National League Wild Card Preview: Miami Marlins vs. Philadelphia Phillies

Aaron Nola
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Of all the novelties we’re going to see this postseason, this series is one of the weirdest. The Phillies and Marlins have never met in the postseason before. In fact, they’d never made the playoffs in the same season before; apart from a stretch from 2003 to ’09 when it seemed like they only ever played each other, the two franchises had never even finished above .500 in the same season before.

But here we are: Three games to determine who gets eternal claim to the legacy of Darren Daulton and Alex Arias, and more importantly, a berth in the NLDS against Atlanta.

These Phillies should be pretty familiar to anyone who watched the World Series last year. Seven of the nine position player starters from last year are back, if you don’t count Rhys Hoskins, who’s still with the organization but hasn’t played all year after tearing his ACL. If anything, these Phillies are much deeper, with Taijuan Walker shoring up the rotation, Trea Turner offering a two-way upgrade over Jean Segura in the middle infield, Bryson Stott taking a leap forward both offensively and defensively, Nick Castellanos recovering from a brutal 2022, and the late addition of fun rookies Johan Rojas and Orion Kerkering.

On paper, they should be significant favorites.

Tale of the Tape
Team Payroll Rdiff wRC+ Runs Runs Allowed ERA- K-BB% BsR DEF
Phillies $246M +81 105 796 715 92 16.2 1.8 -49.9
Marlins $110M -56 95 666 722 96 16.0 -13.6 -41.1

In short, these are two good pitching staffs, but the Phillies have been far better offensively this year. And their greatest weakness, defense, might not make the difference in this series because the Marlins have been almost as bad in the field.

Drill down into some of the particulars, and the story gets even worse for Miami. This entire series will be played in Citizens Bank Park, which got loud enough during last year’s playoffs that on multiple occasions I found my mind drifting to the limited tensile strength of concrete as a construction material, such was the extent to which the second level got rocking. Hoary chauvinisms about hostile Philadelphia fans aside, the truth is both the Phillies and Marlins won eight more home games than road games this season. That’s the second-biggest home-road split among playoff teams, trailing only the Rangers.

The Marlins also got to the playoffs thanks to a superb record against bad teams. Miami went 38–50 against teams with a winning record, the worst mark out of any playoff team. Against playoff teams, the Marlins went just 26–38.

Most important, there’s the injury question. The Phillies are startlingly healthy. Hoskins is the only player they’d conceivably miss who is currently unavailable due to injury. The Marlins, on the other hand, are putting duct tape over holes in the hull. Reigning Cy Young winner Sandy Alcantara is out for the season. Eury Pérez might not be done for the season, but he’s not eligible to come off the IL until the day after this series ends. Then there’s batting champion Luis Arraez, who’s been battling an ankle injury and has taken one pinch-hit at-bat since September 23. One imagines he’d have to be well and truly busted up in order to sit out a playoff series, but the question remains: If he does play, will he be compromised to some extent?

At the risk of being glib, we know what a Phillies win in this series will probably look like if it happens: Multiple light-tower home runs by Kyle Schwarber and Bryce Harper, seven strong innings from Zack Wheeler in Game 1, followed by seven more from Aaron Nola in Game 2. Another area of concern for Miami: Controlling the running game. The Marlins allowed the second-highest stolen base rate in the league this year, and despite the Phillies’ reputation for being home run-focused, Philadelphia finished third in stolen base rate this season. Turner set a record by stealing 31 bases without being caught, Stott went 31-for-34, and Rojas is 14-for-15 in just 59 games.

Our projections have the Phillies as the second-heaviest favorite out of the four first-round matchups, with a 58.3% chance of winning the series, which, going by the numbers alone, is a pretty hefty advantage. But the Marlins have 41.7% odds of advancing; if something with a two-in-five chance of happening came to pass, it’d be so unremarkable you wouldn’t even notice it.

So where does that number come from? If the Marlins do pull off the upset, how is it going to happen? Because, after all that preamble, the Marlins took the season series against Philadelphia, 7–6, and won both series in Philadelphia.

