How Close To The Playoffs Would the Marlins Be With Jose Fernandez?

When Jose Fernandez blew out his elbow in May, the baseball world wept, rightfully so. It didn’t matter if you were a Marlins fan or not, it only mattered that one of the brightest young stars in baseball was gone, just one of a billion (probably) pitchers to learn that pitching is really, really unhealthy. It wasn’t fair, in the same way that it wasn’t fair when Matt Harvey went down, or when Stephen Strasburg was injured before that. Never love a pitcher. They’ll just let you down.

If it was sad for baseball, it was all but certain doom for the Marlins. They had Giancarlo Stanton, sure, and a few interesting young players, but they also had little rotation depth, an infield that was supposedly going to be duct-taped together by guys who sort of looked like they might have once been Casey McGehee, Rafael Furcal, Garrett Jones and Jeff Baker, and two tough competitors in the NL East. Even with Fernandez, it was going to be a tough run to the playoffs. Without him? Impossible.

As expected, the Marlins are not going to make the playoffs. As completely unexpected, the Marlins have not only not collapsed without Fernandez, they’ve hung in there all season long. A win last night over Milwaukee would have put them at .500, on a four-game win streak and 3.5 games out of the second wild card. You can certainly make the argument that being the second wild card is barely “making the playoffs,” and many have. Of course, the Marlins have won two championships and have yet to win a division title. Considering how they’ve stuck around, did Fernandez’ injury cost Miami the playoffs?

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What follows, to be clear, is not science. It’s for entertainment purposes only. But what is baseball if not for the purpose of entertainment? So let’s do some back-of-the-envelope calculations.

Fernandez, in his first year, was worth 5.7 RA9-WAR. The preseason ZiPS projections had him at 4.5 WAR. In eight starts, or one-quarter of a season, he was worth 1.1 RA9-WAR, and at least one of those came after he was already feeling pain. If you assume that was the pace he’d keep all season — this is all about assumptions, remember — he’d have been at about 4.5 WAR. Let’s call it 5, because tenths of a point in WAR don’t matter all that much and because he was worth more than that last year. (I’m using RA9-WAR wherever I can, because for the purposes of on-field wins and losses, it’s better to use runs allowed WAR rather than FIP-based.) It’s probably not controversial to suggest that a full season of Fernandez would have been worth five wins above replacement to the Marlins. We’ll go with that.

Miami has had 12 other starters this year, and three have them have been consistent members of the rotation: Henderson Alvarez, Nathan Eovaldi and Tom Koehler. Alvarez, as I wrote about back in May, has been an unexpected surprise. Eovaldi has improved his peripherals, but not his run prevention. Koehler has turned into a decent back-end starter. Those three, along with Fernandez, made up four-fifths of the Miami rotation at the start of the season. Those three, at least when Alvarez returns from a stint on the disabled list later this week, still make up three-fifths of the Miami rotation. We can assume that the production they’ve offered would be the same whether or not Fernandez was around.

This is where it gets a little messy for Miami, though. Here’s the remaining starters who have appeared for the Marlins:

Name GS IP BABIP GB% K-BB% HR/FB ERA FIP xFIP WAR RA9-WAR
Jarred Cosart 7 46.2 .248 46.8% 11.0% 2.4% 1.93 2.76 3.60 1.1 1.8
Brad Hand 13 71.1 .283 50.0% 5.5% 11.0% 4.42 4.45 4.28 0.1 0.4
Brad Penny 4 19 .302 54.8% -2.40% 6.3% 5.21 4.59 4.96 0.0 -0.1
Jacob Turner 12 62.2 .358 50.2% 7.1% 13.1% 6.03 4.51 4.07 0.1 -0.9
Randy Wolf 4 20.2 .366 38.0% 9.6% 14.8% 6.10 5.01 4.13 -0.1 -0.4
Andrew Heaney 4 20.2 .297 47.0% 7.8% 20.8% 6.53 6.17 4.48 -0.3 -0.3
Kevin Slowey 2 9 .259 33.3% 13.5% 7.1% 7.00 3.68 4.18 0.1 -0.2
Anthony DeSclafani 5 24.1 .325 31.3% 10.9% 11.4% 7.40 4.60 4.26 0.0 -0.6
Brian Flynn 1 4 .500 50.0% 4.8% 0.0% 11.25 3.12 4.06 0.1 -0.2

