How the Marlins Pitching Staff Stands Out

I like the Marlins pitching staff. There’s a certain charm to a rotation that mostly consists of farm-grown talent, and it’s a powerhouse, too. Sandy Alcantara and Trevor Rogers have become two of the league’s more reliable starters by virtue of their electric stuff, with room for further growth. The bullpen is home to a diverse group of relievers whose idiosyncrasies are so irresistible that we’ve written about a member of Miami’s relief corps not once, but twice – and it’s not even the offseason! Collectively, the Marlins ‘pen has accrued 2.7 WAR, good for fourth-best in the majors.

Rarely is there one reason for success like this. In all likelihood, the Marlins have excelled at pitching because they just happen to roster good pitchers. With teams increasingly tailoring plans to the needs of individual pitchers, team-wide dogmas and philosophies are harder to find. So what follows isn’t an explanation. Rather, it’s a series of observations I find noteworthy. Up first, here’s a graph showing each team’s average vertical break on its four-seam fastball (abbreviated as “fastball” from here on):

Though the gap between first and last is only a couple of inches of movement, we can still glean certain teams’ preferences. For example, teams like the Dodgers, White Sox, and Yankees have a predilection for fastballs that generate ample ride. You know the drill – throw them up in the zone and chances are hitters will swing and miss. It’s a tried and true approach.

Now, consider the bottom of the pack. Trailing the 29 other teams are the Rockies, which makes sense, since Coors Field robs pitches of their movement. Situated to the left are the Giants, then the Marlins. You might recall that the Marlins faced the Rockies recently. It was their first meeting of the season, however, and the series took place at Marlins Park, not Coors Field. The datum hasn’t been distorted, so to speak. Less vertical movement isn’t ideal, but there’s more to an effective fastball than that. To wit, this second graph shows each team’s average horizontal break on its fastball instead:

A quick note on how the data was collected. It’s possible to look at team-wide vertical and horizontal fastball movement via our leaderboards. This works just fine for vertical movement, but not horizontal. The number shown is an average of negative and positive values, which is misleading, since it cancels out arm- and glove-side run. To reconcile the issue, I queried and then calculated the average absolute value of horizontal movement by team. The results constitute the above graph.

Anyways – it’s interesting how the Mets, Athletics, Phillies, and Marlins are all tied for second place. It’s likely a tie wouldn’t exist had I included more digits, but what’s more important is that the Marlins are undoubtedly one of the top teams in the horizontal break department. At the same time, they’re undoubtedly one of the bottom teams in the vertical break department. It’s a surprising sight in the modern game, but a welcome one for sure.

If you’re a shrewd reader, though, you may have noticed that the Marlins aren’t the only team with this sort of contrast. The Giants are outclassing them, in fact – they’ve produced even less vertical break and are first in horizontal break by a wide margin. So why am I writing about the Marlins, and not the Giants, who seem like a more fascinating subject?

Part of it is because there have been a ton of articles about the team’s success, and it’s more fun to cover the unsung heroes. But also, the Marlins do something with their fastballs that the Giants don’t. One way to gauge a team’s pitching philosophy is to look at count-based approaches. For this article, I figured out each team’s fastball rate with the count 0-and-0, 0-and-1, or 1-and-0, all early counts. I then compared that to each team’s fastball rate with two strikes. Here, you can see a clear idea. The Marlins are the point in yellow:

In early counts, the Marlins rely on their heaters 29% of the time. With an opportunity to put away the batter, however, that rate climbs 39.3%. They’re pitching backwards, one could say, turning the established importance of getting ahead with the fastball on its head. But based on how the points are skewed, the Marlins aren’t alone in their endeavor; the Brewers, for example, also throw more fastballs with two strikes. What matters, though, is that the Marlins are the most extreme team in this regard, and numerous teams don’t make a distinction between early and two-strike counts. With a similar average fastball shape, the Giants actually lower their rate with two strikes.

