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August 12, 2008

Prospectus Hit and Run

Big Fish Story

by Jay Jaffe

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Given the buzz surrounding the blockbuster trades which were consummated in recent weeks-and even the ones that weren't-you may not have noticed one of the contenders who upgraded their rotation rather quietly. They didn't have to sacrifice a blue-chipper or even a B-grade prospect at the altar of contention, either. Instead, they were able to recall pitchers from within their system-a strapping rookie, and a pair of young, high-upside pitchers coming back from major arm injuries but primed to contribute down the stretch.

The team in question is the Marlins, who have been hanging around the top of the NL East all season long despite a PECOTA forecast of 72 wins, a run differential that's been in the red in every month except May, and a prediction of impending doom from just about every pundit who's weighed in on their outlook (myself included). They're not without their virtues, of course, starting with a powerful offense that's fourth in slugging percentage and second in home runs, with all four regular infielders (Mike Jacobs, Dan Uggla, Hanley Ramirez, and Jorge Cantu) having hit 20 homers already. Middling plate discipline hampers them a bit-they're first in strikeouts, 10th in walks, 12th in OBP, with too many hitters sporting strikeout-to-walk ratios in the vicinity of three to one-but their offense is solidly in the middle of the pack, sixth in the league in raw scoring at 4.75 runs per game, and seventh in Equivalent Average (all stats through Sunday).

Yet the Marlins have been outscored by 18 runs because they rank 13th in the league at 4.90 runs allowed per game. Their relievers have been very good, ranking third in WXRL despite having the highest walk rate (4.0 UIBB/9) of any bullpen in the league. On the other hand, their rotation's numbers look pretty dismal relative to the rest of the NL, far from the stuff of contention:


          IP/GS    ERA   SNLVAR  SNWP
Marlins    5.56   4.97    8.7    .472
NL Rank     15     13      13      14

SNWP is the rotation's Support Neutral Winning Percentage. It's something I've been discussing since last year, a figure which estimates the percentage of the time a pitcher's team would win a game given average offense and bullpen support. Our stat reports don't actually list this in the format you see here (yet...), but if you take a pitcher or team's SNLVA_R (Support Neutral Lineup Adjusted Value Added Rate, not to be confused with Support Neutral Lineup Adjusted Value Above Replacement) and add .5, you'll get that SNWP. Think of it as a sabermetric approximation of a quality start rate, and thank Keith Woolner.

Anyway, the rotation that plunged the Marlins into the bottom quartile of the league in those four categories is last week's Fish wrap. As badly as it stinks, it bears only passing resemblance to the unit Fredi Gonzalez is currently penciling into his lineup cards. Scott Olsen (4.04 ERA, 2.9 SNLVAR) and Ricky Nolasco (3.92 ERA, 3.0 SNLVAR) are the only holdovers left from the beginning of the year, and instead of Andrew Miller, Mark Hendrickson, Burke Badenhop, Ryan Tucker, Rick VandenHurk, or Eulogio De La Cruz-a group which combined to make 58 of the team's 118 starts while yielding a 6.38 ERA in that role-the starting five now includes Josh Johnson, Anibal Sanchez, and Chris Volstad.

Johnson and Sanchez, both 24, are coming off of injuries that cost them most of last year. The former underwent Tommy John surgery last August 3 after making just four starts, his elbow woes perhaps related to the rainy night of September 12, 2006, when then-manager Joe Girardi sent him back into a game after an 82-minute rain delay. He returned to the majors on July 10, 2008-11 months plus a week since surgery-and has pitched well in six starts, avoiding the command issues which usually slow down a TJ returnee's progress. As for Sanchez, already famous for a September 6, 2006 no-hitter that capped a stellar rookie campaign, he started just six times last year before undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum last June 21, a situation that was complicated by some roster shenanigans that have resulted in a grievance against the team on his behalf. He's made three starts since rejoining the rotation (including last night), pitching well twice but struggling a bit in a road start against the Phillies.

Joining that duo is 21-year-old Chris Volstad, a rookie who ranked 88th on our Top 100 Prospects list, second among the Marlins' Top 11, though below Miller, Olsen, Sanchez, and VandenHurk in the team's Under-25 ranking. The 6-foot-7 behemoth-"a finesse pitcher in a power pitcher's body," as Kevin Goldstein described him-has made five starts, taking a three-hit shutout into the ninth on his first one and pitching well in all but one of them.

Comparing the trio of arrivals to those whom they replaced (again, stats through Sunday):


           GS   IP     ERA  SNLVAR   SNWP
Old guys   58  286.1  6.38   -5.8    .399
New guys   13   79.0  3.19    1.2    .593

The sample size for the second group is obviously still pretty small, and the new trio's ERA has outstripped their peripherals by a bit; their estimated ERA via FIP is 3.78. Even if their performance level as indicated by SNWP falls, that's still a major improvement over the sub-replacement-level dreck that came before. Include the two rotation mainstays, themselves rebounding from 2007 campaigns lost to elbow inflammation (Nolasco) and "personality issues" which impacted his performance (Olsen), and you've got a rotation with a .543 SNWP, which would rank fourth in the league. By comparison, the Joe Blanton-model Phillies rotation comes in at .524, and the Mets at .547, though John Maine and Pedro Martinez rate as injury concerns.

Even with their new arrivals monitored closely enough that only four starts (including last night) have climbed to the 100-105 pitch range, the fresh Fish average over an inning more per start than their predecessors, easing the pressure on a bullpen that's third the league in innings pitched. With two pitchers coming back from major surgeries, there's always room to worry about durability, though the eventual return of Miller-currently in High-A on a rehab assignment as he works his way back from knee tendonitis-could provide some insurance. After an awful April (9.12 ERA), Miller put up a respectable 3.42 ERA over a two-month, 12-start span, suggesting that he's turned a corner. Volstad may face an innings cap later this year; he tossed 168 2/3 frames in the minors last year, and is at 124 2/3 combined this year, but with an estimated eight starts left should land within the "Rule of 30" parameters.

It's easy to dismiss the Marlins based on their speedy cycling from build-ups to tear-downs, or for their odious ownership, abysmal attendance, and general poverty. After all, this is a team that traded their best hitter over the winter and opened the season with a $21.8 million payroll, just under half the amount of the 29th-ranked Rays. Even laying those things aside, it's also easy to wave them off due to the meager expectations that greeted them at the outset of the year, and the flukiness that had them succeeding despite some awful pitching in the early months. But with over two-thirds of the season already in the books, that Marlins team doesn't really exist anymore, and while the current squad is no juggernaut, they're emerging as a threat in a division that likely won't see a 90-game winner. It's time to take them seriously.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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