The Marlins Are Bad Enough to Have a Shot at History

Do you remember what you were doing last Saturday night, at about 7:45 pm Eastern? Perhaps it was a memorable occasion, a fancy dinner with your significant other. Maybe it was a round of drinks with your buddies to launch a raucous evening on the town, or just a lazy, relaxing weekend day that leaked into dusk. The Marlins surely remember where they were at that moment, because that was the last time they scored a run.

Indeed, it’s been a bleak week-plus for the Miami nine. They’ve lost seven games in a row, and so their theoretical highlight reel for the May 7-16 period would consist of a rainout and two off days. They scored a grand total of eight runs in that span, never more than two in a game in a stretch that includes back-to-back walk-off losses to the Cubs and back-to-back shutouts by the Rays. Did I mention that it’s been a full week since the last Marlins position player drove in a run, or 11 days since one of their players homered? Or that it’s the team’s only homer this month, hit by a 29-year-old rookie named Jon Berti? I kid you not.

Ladies and gentlemen, the 2019 Marlins are awful. On the heels of a 63-98 season, their first in a teardown carried out under the Bruce Sherman/Derek Jeter regime, we knew that they would be bad; our preseason forecast called for a 63-99 record. We did not envision them slipping below the Throneberry Line, the .250 winning percentage of the 1962 Mets, but at 10-31 (.244), that’s where the Marvelous Marlins are.

They’ve earned it, both in the karmic sense and the performance one. After all, this has been the most cynically run franchise in baseball for more than two decades of boom-and-bust cycles. I don’t think we need to retell in full the details of the free agent-driven build-up in the winter of 1995-96, followed by the teardown in the wake of their 1997 World Series win; or the unholy three-way franchise swap that made the Expos wards of Major League Baseball and the Marlins the property of Jeffrey Loria, who had sold the Montreal franchise down the proverbial river if not the Saint Lawrence one; or the build-up and teardown centered around their 2003 World Series win; or the “scam of the century” (to use the Miami New Timesdescription) that was the taxpayer-funded construction of Marlins Park, and then the build-up and teardown centered around that. Suffice it to say that the Marlins haven’t finished above .500 since 2009 and have ranked last in the NL in attendance every year since 2006, save for 2012.

The $1.2 billion sale of the Marlins from Loria to Sherman and Jeter closed in late September 2017, with the latter getting 4% of the team and the title of chief executive officer. Even before he had officially taken over, he ordered team president David Samson (a toxic figure in his own right) fire special assistants Jeff Conine, Andre Dawson, Jack McKeon, and Tony Perez. Samson would also get the axe as well. While president of baseball operations Michael Hill was retained, The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal recently reported that over 75 employees on the baseball ops side have departed, more than half of them by firings and non-renewals. Former Yankees vice president of player development Gary Denbo, who bears a great deal of responsibility for that team’s strong youth movement, left the organization to join Jeter as Miami’s VP of player development and scouting; he’s driven away many of those people — not to mention actual minor leaguers — with a noxious style that Rosenthal recently detailed at length.

Looking to trim payroll from a franchise-high $117.4 million, the new regime has traded away every star of note, starting with Dee Gordon and continuing through reigning NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton and the rest of the team’s young and potent outfield, Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich. Last year’s unenticing squad drew just 811,104 fans, a drop of about 49% from 2016, and the majors’ lowest total since the 2004 Expos. In February, they dealt away J.T. Realmuto, their lone All-Star last year. In two winters, they’ve signed just three players to major league free agent deals, all of them for one year. The largest of those deals ($3.25 million) went to Cameron Maybin, who was traded last July 31; this winter’s recipients of largesse were Neil Walker ($2 million) and Sergio Romo ($1.2 million). As part of Jeter’s effort to rebrand the franchise in his image of corporate blandness, the team changed colors and logos, and also ordered Red Grooms’ quirky center field home run sculpture — the best thing the Marlins have produced since that aforementioned outfield and the late Jose Fernandezdismantled. That’s some serious di2re2pect.

As a reward for all of this, the Marlins are drawing more flies than paying customers. Of their 23 home games, attendance has dipped below 10,000 17 times and is averaging just 9,360 per game, a drop of about 7% from last year. The two games against the Rays drew 6,306 and 5,947, respectively. Jeter recently made Chip Bowers, the team’s president of business operations, a fall guy for the team’s wretched situation, but as Deadspin put it, “Derek Jeter Is Unhappy With The Marlins’ Business Strategy That Derek Jeter Put In Place.”