With one small-sample exception, it’s been awful. Let’s simplify this a bit. Teams need a fifth starter too, and for the first half of the season that was mostly Turner, who was terrible and eventually DFA’d, landing with the Cubs. Hand made two starts in April, went back to the bullpen (and the disabled list), and has been starting consistently since July. Those two have made 25 starts together and generally shared one rotation spot for the season, with some small overlap, and as the original fifth starter (Turner) and the first man up when an extra was needed (Hand), it’s easy to think that the duo may have held onto the fifth starter spot all year long if Fernandez had been around.

But since Fernandez hasn’t been available, the Marlins have had to continually scrounge up replacement starters from everywhere you can think of to fill in. They’ve given quick cameos to internal prospects DeSclafini, Flynn and Heaney. They traded for Cosart from Houston at the July deadline. They gave two starts to Slowey before releasing him in June, then somehow managed to dig up the ancient Wolf and Penny, and no, it’s not a typo that Penny’s K-BB% is in the negatives.

By our quick calculations, Fernandez would have offered approximately 4 additional RA9-WAR. The seven starters aside from Hand and Turner have made 27 starts and contributed -0.5 RA9-WAR, even with Cosart’s excellent performance. Without Cosart, it’s a lousy -2.3 RA9-WAR. Let’s be charitable and call it replacement-level, that the absence of Fernandez cost the team four wins. A 71-73 team might then have been 75-69. The Pirates have 69 losses. The Brewers and Braves both have 75 wins. At least one of those clubs is going to be involved in the wild card game.

But wait! While again, this is more for fun than it is for science, we can’t simply assume that a Marlins team with Fernandez leading it would have acted the same. As it is, they were reportedly “very aggressive” in trying to get Jon Lester. Ken Rosenthal said they looked into getting Wade Miley. One MLB.com report indicated they would have interest in James Shields this winter. The Miami Herald, in July, suggested that Tommy Milone and Ian Kennedy were on the radar, as well as Miley. Marlins president of baseball operations Mike Hill said that they’d attempted to get David Price and John Lackey, as well as Lester, for whatever that’s worth.

They didn’t get any of those guys, of course. They got Cosart from Houston, in a deal that was panned by some because it cost the Marlins outfield prospect Jake Marisnick and 2013 No. 6 overall pick Colin Moran. Cosart has pitched very well for Miami, and even if it seems unlikely he’ll keep it up to that extent, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s real and it happened. It’s also probably not likely that all of the interest in starting pitching was fueled only by the Fernandez injury. If Fernandez had been healthy and the team had been a few games closer to a playoff spot, you imagine that the team would have still been interested in adding a starter, and if Cosart was still the acquisition, then maybe they never need to dig up Penny. Maybe before that, Hand hangs on long enough so that Wolf and Slowey never need to appear.

This is all mental gymnastics, of course. You can extend this out as far as you want to. (“And if they’d acquired Mike Trout, they’d be in good shape, too!”) For a variety of reasons, though, the Marlins hung in there. Stanton, sure, but also McGehee, Alvarez, Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna, Steve Cishek and A.J. Ramos. They’ve done it largely without a great deal of help from the rotation, with a group RA9-WAR that ranks just 25th, above only some truly disastrous outfits. A healthy Fernandez easily would have made them a few games better, and a few games better is all they would have needed to have had a legitimate chance right now, in mid-September.





Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

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I think it’s a little misleading this season, because the second wildcard is on kind of a putrid pace (85 wins).

When they traded for Cosart, they were 5.5 games back of the second wildcard and the second wildcard was on an 87-win pace. I don’t think it’s crazy for Miami to make decisions in an environment where they DON’T assume that everyone will play terribly down the stretch and they might be able to get the second wildcard with 84 wins, or whatever their maximum reasonable expectation could have been 5 weeks ago.