May 12, 2008
Miracle in Miami?
The Florida Marlins have the best record in baseball.
The Florida Marlins are not one of the 15 best teams in baseball.
Both of these statements are true, but to follow baseball in the second week of May, 2008, is to hear a whole lot more about the first than about the second. As we see every year, one unexpected team has made its way into our consciousness thanks to some good fortune. In some cases it's because of success in one-run games, in others it's thanks to a handful of players playing well above their heads, and in some an inflated record due to an impossibly weak slate of opponents.
The Marlins are 7-3 and, by definition, +4 in run differential in one-run affairs. They're 16-11 and +10 in run differential the rest of the time. So while an above-average performance in one-run games is part of the equation, that's certainly not the whole story. As you look at their roster, you find that a number of players are well above expectations, including second baseman Dan Uggla (.279/.359/.618), left fielder Josh Willingham (.341/.406/.637), and left-handers Mark Hendrickson (3.56 ERA, 4.50 RA, 20/14 K/BB) and Scott Olsen (2.63 ERA, 2.80 RA, 24/21 K/BB). The Marlins have no one at all performing below expectations to the same extent that these guys are exceeding them. They have lineup holes, but that's to be expected when, as a franchise, you blow off catcher and center field.
The bullpen is a particularly interesting case. The Marlins have seven relievers who have thrown at least 10 innings. Collectively, they have an ERA of 2.66, an RA of 3.21…but an 83/53 K/UIBB in 115 innings. Those numbers can't even pretend to match. In fact, Marlins pitchers have the second-lowest strikeout rate and worst K/BB in the National League, and while their defense is statistically improved over last year's league-worst group, it's reliant on most of the same personnel, calling their early-season Defensive Efficiency into question. All in all, their run prevention is a fluke.
Actually, "fluke" implies there's no reason for it, when in fact there is one. The Marlins have played the second-softest schedule in baseball, facing just three teams with Adjusted Records above .500 for a total of 11 games, in which they went 4-7 with a run differential of -32. The rest of their season has been spent beating up on below-.500 squads, including a quarter of the schedule-and more than a third of their wins-against the hapless Washington Nationals.
In the Adjusted Standings Report, the difference between a team's second-order and third-order wins is a convenient proxy for schedule strength to date. It measures the quality of a team's opponents based on their EQR and EQR allowed, or how well their opponents have scored and prevented runs. It's not quite perfect-a true strength of schedule metric at this point in the season would probably weight a pre-season estimate of each team's strength at least equal to their performance to date-but it works. Here's each league ranked by what we'll call Simple Strength of Opponents (SSO), calculated as the difference between third-order wins and second-order wins:
Royals 0.8 Cardinals 2.3 White Sox 0.7 Marlins 2.1 Angels 0.7 Braves 1.7 Orioles 0.2 Cubs 1.5 Mariners 0.1 Phillies 1.0 A's 0.0 Diamondbacks 0.6 Rangers -0.1 Dodgers 0.4 Twins -0.2 Giants -0.1 Red Sox -0.2 Mets -0.2 Indians -0.3 Astros -0.2 Yankees -0.5 Padres -0.7 Tigers -0.7 Reds -0.9 Rays -0.7 Pirates -1.4 Blue Jays -1.1 Brewers -1.7 Rockies -1.7 Nationals -1.8
Now, there are some interrelationships here that may raise a few eyebrows. That the Marlins are as high as they are and the Nationals as low as they are is, a little bit, because the Fish have gone 8-1 and +30 in run differential against the Nats. However, remember that we're measuring using EQR and EQR allowed, which gets down into underlying performance better than raw wins and losses or runs scored and allowed. Also consider that there are 28 other Marlins games-17 against the Padres, Astros, Pirates, and Brewers-included in that number above. Finally, the gap between the Marlins and the next team, the Braves, is four-tenths of a win, one of the largest gaps between two adjacent teams in the rankings.
So, how about that run prevention? The Marlins' schedule breaks down as such:
Opponent's NL Games Rank in EqA 9 16 6 14 5 10 5 1 3 6 3 7 3 9 3 15
The Marlins have played two-thirds of their schedule against teams with an EqA of .255 or below. They've played nearly half of their schedule against the three worst hitting teams in the league, the Nationals, Padres, and Brewers. They've played just five games against one of the top lineups in the league, all of them against the Braves. Obviously, that kind of imbalance will wash out over a full season, and when it does, the Marlins will be giving up a lot more runs. They have neither the pitching nor the defense to prevent the opposition.
The Marlins aren't 23-14 because of young players coming together with a great attitude under a young manager and all that other mainstream nonsense. They're 23-14 because they had Jim Boeheim draw up the schedule. Unfortunately, being a college basketball coach, Jim stopped around 40 games, and they now have another 125 games to go, and those games will involve teams such as the Cubs, Diamondbacks, and Cardinals, three of the four NL teams with at least 20 third-order wins, as well as a lot more games with the Braves and Mets. Starting next Tuesday, the Marlins play the Diamondbacks, Giants, Mets, Phillies, Braves, Reds, Phillies, and Rays. Not only will they not be in first place at the end of that stretch, they probably won't be above .500. The fast start is an artifice of weak competition, and will be exposed as such shortly.