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The Miami Marlins Starting Rotation And Strike Zone Real Estate
- Updated: May 8, 2014
The 2014 Miami Marlins have been doing a lot of things right this season. A few of them have been quite surprising, such as the offense being second best in the National League (behind the ridiculous Colorado Rockies). Others were more or less expected, like the starting rotation consistently giving the team a chance to win. Except for the pesky fifth spot in the rotation which has already seen starts go to Brad Hand, Kevin Slowey, and Jacob Turner, the Marlins’ starting rotation has been stellar. The top four pitchers in the rotation, Jose Fernandez, Nathan Eovaldi, Henderson Alvarez, and Tom Koehler, all have ERAs under 3.00, with two of them currently under 2.00. How are the Marlins doing it, and can they keep it up throughout the season?
The most important thing a pitcher can do is learn to throw the ball where he and his catcher want it. There are plenty of guys who can throw fastballs exceptionally hard, but they won’t be effective on a Major League mound if they don’t know where the ball will end up. See: Rodriguez, Henry. Even pitchers who can make the ball move all over the place won’t have sustained success if they don’t know where the ball is going. See: Marmol, Carlos. Big league hitters are the best in the world at what they do, and even if you’re throwing 100 miles per hour with movement, if it’s right down the middle of the plate, you’re going to get hit eventually, and hit hard.
So how have the Marlins’ starters been keeping hits and runs off the board? Location. By putting the ball where catchers Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Jeff Mathis have been calling, the pitchers have been able to keep the amount of baserunners they give up under control. A quick look at their numbers shows just how effective they have been:
In almost the same amount of innings, the worst ERA among starters is still well below 3.00. Three of the four pitchers allow less than a baserunner per inning with Alvarez coming in a bit higher due mostly to a 15 baserunners in 6 innings outing against the Phillies on April 13th. As similar as their numbers look, the four starters have been getting their results in different ways. Fernandez (12.54 strikeouts per 9 innings) and Eovaldi (8.93 K/9) have been doing it by striking guys out. Alvarez (5.84 K/9) and Koehler (5.76 K/9) play a different game where they rely on batters making the outs themselves through weak contact and ground balls.
One thing all four pitchers have in common is fantastic control. While Koehler still walks a few more batters than he ideally would, he has the worst walk rate at a still-not-awful 3.38 walks per 9 innings. Eovaldi leads in that category with a thoroughly impressive 1.19 BB/9, with Alvarez coming in second at 2.22 BB/9 and Fernandez right behind him at 2.31 BB/9. But a pitcher’s control is more than just how many batters he walks. Baseball fans have all heard of the idea that a guy “throws too many strikes”. It’s important for a pitcher to be able to get guys to chase pitches out of the zone or to at least put the idea into a batter’s head that not everything that comes to the plate will be hittable. Hitters are going to make contact against even the best pitchers, so the goal for a good pitcher is to have them make weak contact, ideally on ground balls. The Marlins starting four have been excellent at doing just that.
In general, pitches low in the zone tend to be ground balls. This isn’t always the case, but as a rule of thumb, pitches up and out over the plate will be hit hard and far, while pitches over the lower half of the strike zone turn into ground balls. The Marlins have been excellent at keeping their pitches down in the zone and getting ground balls. All four are either hovering around or are over a 50% ground ball rate. Fernandez checks in at 49%, Eovaldi at 56.3%, Alvarez at 54% and Koehler at an even 50%. Ground balls tend to turn into outs, and even when they don’t, they usually end up as singles with the very occasional double down the line thrown in. Another huge benefit of having hitters hit ground balls is that they can easily become double plays in the right situation.
Here’s a look at every pitch thrown by the big four so far this season. You’ll notice that a vast majority of the pitches are in the lower half of the heat map, many of them in fact below the actual strike zone. This location has kept the Marlins on their toes as many ground balls have and will continue to come of it. There is a bit of variation on Alvarez’s pitches, but his ball has so much vertical movement that batters tend to hit over the ball and end up with ground balls regardless of the location.
One area in which the Fish must improve is in infield defense. If there are going to be ground ball pitchers, there needs to be guys behind them who can take care of those ground balls. Fangraphs has a statistic listed as DEF which is basically a number that shows how much above or below average a defender is for his given position. This is a useful tool because a first baseman and a shortstop will have such different chances per game that a simple fielding percentage or similar statistic would be almost useless. DEF takes a specific player, compares him to the other players at his position, and produces a number which makes things easy to compare. A player with a 0.0 on his DEF column is league average at his position. Anything above zero is above average with anything below that being, predictably, below average. The only regular infielder who comes in above average is third baseman Casey McGehee at 2.3. Shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria has improved from last season, but still finds himself a hair below average at -0.3. Second baseman Derek Dietrich has made a few errors and some other mistakes that did not count statistically as errors, and he comes in at a rough -.2.2. Despite Dietrich’s visible mistakes, he has not been the worst defender in the infield, as first baseman Garrett Jones checks in with the lowest DEF number amongst Marlins regulars, -2.5.
If the Marlins are going to continue to have success and win games at the rate they have been thus far, they’re going to need continued good luck. They’re also going to need to shore up the infield defense, not necessarily through replacing the players themselves, but by getting them to rework their mechanics, perhaps. A team with ground ball pitchers can only be as effective as the fielders playing behind them. The Marlins have been more than effective, they’ve been great, but it has been despite the defense, not because of it. The offense, as mentioned earlier, has been among the best in the league, as has been the pitching, especially from the starters. If they can continue choosing the right real estate in the strike zone, they should continue to be excellent, as long as the guys behind them can pick up the ball and throw it to first, and as long as once that throw goes to first, it is caught and turned into an out.
*Heat maps from the awesome http://www.brooksbaseball.net/ *
Author: David Marcillo
David is an English teacher in Los Angeles who spends far too much time reading, thinking, and writing about baseball. He writes about real baseball here at The Runner Sports with a heavy Miami Marlins bias. He also writes about fake baseball and is in charge of the Closer Report over at Fantasy Pros.
You can follow David on Twitter: @DavidMarcillo77 or you can email: email@example.com