The Marlins’ uncompelling mix of grizzled veterans and once-promising youngsters is scoring just 2.56 runs per game, the majors’ lowest rate by more than three-quarters of a run. The Marlins are two points of batting average away from owning the slash-stat triple crown of wretchedness (.218/.281/.307). As it is, their 64 wRC+ is seven points lower than anybody else, their 24 homers 11 fewer than anyone else. Walker, who’s hitting a respectable .294/.379/.431 (127 wRC+), is the only player with a wRC+ above 95, though the catching corps of Jorge Alfaro and Chad Wallach is in the mid-90s; everybody else with at least 10 PA has a wRC+ of 82 or lower. Brian Anderson, who hit for a 113 wRC+ with 3.4 WAR as a 25-year-old rookie last year, owns a 72 wRC+ this year. Thirty-eight-year-old Curtis Granderson (71), 35-year-old Martin Prado (82), 30-year-old Miguel Rojas (66), and 29-year-old Starlin Castro (58) have produced performances as fresh as last week’s chum. On the heels of last year’s 56 wRC+ (lower than anybody except Chris Davis), Lewis Brinson has taken this year’s 43 wRC+ back to Triple-A. So it goes.

The pitching ranks 12th in the NL (4.90), ahead of division-mates the Mets and Nationals, who are actually trying to win something. Even so, the team’s 4.74 ERA and 4.62 FIP both rank in the NL’s bottom three, and they’d be lower if not for Caleb Smith, whom Devan Fink recently noted has been quite good. From among the other starters, none has an ERA- below 111, and only Pablo Lopez has a FIP- below 112. “Led” by Romo, whose ERA and FIP both start with a “6,” the bullpen is more or less as bad as the Nationals’, which, yikes.

As I said, the 10-31 record is earned; their Pythagorean record is also 10-31, their BaseRuns record 11-30. They’re the 29th team to start a season with a record at least that bad, the 11th of the post-1960 expansion era, and the third of this millennium:

Worst Records Through 41 Games Since 1961
Team Year W-L W-L% RS RA Rdiff Final W-L Final W-L%
Orioles 1988 7-34 .171 119 231 -112 54-107 .335
Cubs 1981 9-32 .231 123 193 -70 38-65 .369
Tigers 2003 9-32 .220 119 202 -83 43-119 .265
Athletics 1965 10-31 .244 147 206 -59 59-103 .364
Blue Jays 1979 10-31 .244 149 234 -85 53-109 .327
Padres 1987 10-31 .244 158 235 -77 65-97 .401
Padres 1994 10-31 .244 140 196 -56 47-70 .402
Diamondbacks 1998 10-31 .244 147 230 -83 65-97 .401
Royals 2006 10-31 .244 154 251 -97 62-100 .383
Twins 2016 10-31 .244 146 220 -74 59-103 .364
Marlins 2019 10-31 .244 105 201 -96 N/A N/A
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

The Orioles squad that tops the list set a record by losing their first 21 games, though they didn’t come close to challenging the 1962 Mets’ final record of 40-120; they pulled themselves together and wound up being merely garden-variety bad. So too were virtually all of the other teams here, including the ones from the 1981 and ’94 strike seasons. The exception is the 2003 Tigers, who lost 25 of their first 28 games, and were 38-118 with six to play, five of which they won, two via walk-off. Can’t lose ’em all.

As for the other dreadful, sub-50-win teams of the expansion era, the aforementioned Mets were 12-29 at this juncture, albeit in the midst of a 17-game losing streak that drove their record to 12-36. Last year’s Orioles, who finished 47-115, began with a comparatively robust 13-28 mark. Meh.

Via our Playoff Odds, we can get an estimate of the Marlins’ chances of joining the sub-50 club. Here’s where things stand currently:

Marlins’ Odds of Various Win Totals
Wins Odds
36 0.01%
37 0.00%
38 0.00%
39 0.02%
40 0.03%
41 0.03%
42 0.08%
43 0.16%
44 0.22%
45 0.58%
46 0.68%
47 1.22%
48 1.71%
49 1.99%
As of May 16.

One of our 10,000 simulations came back with a 36-win total! Six such simulations have the Marlins finishing with 40 or fewer wins. Admittedly, those aren’t great odds (0.06%), but they are growing. Here’s a look at the Marlins’ chances of various levels of suckitude, as they’ve developed from the preseason, broken into 10- or 11-game increments:

Marlins’ Odds of Various Win Totals
Wins Pre 10 20 30 41
49 or Fewer 4.81% 1.31% 3.44% 2.49% 6.73%
46 or Fewer 1.51% 0.29% 0.83% 0.50% 1.81%
43 or Fewer 0.27% 0.06% 0.15% 0.09% 0.33%
40 or Fewer 0.01% 0.00% 0.04% 0.00% 0.06%

As you can see, this is the first such increment where the Marlins actually have better odds at joining this ignominious group than they did in the preseason. Again, not great odds, but something you don’t see every day.

If the Marlins get there, it will be on merit. They’re hardly the only team in the midst of a teardown, but the combination of the franchise’s slash-and-burn history, their stadium ruse, and the indelicate transition executed by Jeter — who seems dead set on alienating any of the team’s remaining fans — and Denbo lends their current plight a dose of schadenfreude. Time will tell whether the young talent they’ve acquired while purging their stars can produce a competitive team. In the meantime, their chase of the worst teams in modern history is the best entertainment they can offer.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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Sammy Sooser
4 years ago

What a tire fire.

4 years ago
Reply to  Sammy Sooser

Most tire fires are far more exciting to watch.

Psychic... Powerless...
4 years ago
Reply to  ElDiablo

And far less toxic.