To start: Assuming Arraez comes back at anything approaching his previous level, Miami’s lineup is the strongest it’s been all year. The Marlins made a few big bets this offseason on older contact-oriented hitters to go with the acquisition of Arraez, the best contact hitter in baseball. And apart from him, every single one of them was a disaster. Miami’s first-half lineup had more automatic outs than actual threats:

Key Marlins Hitters, First Half
Name Position G PA BB% K% AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+
Garrett Cooper 1B/DH 70 281 5.7% 28.8% .262 .306 .445 .322 101
Jean Segura 3B 72 274 7.7% 15.3% .216 .282 .264 .248 51
Jon Berti UTIL 75 252 6.0% 20.2% .272 .316 .345 .290 79
Yuli Gurriel 1B 57 217 8.8% 11.5% .268 .332 .397 .314 95
Joey Wendle SS 56 175 4.6% 22.9% .270 .306 .393 .302 87
Garrett Hampson UTIL 58 147 8.2% 27.2% .248 .326 .341 .300 85

This isn’t a playoff-quality lineup. It just isn’t.

Two things changed during the summer: First, Hampson and Berti caught fire. Because they’re both speedy utility guys who can play everywhere, this allowed Marlins manager Skip Schumaker to replace some of the dead weight in his lineup. Second, general manager Kim Ng managed to wrangle Josh Bell and Jake Burger, two corner infielders who actually hit like corner infielders, at the trade deadline.

Key Marlins Hitters, Second Half
Name Position G PA BB% K% AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+
Jon Berti UTIL 57 170 8.2% 14.7% .338 .394 .506 .386 143
Jake Burger 3B 53 217 4.6% 21.7% .298 .350 .500 .364 128
Josh Bell 1B/DH 53 224 8.9% 23.7% .270 .338 .480 .349 119
Garrett Hampson UTIL 39 103 10.7% 26.2% .311 .379 .433 .320 121

Burger in particular has been superb since joining the Marlins, and he’s under team control through 2028. I’ve been waiting for a power hitter to come along worth bestowing with the title of “Miami Pound Machine,” Nickname Seeks Player-style, and Burger might be it.

Even with these new additions, nobody’s going to confuse the Marlins for the Braves, or even the Phillies. But Burger and Bell give them some thump beyond Jazz Chisholm Jr. and Jorge Soler.

Then there are the two pitchers the Marlins should be looking to target with this revamped lineup: Craig Kimbrel and Nola. On balance, Kimbrel has had a pretty good year, picking up his 400th save and making the All-Star team. But the past couple months have been rough:

Craig Kimbrel in 2023
IP W L ERA K% BB% Saves BS WPA
Through 7/31 46 6 2 3.13 35.9 9.9 18 1 2.55
Since 8/1 23 2 4 3.52 29.9 10.3 5 4 -1.23

From Opening Day to July 31, Kimbrel had 17 appearances with a WPA of 0.10 or better and five that were -0.10 or worse. Since then, he’s had two of the former and six of the latter.

The Phillies probably won’t have to rely on him as much in the playoff series as before; Kerkering’s arrival and Jeff Hoffman’s emergence as a high-leverage option will help spread the load around in the late innings, and the addition of Cristopher Sánchez, Michael Lorenzen, and especially Ranger Suárez to spot starter/multi-inning reliever roles will help eat up outs as well. But the Marlins have been excellent in one-run games this season, and if they come up against Kimbrel protecting a one-run lead in the ninth, they’ll know they can get to him if they make him work early in the inning.

The other potential weak spot for the Phillies is Nola, the Game 2 starter. He has been superb throughout his Phillies career, including in last year’s postseason, when he put the team on his back in Game 2 against the Cardinals. But when he’s not completely on his game, he’s vulnerable. The Marlins aren’t as well-equipped to exploit that inconsistency as last year’s Padres and Astros were, but Nola has not been the same pitcher this year. After finishing fourth in Cy Young voting last season, he’s had probably the worst full season of his career as he heads into free agency.

Nola’s problem is that he’s prone to giving up a big inning, particularly in 2023, when his HR/9 ratio was 1.49, the highest it’s been in his career. Nola’s LOB% this season was 66.4, or 117th out of 127 starters with at least 100 innings this season. The Marlins have already seen Nola three times this season; they beat him twice, and in his third start, they knocked him out in the fifth inning in a game the Phillies eventually won. By clinching early, the Phillies were able to skip Nola’s last regular-season start to get him extra rest, which usually helps him. But if the Marlins have an opportunity in Game 2, they’ll need to capitalize.

