Giancarlo Stanton's huge home runs powering Marlins' turnaround
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The Miami Marlins are the hottest team in baseball. That was true even before Wednesday night's 4–3 win over the Diamondbacks, which featured its two biggest stars in leading roles—Giancarlo Stanton crushed a 436-foot home run to dead centerfield and ace Jose Fernandez got the win—but it bears further examination. It wasn't that long ago that the Marlins were making headlines for all the wrong reasons, first for getting off to the second-worst start in the National League (better than only the hapless Braves), followed by All-Star second baseman Dee Gordon getting slapped with an 80-game suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs last Friday.
Now, however, Miami is in the midst of a stretch in which it has won nine of 10 games, and Stanton has been a huge part of that resurgence. The 26-year-old rightfielder hit just .193 with three home runs through the Marlins’ first 16 games this season, which helps explain why the team went just 5–11 in that period. Yet during their current 10-game stretch he has hit .375/.512/1.000 with six home runs in 41 plate appearances. Those homers have been typical Stanton-esque monsters. The longest was the 462.3-foot blast he hit off the Brewers’ Chase Anderson last Saturday. Anderson’s pitch was an 81-mph changeup, but it left Stanton's bat at a staggering 116.8 mph, making it both the second-longest and second-hardest hit home run of the season.
Of course, Miami's success hasn’t been due to Stanton alone. In fact, the team won without him last Friday, when manager Don Mattingly gave Stanton a rest after the Marlins finished a four-game sweep against the Dodgers in Los Angeles. The winning streak continued anyway that night thanks to lefty Adam Conley, who threw 7 2/3 hitless innings before being removed due to an elevated pitch count. Reliever Jose Ureña blew the no-hitter, but Miami still won the game, 6–3.
Indeed, the most significant force behind the Marlins hot streak has been their pitching. In their last nine wins, their hurlers have allowed a total of just 27 runs (their lone loss in the last week and a half came Sunday at Miller Park by a score of 14–5). That hasn’t been due to any dominant individual performances in the rotation, but instead to a general wave of improvement that has swept across the Miami rotation an ugly first week of the season, as well as the outstanding performance of the team’s high-leverage relievers.
In the bullpen, closer A.J. Ramos has nine saves in as many opportunities and has allowed just one run all season, striking out 16 in 11 1/3 innings. Rookie righthander Kyle Barraclough has the same number of strikeouts in just 9 2/3 innings, and he has yet to allow a run in 11 appearances. Deposed starter David Phelps has emerged as the team’s primary setup man by not allowing a run to score in 12 of his 13 appearances this season and striking out 19 batters in 16 innings. Those three have combined for a 0.73 ERA and 51 strikeouts in 37 innings on the season (12.4 K/9). That dominant end-game has been crucial during the Marlins' turnaround, as none of Miami’s last nine wins has come by more than three runs.
In the rotation, Fernandez hasn’t been as dominant as expected in his first full season since returning from Tommy John surgery last year, but after his odd 13-strikeout loss to start the season, the Marlins have gone 4-1 in his starts while he has compiled a 3.54 ERA. Similarly, Conley—who will follow-up his hitless outing in the finale of the Marlins’ series against the Diamondbacks on Thursday night—has posted a 2.77 ERA in four starts since a poor, rain-shortened season debut. Big free-agent addition Wei-Yin Chen also had a poor debut this season, but he has made four quality starts since, putting up a 3.38 ERA over that span. Meanwhile, sophomore Justin Nicolino has two wins and a 2.70 ERA since replacing the struggling Jarred Cosart in the rotation last week.
On the other side of the ball, Stanton hasn’t been the only hitter to perk up recently. Centerfielder Marcell Ozuna has found his groove, hitting .303/.425/.636 with three home runs and seven walks (he had walked just once in the season’s first 16 games), and catcher J.T. Realmuto has gone 19-for-37 (.514) with seven extra-base hits after managing just two in his first 13 games this season. Third baseman Martin Prado missed the first two games of the streak while on paternity leave but has gone 16 for 37 (.432) since returning. As for Gordon’s abandoned post at second base, Mattingly has thus far succeeded at juggling Derek Dietrich’s bat (.295/.415/.591 on the season) with Miguel Rojas's glove.
Certainly there’s correction to come, particularly for Prado and Realmuto, but Stanton, Ozuna and leftfielder Christian Yelich—who has cooled off recently but is hitting .333/.450/.489 (153 OPS+) on the season with as many walks (18, none intentional) as strikeouts—are all 26 years old or younger and have the talent to keep up this strong play all season. Prado is a career .293 hitter, Realmuto’s spike has been accompanied by power, and Dietrich is a good enough hitter to play somewhere in the infield every day, even after Gordon returns in late July.
It will be interesting to see where the Marlins are in the postseason chase by then. For now, they continue to look like a sleeper in the NL East, which is suddenly the most competitive division baseball. Miami is unlikely to catch up to the Nationals or Mets, but as the Phillies fade, the Marlins should continue to play at or above .500. A big key will be getting full seasons at the same time from both Stanton and Fernandez. In 2013, Fernandez’s Rookie of the Year campaign, Stanton lost all of May to a hamstring injury and Fernandez was shut down in September. In '14, while Stanton was turning in an MVP-quality performance, Fernandez was undergoing Tommy John surgery. Last year, Stanton’s season had been ended by a fractured hamate bone before Fernandez returned to the majors.
Both are healthy this season, and the team surrounding them is the best either has ever played on in the major leagues. Even if that doesn't translate to a postseason berth, it should make the team more competitive than it has been in years.