Can surprising Miami Marlins make their early-season success last?
Their success won't please anyone who's still angry at the way Jeffrey Loria runs his business, but after two seasons as the laughingstocks of the National League, the Marlins are suddenly interesting again. On Tuesday, Henderson Alvarez shut out the Mets on six hits and on Wednesday, Tom Koehler and Steve Cishek combined on a two-hit shutout that ended with a walk-off sacrifice fly to give the team its eighth win in nine games. At 19-15, they've claimed a share of first place in the NL East and with the league's second-best run differential (+29) to boot.
Indeed, after taking series from the Braves (now 18-14), Dodgers (19-15) and Mets (16-17, but recently 15-11), the Marlins have not only shown — perhaps fleetingly — that they can beat above-average teams, but coming into Wednesday, they had put together the NL's highest third-order winning percentage at .629. That's their Pythagorean winning percentage, adjusted for run elements and quality of opponent offense and defense. In all of the majors, only the A's (.634) have a higher percentage.
Underlying the Marlins' strong record and run differential is a profound split that suggests their start may be unsustainable. They won eight out of nine on their homestand, running their record at Marlins Park to 17-5 with a jaw-dropping +55 run differential, meaning that they're outscoring opponents at home by an average of 2.5 runs per game; hitting .296/.364/.463 as a team — at sea level, no less — certainly helps. In addition to the three aforementioned series, they've taken sets from the Rockies, Padres and Mariners, dropping only a three-game series against the Nationals. The Fish seem to spoil in transit, however; they're a godawful 2-10 with a −26 run differential on the road, a margin of 2.2 runs per game. They've been swept by the Nationals and Phillies, and dropped series to the Braves and Mets.
All of this may be small-sample weirdness, but more than one-fifth of the way into the season, the team that lost 93 games with a star-studded squad in 2012 and then 99 with a scrubbier bunch last year deserves a closer look, because in the wake of their 2012 fire sale and the September 2013 firing of president of baseball operations Larry Beinfest, successor Michael Hill and company have built a squad with some promise. Of course, it helps to have two of the game's top young superstars in 21-year-old Jose Fernandez and 24-year-old Giancarlo Stanton, and both have been at the top of their games thus far. Fernandez, last year's NL Rookie of the Year, ranks third in the NL with a 1.74 ERA, second with 12.5 strikeouts per nine, and first with a 1.66 FIP — and he's helping his cause in the field and at the plate, to boot. Stanton entered Wednesday hitting .295/.381/.605 with a league-leading 10 homers and 38 RBI. Seven of those homers have come at home, where the entire 2013 squad hit just 36; some are allegedly still traveling.
Of the two, Stanton is getting more support from his surrounding cast. The Marlins came into the day averaging 4.73 runs per game on .271/.338/.424 hitting, ranking second in scoring, on-base and slugging percentages. Where last year Stanton was one of only two Marlins with more than 30 plate appearances who had an OPS+ above 100 (131), this year all but one player with more than 30 PA was above 100 as of Monday (Baseball-Reference.com's site has yet to update through Tuesday at this writing, so all OPS+ figures are a day old).
Partial credit for that comes via the additions of mid-market free agent Jarrod Saltalamacchia (.299/.400/.557 for a team-high 164 OPS+) and castoffs Garrett Jones (.261/.326/.443 for a 112 OPS+) and Casey McGehee (.315/.376/.402 for a 112 OPS+); the latter duo are the only regulars who are past 30 years old. A generous share goes to their scouting and player development department as well, particularly when it comes to their exciting young outfield. Twenty-two-year-old leftfielder Christian Yelich, the lineup's only other above-average teammate this side of Stanton last year, is a 2010 first-round pick who's currently hitting .281/.348/.414 (115 OPS+). Twenty-three-year-old centerfielder Marcell Ozuna, a 2008 signing out of the Dominican Republic, is hitting .276/.323/.439 (108 OPS+). Rounding out the lineup is a double-play combination obtained from their sell-offs; 25-year-old shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria (.289/.348/.397 for a 106 OPS+, 51 percent higher than last year) came as part of the November 2012 blockbuster with the Blue Jays, while 24-year-old second baseman Derek Dietrich (.254/.380/.441, 124 OPS+) arrived via a December 2012 trade with the Rays for Yunel Escobar, one of seven players acquired in that Toronto deal.
Also part of that trade was the 24-year-old Alvarez, who in blanking the Mets joined the Rangers' Martin Perez as the only pitchers to throw multiple shutouts this year. Including his season-ending no-hitter, he now has three shutouts in his past eight starts. Including only this season, he's carrying a 2.62 ERA through 44 2/3 innings, and while his 5.8 strikeout-per-nine rate is meager, it's well above his previous career mark of 4.5 per nine. Elsewhere among the starting five, 24-year-old Nathan Eovaldi (2.78 ERA with a 45/6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 45 1/3 innings) came from the Dodgers via the mid-2012 Hanley Ramirez deal, while Koehler (1.99 ERA in 45 1/3 innings) is the salty veteran of the bunch, a 28-year-old who was an 18th round pick from 2008. Fernandez, of course, was a 2011 first-round pick, 14th overall, chosen after the likes of Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer, Dylan Bundy and Archie Bradley but more successful than any to date.
The team hasn't seen much success from fifth starters Jacob Turner, Brad Hand or Kevin Slowey, but that's a comparatively minor complaint; overall, the rotation's 3.25 ERA ranks sixth in the league, their 64 percent quality start rate fifth. Of more concern is a bullpen where only underrated closer Steve Cishek (2.08 ERA, 10.4 K/9) and setup man A.J. Ramos (1.38 ERA) and low-leverage lefty Dan Jennings (1.74 ERA) have ERAs below 5.40, but the unit's 3.73 mark is still good enough for eighth in the NL and their 28 percent rate of allowing inherited runners to score is right at league average .
The Marlins have the youngest team in the league, and 43-year-old second-year manager Mike Redmond is comparatively young himself. Given their inexperience, the question is how sustainable this start is. At the outset of the season, Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projection forecast them for 69 wins, and even now they project to just 75 via that methodology; the BP Playoff Odds Report gives them just a 9.0 percent chance at reaching the postseason. FanGraphs' system, a 50/50 hybrid of the ZiPS and Steamer projections, more optimistically forecast them for 75 wins; with what they've banked, their upgraded target is 80 wins, and their odds system has them at 16.2 percent, up from a preseason 5.0 percent. Both systems are fairly reserved about the chances of most of their players living up to their current performances, with the growth rates of the young outfielders and Saltalamacchia's big improvement from last year offering the most hope beyond Stanton. The ho-hum forecasts for the rotation behind Fernandez — ERAs of 3.90 or above for the bunch — and expected declines from the middle infielders are the biggest reasons to temper that enthusiasm. In other words, the Marlins are still dark horses to contend this year. But in the wake of two embarrassing seasons, Fernandez, Stanton and company have surmounted justifiable apathy — not to mention a whole lot of front office turmoil — to become an interesting, highly watchable team again.