The last thing to highlight as a potential opening for Miami is the Marlins’ own starting rotation: Jesús Luzardo in Game 1 and Braxton Garrett in Game 2 — two young left-handed pitchers. That’s notable mostly because it’s unusual. The Phillies actually hit lefties better than righties on the whole; every Phillies regular with a reasonable volume of playing time has a platoon split of some kind, except Stott and Harper, who kills everyone. The two biggest platoon splits on the team belong to Castellanos and Alec Bohm, both right-handed hitters.

So why would starting two lefties potentially help the Marlins? First of all, while the Phillies don’t seem to care much about the handedness of their opponent, Luzardo and Garrett sure seem to:

2023 Platoon Splits for Miami’s Starters
Vs. LHH TBF HR/9 K% BB% AVG OBP SLG wOBA
Jesús Luzardo 159 0.7 32.1% 4.4% .215 .264 .336 .263
Braxton Garrett 156 0.7 25.0% 7.1% .211 .276 .324 .266
vs. RHH TBF HR/9 K% BB% AVG OBP SLG wOBA
Jesús Luzardo 582 1.2 27.0% 8.2% .248 .313 .432 .321
Braxton Garrett 503 1.3 23.3% 3.6% .261 .300 .448 .320

Both pitchers are not only more effective against lefties than righties, but they’re also much less homer-prone. The Phillies set a franchise record this season by having six different 20-home run hitters, but the two guys you really need to keep in the ballpark are Harper and Schwarber, both lefties. If Luzardo and Garrett can do that, the Marlins will be in business.

Garrett is also a very ground ball-heavy pitcher, 10th among starters with at least 100 innings in ground ball rate. The only lefties ahead of him on that list were David Peterson and Framber Valdez. And if Bohm and Castellanos are going to be dangerous to any left-handed pitcher, Garrett can be just as dangerous to them if he keeps them on the deck. The Phillies, on the whole, aren’t particularly double-play prone; they’ve got a lot of fast runners and flyball hitters. But Bohm hit into 23 double plays this year, tied for third-most in the league. Castellanos hit into a further 17, and Edmundo Sosa, who sees a lot of action against lefties at third base, hit into 10 double plays in an even 300 plate appearances.

Which brings up the last wrinkle in the left-handed Marlins rotation: Rob Thomson’s platoon strategy. With two lefties starting the series for the Marlins, what will Thomson do with Brandon Marsh? Marsh hit .215/.315/.358 against left-handed pitchers this year and .293/.388/.480 against righties, making him the second-most dangerous hitter on the team against right-handed pitching. Thomson gave Marsh 98 starts against right-handed starters, compared to just 18 with a lefty at the bottom of the opposing lineup card. In those circumstances, Cristian Pache or more recently Rojas has started in center. That’s part of a chain reaction of defensive moves that usually includes Sosa starting at third with Bohm moving to first, as opposed to Bohm at third and (usually) Harper at first.

Either diminishing Marsh, or getting him out of the lineup altogether, takes one major threat out of the Phillies’ lineup. Between Schwarber, Harper, Castellanos, Turner, Bohm, and J.T. Realmuto, the Phillies have other ways of scoring, obviously. But by putting a lefty on the mound Schumaker can force Thomson to react — probably not to the extent of the Craig Counsell-Dave Roberts chess match we saw in the 2018 NLCS, but it’s another thing for him to keep track of.

With all that said, the Phillies, as the healthier, more talented team with home-field advantage, ought to win this series if they play up to their potential. And the potential for a two-game sweep with something like a 25–3 aggregate score is definitely there. But the Marlins are here because they posted the second-best record in the NL in September and October, which allowed them to float into a playoff spot as the Reds, Giants, and Cubs faded away. Anything less than perfection from the Phillies leaves the door open for one of the most opportunistic teams in baseball.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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g4member
5 months ago

Interesting prelim analysis on the makings of an albeit unlikely upset (hence the term). This potential result usually gets written off after the fact as “that’s baseball for ya,” a true but boring statement. Sure, upsets can occur due to sheer luck, but as Billy Zane famously said ….

Personally, I’m rooting for the Phillies if only to make the Braves show up for work in the NLDS.