Why There May Just Be Hope for the Miami Marlins in 2019

As the 2019 season begins, Las Vegas determines the annual over/under win totals for all 30 major league teams and gives us a chance to examine intriguing over/under win lines for the upcoming season. Not surprisingly, the Miami Marlins found a spot right at the bottom of the list at over/under 63.5 wins. Will the Miami Marlins, under the ownership of Derek Jeter and the tutelage of Michael Hill, elude the worst record in baseball? Call me crazy, but there are a number of reasons why Vegas’ determination of 63.5 wins is undervaluing the Marlins.

J.T. Realmuto, a 2018 All-Star and arguably the last star on the Marlins roster, was acquired by the Philadelphia Phillies for Jorge Alfaro, Sixto Sanchez, and Will Stewart this past offseason. While Sanchez is a potential budding ace pitcher and Stewart has a real future as a middle-of-the-rotation starter, Alfaro is the most interesting addition for the 2019 season. He rates as a guy with incredible raw power when he puts the bat on the ball, with the only issue thus far in his career being that his contact percentage is quite low:

The K% is good for 245th out of 247 players (min. 350 PAs) and the BB% ranks in the 8th percentile among those same 247. By looking at his O-Swing%, it’s good for second-to-last and 16% above the 2018 league average of 30.9%, and clearly he’s not making enough contact at 61%. However, when Alfaro does manage to put bat on ball, the results are quite impressive:

How about a video of the swing in action? This ball, at 115 mph off the bat of Alfaro, was absolutely crushed, and I think Junichi Tazawa’s reaction says it all…

With more patience and a better approach at the plate, the Marlins could have something special in Alfaro. It’s evident that this improved approach could be on it’s way by analyzing his second-half statistics from July 2018 to September 2018:

Alfaro managed to cut his K% and increase his BB%, while performing as an above-average hitter according to wRC+. He made strides at the plate by lowering his whiff percentage outside of the zone from 28% in the first half to 25% in the second half, and his batted ball quality improved against breaking pitches, which he had struggled with mightily in the first half, as his xwOBA increased from 0.246 to 0.338 in the second half and his whiff percentage on breaking balls decreased from 34.68% in the first half to 26.52% in the second half.

Interestingly, Alfaro’s defensive and base running statistics may just be his best asset:

Finally, Alfaro has made legitimate strides with his framing behind the plate over the past two years, as he finished the 2017 season with a catcher framing rate (FRM) of -5.2. Since catcher framing has become more prominent over the past few years in baseball, this makes Alfaro further valued behind the plate for the Marlins, specifically helping Miami’s young pitching staff. Alfaro also possesses a cannon behind the plate, ranking as a 70-grade arm and clocking out at 90.8 mph, three miles per hour more than the next catcher on the arm speed leaderboard. Here is a prime example of Alfaro’s arm as he throws out one of the better base-stealers in baseball:

If Alfaro can carry over the offensive adjustments he made in the 2nd half, along with his already elite defensive ability, it’s not entirely unfair to argue that he could be just as good as J.T. Realmuto in 2019, especially with Fangraphs adding catcher framing data into the fWAR metric:

The Marlins also have an intriguing figure in Brian Anderson, who managed to put together an excellent rookie season, finishing fourth in NL Rookie of the Year voting:

The only knock that you could make on Anderson is his lack of isolated power. His average exit velocity sits at 90.2 mph, which was good for 58th in MLB, and he also had a 42.3% hard hit rate. This is a pretty good starting point to profile as a power hitter, but by examining his spray chart in R and his batted ball profile, we see Anderson hits a ton of ground balls and not enough in the air. You could argue that playing in Marlins Park could have a lot to do with that since it’s a very pitcher-friendly ballpark, but perhaps a change in his launch angle, which is low, could potentially turn into better power numbers:

Lewis Brinson rounds out the last of Miami’s intriguing hitters. Brinson has topped plenty of top prospect lists for years, and as per FanGraphs’ Kiley McDaniel, Brinson went into the 2018 season with a Future Value of 60, but he still finished the season with -1.2 WAR. Brinson possesses all the talent in the world, but he definitely lost his step as a top prospect with his rough stint in the majors last season:

It is evident from this rolling OBP R graph that Brinson struggled at the plate in his rookie season with the Marlins. It is possible that a hip injury in the summer months derailed him and caused him a lack of momentum. His contact and plate discipline skills are also reflective of his poor OBP:

Brinson swung at the 27th-most pitches in baseball in 2018 and generated the 7th-worst contact rate at 67.40%. When he does connect, it generates somewhat decent power, as he had the 99th-ranked FB/LD exit velocity at 93.7 mph. I like Brinson because he still carries a track record of success and plate discipline in the minors and the talent is certainly on display at times:

Nonetheless, the most important part of this club, and what I feel could push them to a 70–75 win season, is going to be the pitching staff. The Marlins carried some of the most intriguing arms of this past spring training and head into the 2019 season with a stockpile of young and undervalued pitchers.