Keeping this in mind, here’s an example sequence from Pablo López. Against Christian Walker, he started off with a curveball on the outer half:

López technically misses his spot, but it’s enough of an unusual first pitch that Walker takes it. Here’s the second pitch:

That’s his changeup, and it provides a drastic swing in horizontal location. Again, López misses his mark, but at the very least it wasn’t hung. With the benefit of hindsight, though, we know that pitch probably helped set up the next one:

There’s no easy defense against a perfectly executed two-strike fastball, and Walker commits to a swing when the pitch is nearly in the glove. But like those of his teammates, López’s fastball doesn’t generate much lift. The biggest concern about such a pitch is that even if it does its job properly, there’s a chance it will run into the swing paths of batters. At best, the result is a foul ball; at worst, hard contact. And yet, when batters swing at a fastball from a Marlins pitcher this season, they’re whiffing 23.7% of the time. For comparison, the Dodgers, that team with the highest average vertical break, are at 24.4%.

But for now, let’s move away from the fastballs. What also distinguishes the Marlins is their preference for changeups – per Pitch Info, they own the league’s third-highest rate of changeups thrown. There are indeed relievers who lean on the pitch, like Dylan Floro, but I wanted to focus on the Marlins’ rotation. López has his changeup. So does Sandy Alcantara and Trevor Rogers. Including Sixto Sánchez’s numbers from 2020, here’s some relevant data on their changeups:

The Marlins Have Good Changeups
Pitcher H Mov (in.) V mov (in.) Spin Direction
Pablo López -10.2 0.1 2:00
Sandy Alcantara -9.5 0.9 1:45
Sixto Sánchez -9.8 1.0 2:00
Trevor Rogers 8.4 0.5 10:00
Sánchez’s data is from 2020.

What do these four offerings have in common? For one, they all produce ridiculous amounts of horizontal movement along with minimal vertical break, which is the platonic ideal for a changeup. The Marlins like throwing the pitch for a reason. In addition, the spin directions of all four changeups – Rogers is a lefty, so his is flipped – are conducive to approximating that ideal. Getting closer to 1:00 would result in less movement, while anything beyond 3:00 is, well, not a changeup (I’m looking at you, Devin Williams). The vicinity of 2:00 is just right.

Knowing this, we can loop back to our discussion of the fastball. What’s the reason many fastballs from Marlins pitchers are more horizontally oriented? This is one potential answer:

CH vs. FB Spin Direction
Pitcher Spin Direction (CH) Spin Direction (FB)
Pablo López 2:00 1:30
Sandy Alcantara 1:45 1:30
Sixto Sánchez 2:00 1:30
Trevor Rogers 10:00 10:15

From López to Rogers, their fastballs are released similarly to their changeups. The further away from 12:00 a fastball gets, the more it loses backspin, so what we’ve seen so far makes sense. More importantly, it seems like the Marlins have made a choice. They could add ride to their fastballs by raising their arm slots, but perhaps they’re averse to sacrificing changeup movement in the process. That leaves the team with low-rise fastballs. But they aren’t as detrimental if they play off of the changeups and are reserved for two-strike situations. It’s certainly one way to equal what the Dodgers are accomplishing.

Of course, this doesn’t encapsulate all of the Marlins’ pitching staff. Submariner Adam Cimber uses a four-seam fastball, slider, and sinker, while Elieser Hernandez barely throws his changeup. It’s only a piece of a diverse whole, but it’s one that’s representative of the Marlins’ ways. Whether or not it explains why their pitching has shined is up for debate, but that they’re different from the rest of the league is undeniable. You’d think the team would try to incorporate more vertical movement, especially given the capabilities of their young starters, but there’s no reason to change what has been successful. Baseball teams come in many shapes and sizes. It just so happens that the Marlins have embraced this current one.

All statistics are current through games of June 13th.

Justin is a contributor at FanGraphs. His previous work can be found at Prospects365 and Dodgers Digest. His less serious work can be found on Twitter @justinochoi.

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1 year ago

Cool piece on a fun young SP group. Big fan of a team developing rotation talent