May 31, 2008
Can Of Corn
It's safe to say that not much was expected out of the Florida Marlins this season. After all, in 2007 they won a meager 71 games, and over the winter they parted ways with Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis. In part, that's why PECOTA, coming into 2008, justifiably tabbed them for a 72-90 record, a -77 run differential, and a last-place finish in the National League East.
Well, June is in the offing, and the Marlins, contrary to all forecasts, hold a narrow lead in the division and are on pace for a franchise-record 93 wins. The pressing question, of course, is whether the upstart Marlins can maintain this level of performance and continue surprising the analytical community to such an extent. So let's poke this hive and see if the bees come out...
The first thing to jump out at me is that the Marlins are but 25-27 on the year according to third-order standings. That means Florida thus far has benefited from playing a fairly accommodating schedule, in terms of both opposing offenses and opposing pitching staffs. That's a concern going forward. To put a finer point on it, thus far the Marlins have played 57.7 percent of their games at home and 67.3% of their games against sub-.500 opponents. That's obviously going to even out in the coming months. In fact, while the Marlins' have enjoyed to date an average opponents' winning percentage of .490, that figure will rise to .509 over the balance of the season. That's a meaningful difference, and that's the primary reason the Marlins' success to date should be viewed with some skepticism.
On a more micro level, the Marlins rank eighth in the 16-team NL in Adjusted Equivalent Runs Allowed (AEQRA) and 10th in Adjusted Equivalent Runs Scored (AEQR). Throw the modest run-suppressing nature of Dolphins Stadium into the mix, and you've got roughly league-average performance on both ends. Offensively, the Marlins are being paced by second baseman Dan Uggla, who's slugging .664 and, in a related matter, ranks fourth in the majors in VORP. Uggla's a genuinely fine hitter, but this level of performance may not be sustainable. In fact, he's on pace for a final VORP of 104.4 on the season, which would not only far surpass his 90th-percentile projection but would also be the highest-ever second baseman's VORP since at least 1959 (the back end of available data). As well, it's worth noting that Uggla thus far in 2008 has a lofty BABIP of .358, whereas in his two prior major league seasons he recorded BABIPs of .309 and .279. So, while he's been damned impressive thus far, it's had to imagine that he's going to keep it up.
On the pitching-and-defense front, the Marlins owe much of their run-prevention success to the bullpen. In the NL, just the Phillies and Cubs have a lower bullpen ERA than the Marlins, and at this writing the Fish have three relievers--Doug Waechter, Reynel Pinto, and Kevin Gregg--in the top 30 in all of baseball according to Adjusted Runs Prevented. Waechter (he of the career mark of 5.78 RA) likely won't keep it up, but what of Pinto and Gregg? Pinto's currently besting his 90th percentile, and his 80 walks in 121 2/3 career innings suggest a regression to the mean is in order. As for Gregg, he's also busting up his 90th, and history says he's in over his head. So the Marlins' three best relievers may be in for a correction in terms of the level of their performances. Of course, they're relievers, and relievers are more prone to/capable of aberrant performances, so we'll see.
Elsewhere, the Marlins are playing much better defense than they did a year ago, which probably has quite a bit to with their swapping out Cabrera for Jorge Cantu at third base. The rotation? It's been unimpressive save for the "meh" work of Mark Hendrickson and the somewhat niftier innings of young Scott Olsen. Getting Anibal Sanchez back in the second half should help, but under no circumstances is the rotation going to be a source of strength.
The upshot is that the Marlins, by virtue of their hot, surprising start, will almost certainly exceed reasonable projections this season. At the same time, they're not going to maintain this level of performance. Once you take into account the increasingly difficult schedule and the almost-certain declines of their best hitter and three of their top four pitchers, Florida is almost certainly going to make a move down the NL East standings. More to the point, I expect that, current straits notwithstanding, they'll finish the 2008 season ahead of the Nationals and only the Nationals in the division. So don't be fooled by what's happened to date.