Firstly, the pitching staff will be led by the Opening Day starter José Ureña. Ureña has always been a mid-high-90s guy, sitting in the 89th percentile in FB velocity per Baseball Savant last season, but he has never generated the strikeouts you would expect from a guy with that kind of fastball:

Although Ureña’s seen improvements in his K% over the three year period from 2016–18, it’s still below the league average of 22.30%. Ureña has started to go primarily to a two-seam/sinker and it has some pretty serious movement on it:

Ureña increased his sinker usage from 23.4% in 2017 to 55% in 2018, while killing his four-seamer usage from 31.3% in 2017 to 2.1% in 2018. This change was warranted, as his four-seamer had always been a troubling pitch, even at the high velocity:

It’s definitely an improvement, and although FanGraphs doesn’t classify his fastball and sinker as two different pitches, his overall ground-ball percentage increased greatly. Eno Sarris of The Athletic points out, “his four-seam and changeup mimic the same movement pattern.” Sarris is right, as Ureña’s FB and CH had the exact same horizontal movement of -8.7 inches in 2017 and only a 0.3 inch difference in vertical movement. Also, Urena’s slider rates decently well and could also use an increase in usage percentage in order to achieve better results, making him a completely average and useful innings eater.

Pablo Lopez is one of the most intriguing arms in the rotation, with potentially the most upside. Lopez saw a massive bump in fastball velocity during spring training. He averaged only 92.7 mph in his limited action last season, but he has been touching upwards of 97 mph with legitimate command as the season begins. Lopez offers a fastball, sinker, curveball, and changeup:

Although his sinker generates above-average GB% (league average = 52%), it was still hammered in his limited action last year as seen by the wOBA against. He finished with a strong 37.6% O-Swing rate on the pitch, but also an 85% contact rate at the same time. Lopez could benefit by keeping his sinker even lower in the zone by looking at his heat map:

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His curveball ranks as a strong offering, albeit with marginal spin rate at 2347 rpm, and his changeup ranks as a legitimate plus pitch and deadly weapon. Here is the perfect setup for his putaway changeup, as he sets up with a fastball on the outside corner before giving Michael Taylor the off-speed to close out the at-bat:

Lopez has also always thrown strikes and can command the ball, owning a career minor-league walk rate of 3.9%. There’s no doubt that with his mix of command, movement, and spike in velocity, he could have a surprising year down in Miami.

Caleb Smith could potentially be the leader of the rotation because of his strong, albeit injury-shortened season last year. He sat around 94–95 mph on his fastball during spring training, which would be an increase from his 92.7 mph average from 2018. He also pairs his lefty velocity with a high-rpm fastball along with two extremely strong offerings:

Smith’s fastball spin ranks in the 79th percentile and could see an uptick if his spike in velocity carries into the season. Additionally, Smith has the perfect spin rate difference of 539 rpm and velocity gap between his fastball and his changeup. Ideally, we want a changeup to have a lower spin rate compared to a fastball, because we want the movement of the pitch to be different, and pairing that with an 8.9 mph velocity gap between the two, it makes it a nice combination of pitches. He’s using the high-spin fastball to his advantage, as he’s getting a lot of his strikeouts up in the zone:

Graph Courtesy of Baseball Savant

While there are some durability questions regarding Smith, when he was healthy last season, he performed well against the league’s average pitcher:

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Smith carries plenty of strikeout upside with two pitches generating 16% swinging-strike rates to go with command of his arsenal that isn’t all that bad besides two starts in which he had five and six walks.

