0    5    1    0        7    QS                   2    0    2        4
%QS     1.00  .00  .63  .50  .00      .54    %QS                .22  .00 1.00      .33
BQS        0    0    0    0    0        0    BQS                  0    0    0        0
%QS+BQS 1.00  .00  .63  .50  .00      .54    %QS+BQS            .22  .00 1.00      .33
Avg pit   90   97   94   85   62       90    Avg # pitches      106  138  119      111

Dempster           Days rest                 Fontenot           Days rest
                     4    5   6+   Totals                         4    5   6+   Totals
Starts               5    5    1       11    Starts               3    3    2        8
QS                   2    1    0        3    QS                   2    1    0        3
%QS                .40  .20  .00      .27    %QS                .67  .33  .00      .38
BQS                  0    0    0        0    BQS                  1    0    0        1
%QS+BQS            .40  .20  .00      .27    %QS+BQS           1.00  .33  .00      .50
Avg # pitches       86   73   67       78    Avg # pitches       98   94   84       93

Ludwick            Days rest                 Hammond            Days rest
                     4    5   6+   Totals                             CS    4   Totals
Starts               2    2    2        6    Starts                    1    2        3
QS                   1    0    0        1    QS                        1    0        1
%QS                .50  .00  .00      .17    %QS                    1.00  .00      .33
BQS                  0    0    0        0    BQS                       0    0        0
%QS+BQS            .50  .00  .00      .17    %QS+BQS                1.00  .00      .33
Avg # pitches       77   34   87       66    Avg # pitches           100   75       83

F. Heredia         Days rest
                          4    5   Totals
Starts                    2    0        2
QS                        0    0        0
%QS                     .00  .00      .00
BQS                       0    0        0
%QS+BQS                 .00  .00      .00
Avg # pitches           100    0      100

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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