The Marlins Assembled a Dynamite Bullpen

It’s easy to think of what could have been. Bullpen depth is all the rage these days among contenders, so Jeffrey Loria tried to get in on the action by making an aggressive pursuit of Kenley Jansen. A last-minute change of heart ultimately took Jansen back to Los Angeles, so the Marlins were left without a shutdown closer. And then there was last summer’s misguided trade for Andrew Cashner that robbed the Marlins of — among other players — Carter Capps. Capps is healthy now, still throwing the way he threw, and there’s nobody else quite like him. Jansen and Capps — those are two sexy names. The Marlins have neither.

So I’m not here to say the Marlins have done everything right. I’m not here to say they have baseball’s best bullpen. You don’t draw big bold headlines by signing Brad Ziegler and Junichi Tazawa. Yet, wouldn’t you know it, but the team has sort of succeeded in accomplishing its goal. Although by name value alone the Marlins relievers are something less than a super-group, there’s an awful lot to like here; all that will matter is performance, and this unit ought to perform.

Dave already discussed the larger state of the Marlins pitching staff a month and a half ago. They’re short on ace starters but long on versatility, so you could see the team be creative. Everything in here is related to everything in there, but I want to focus on the bullpen itself, in isolation. And by our own projections, the bullpen isn’t great. Click here on the RP header. The Marlins bullpen ranks 17th, between the Blue Jays and the White Sox. One shouldn’t make a habit of arguing with the math.

Yet within the Marlins bullpen, we find two players who cause the projections some difficulty. Two players crucial to the Marlins’ greater hopes. In Ziegler, we have an exotic bird, a guy who’s never followed the usual rules. Ziegler’s projected for a 3.51 ERA, where his lifetime mark is 2.44. And then there’s David Phelps, a 2016 bullpen-conversion success story. As the projections care, Phelps doesn’t have enough of a track record. But, until last year, he had a different job. You couldn’t blame the Marlins for being optimistic.

Ziegler, yes, is 37. Ziegler, yes, throws what’s on paper a Jered Weaver fastball. At this point, though, there’s nothing left for him to prove. His unconventional arm slot has clearly allowed him to succeed through deception, and his three-year ERA is a match for names like Ken Giles, Roberto Osuna, and Craig Kimbrel. Among all pitchers who’ve thrown at least 500 innings over the past two decades, Ziegler has the second-greatest (good) difference between his ERA and his FIP. He’s a peripheral-beater, basically. Always has been, because he’s always avoided hard contact. His most recent ERA was 2.25. At some point, he’s going to stop being good, but he’s highly effective until proven otherwise. He’s a reliable reliever with a platoon split.

As for Phelps, he’d relieved in the majors before. He’s actually relieved in parts of all five years he’s been up, but he never relieved as much as he did in 2016. And that’s not all — his previous best fastball as a reliever was 91.4 miles per hour. Last year his season average was 93.7, up more than a couple of ticks. It followed that Phelps reached new levels in all of the major statistics. He was, fairly quietly, an outstanding high-leverage bullpen arm, generating the same strikeout rate as Cody Allen. Whether it was cleaner mechanics or just greater arm strength, Phelps broke out, and in cases like his, projections tend to be too cautious.

When you see Ziegler and Phelps for what they appear to be, the rest of the bullpen falls into place, and it’s easier to picture how the unit could be among the better ones. Another important reliever is going to be Kyle Barraclough, and he just posted Craig Kimbrel’s strikeout rate and Seung Hwan Oh’s adjusted FIP. Barraclough allowed a few too many walks, but that was largely a function of his deep counts, because he’s so very difficult to hit. He just had about the same contact rate as Aroldis Chapman.

A.J. Ramos has been a regular reliever for four straight years, and his highest ERA is 3.15. That was four years ago. Like Barraclough, he walks too many folks, but he’s succeeded in avoiding home runs, and he’s always been able to miss bats. And while Tazawa’s reliability fluctuated as a member of the Red Sox, he’s long been good for a strikeout an inning. He hasn’t run into walk trouble, and his fastball still gets into the mid-90s. He’s useful, and he’s maybe the fifth piece.

About that — here’s a very simple and simplistic table. I’ve included the Marlins, and some other teams expected to have fantastic 2017 bullpens. I took the top five relievers and averaged their numbers from last season. I know this isn’t the best way to project, but, for your consideration:

Average of Top 5 Relievers, 2016
Team ERA- FIP-
Indians 56 67
Orioles 62 79
Marlins 68 74
Dodgers 68 79
Cubs 73 73
Yankees 77 77

By those measures, the Marlins belong. They’re not the Indians, but, who are? A problem here is that the best projections consider more than just a single year of data, but what I want to demonstrate is how good the Marlins can look if you give Ziegler and Phelps their proper due. If you figure they’re better than what the current projections give them credit for, then the Marlins bullpen becomes both strong and deep.

Now, every bullpen needs more than five pitchers. Current rumors suggest the Marlins are planning to open with eight. You might also notice that the five relievers I’ve highlighted all throw with their right arms. The best southpaw out there might be Hunter Cervenka. That is, at present, one potential vulnerability, and it’s something I’m sure the Marlins would like to resolve. Yet overall talent is the most important thing, and I should say the unit does go more than five deep. Dustin McGowan just had a healthy season with whiffs, grounders, and a fastball at 95. Nick Wittgren was all over the strike zone as a rookie. Brian Ellington is around, and his average fastball last year came in at 98. He threw strikes while simultaneously missing bats in the zone.

I’m not sure if the Marlins are good enough to contend, at least for six months. The starting rotation is legitimately weak, and it’s not yet clear just how the team is going to try to compensate for that. And even among the relievers, you wonder if not having a good lefty will pose a significant problem. The Marlins are the third-best team in their own division, and they know hanging around is going to be a struggle. But a good bullpen can tip the run-differential game when the innings matter the most. The Marlins seem to have a strength out there, even if it’s short on statistical sex appeal. They missed on Jansen, and they’ll probably miss Capps. You yourself shouldn’t miss what the Marlins still have.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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wily momember
7 years ago

should fish really have dynamite