Trevor Richards possesses the biggest single weapon out of any of these arms in the rotation. Richards is the owner of one of the most deadly changeups we’ve seen in a long time:

Hitters could barely touch it in 2018:

It rates as a true plus-plus pitch, but it’s all that Richards has going for himself right now. Richards increased the usage on his changeup as the season went on, going from 23.5% in April to 37.5% in July, but he still threw his fastball over 50% of the time. The fastball ranks as below average in spin, velocity, and whiffs, while also generating a putrid 0.396 wOBA against in 2018. However, Richards still managed to put up a pretty good second half of the season in terms of K-BB%, xFIP and OBP:

Richards’ third pitch is still being developed and is crucial for him to take the next step on his way to a breakout year. With the improvement of his curveball and the introduction of a cutter during spring training, Richards could be in for a strong season.

Rounding out the Marlins rotation is Sandy Alcantara and his array of useful pitches that he just hasn’t seemed to put together yet during his time in the majors. Similar to Ureña, Alcantara carries a high-velocity fastball, but he doesn’t have a big strikeout rate to show for it. For a fastball that graded as a 70 for years on top prospect lists, Alcantara has not exactly fooled anybody with it during his time with the Marlins, as he had a 6.8% swinging-strike rate on his fastball that ranks as below average. However, Alcantara re-introduced his sinker in 2018 and it looks like it could turn into a legitimate offering at the MLB level:

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It ranks better across the board, and he should start increasing his pitch usage on the sinker compared to that of his fastball. It’s not everyday you get to see a 95-mph-plus sinker. Here’s the pitch in action:

Alcantara also carries a slider/curveball/changeup combo, although his curveball and slider could sometimes mimic the same movement profile. Alcantara could take real advantage against right-handed batters if he increases his slider usage even more from the 29.6% he averaged in 2018 against righties. The pitch was his best offering in terms of whiff percentage (44.8%) vs. righties and generated only a 0.273 xwOBA against. His changeup has plenty of potential, as it ranked as his best overall swing-and-miss pitch last season and also generated the lowest wOBA and wRC+ out of any of his offerings at 0.187 and 23, respectively. Alcantara also offers an extremely strong contact management profile, which is still pretty impressive despite a smaller sample size.

Although Alcantara can dazzle you with his raw stuff and contact management, he also dulls you with his lackluster command as he almost managed an identical K/9 and BB/9 last season with the Marlins. He didn’t make many strides in spring training to fix this, as he walked 11 batters in only 15.1 innings pitched along with 21 strikeouts. There’s a possibility that Alcantara never harnesses the command needed to succeed as a starter, which could happen as soon as this year, but his raw stuff is exciting and has potential. He’s got a solid foundation of three solid pitches in his sinker, slider, and changeup to work with, and he has the chance to truly succeed and lead the Marlins rotation if all goes to plan.

With Adam Conley and Tayron Guerrero coming out of the bullpen and Zac Gallen and Jordan Yamamoto warranting potential call-ups during the year, the Marlins may not be as bad as you think. Their rotation of undervalued arms has the chance to make some noise in a challenging division, especially considering their spacious and pitcher-friendly ballpark. With that in mind, don’t write the Marlins off for a 100 loss season just yet.

  • All Data Courtesy of FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus, and Baseball Savant
  • Thank you to Caden Shapiro for all of his hard work in editing and helping with this piece. For more of his work, click here.
  • Questions or concerns? Please email me at lucchese.anthony@yahoo.com

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Anthony Lucchese is a recent college graduate living in Canada and is currently working analytics and player development for the Baseball Development Group in Toronto, Ontario. He can be reached at lucchese.anthony@yahoo.com. Caden Shapiro is a Sophomore at Upper Canada College, a high school located in Toronto, Ontario. Shapiro recently published "Jays in Transition: Building a Strategy for a Sustainable Contender" on his school website, tbaw.ca. He can be reached at cadenshapiro@gmail.com.

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Kevbot034
Member
Kevbot034

I think the Marlins are a taaaaad underrated. I can’t see more than 65 wins, even still, but there is some stuff to be interested about on the roster. And maybe they’ll even grab some more if Granderson/Walker/Prado can have productive seasons and be traded to contenders for some kind of 35 FV guy.

Jim
Member
Member
Jim

What about Nick Anderson?

Operation Shutdown
Member

A well-researched article, though I might want to pump the brakes on Brinson a bit. His spring and minor numbers are good and the potential is certainly there, but most of his AAA work was with Colorado Springs. So far it turns out that it is harder to hit deGrom and Scherzer at sea level than AAA pitchers at 6500 feet. Also on parks, I seemed to pick up an implication that pitching-heavy teams like the Marlins are more likely to be successful in pitcher-friendly parks, which is an interesting idea (and one I’d like to see explored more). Unfortunately… Read more »