The Marlins Finally Lose a Playoff Series

The Atlanta Braves finished sweeping the Miami Marlins on Thursday afternoon, issuing a 7-0 shellacking to knock the Fish out of the postseason. After holding Cincinnati’s bats firmly in check in two Wild Card games, the Braves’ bats exploded in Games 1 and 3, with a generally ineffective Miami lineup struggling to keep up.
Coming into the 2020 season, one of the big question marks surrounding the Marlins was just how effective they’d actually be at scoring runs. In 2019, the team finished last in the National League in runs scored, nearly half a run per game behind the 14th-place San Diego Padres. The Marlins added some veteran depth to the lineup in the form of Jesús Aguilar, Jonathan Villar, Corey Dickerson, and Matt Joyce last offseason — which feels like it was about five years ago at this point — and the hope was that with the team’s impressive stable of young pitching improving, they’d score just enough runs to become relevant. With an assist from a 16-team playoff format, that’s exactly what happened; the offense managed to support a generally solid rotation, and the weak bullpen (5.65 FIP) didn’t sink the team enough to drop it below .500.

That blueprint worked against the Cubs and their 10th-ranked offense and thanks to Sandy Alcantara and Sixto Sánchez, seven runs in two games still left Miami with significant room to spare. But shutting out the Braves is a trickier proposition and when Atlanta’s run-scoring machine ramped up, the Marlins failed to match it, leading them to be the first team eliminated from the round of eight.

Kyle Wright was not particularly effective in his first two starts against the Marlins this season, but the third time turned out to be the charm as the Marlins only managed three hits and two walks against seven strikeouts. Wright’s game plan couldn’t have worked out better if he had gotten to write the box score himself, with the Marlins either driving sinkers into the ground or flailing wildly against his breaking pitches. Six of the eight sinkers hit into play had a negative launch angle (-15 degree average), and the Marlins whiffed on 10 of the 15 sliders and curves that they offered at. The result was a famine of decent contact — only two of the balls hit into play against Wright had an expecting batting average above .500. Dickerson’s first-inning single off Wright’s hardest pitch of the night (96.8 mph) was quite nearly Miami’s only offensive highlight.

The Marlins had no more success against A.J. Minter or Jacob Webb, throwing what essentially amounted to side sessions as the margin was already at seven before Wright was pulled after the sixth. Jazz Chisholm, in the last at-bat of his postseason debut, came within inches of spoiling a second consecutive Marlins shutout with a blast off a Shane Greene sinker — Miami’s only barrel of the day — that just missed being a home run by inches.

Since not even Jacob deGrom has figured out how to hold the opposition to fewer than zero runs, Sixto Sánchez would have likely ended up with the loss even with a very good start. This was not a very good start. In three innings of work, Sánchez walked three batters and allowed four hits, leaving the game with the Marlins in a 4-0 deficit. These weren’t dinky little seeing-eye hits either; six of the 11 balls hit into play had an exit velocity in triple-digit territory. In a lot of ways, Sánchez was fortunate to leave the game with as little damage having been done against him as he did — his xBA suggests Atlanta should have collected 5.9 hits against him. One of them would have been huge, an .880 xBA Nick Markakis lineout with the bases loaded in the second that Dickerson snagged with a diving catch, helping Sánchez escape the inning unscathed.

Some of the fault has to come down to Sánchez’s approach at the plate. In his first start against the Braves, a very successful six-inning shutout with six strikeouts, he used his slider 21 times to mix in with his bread-and-butter: a high-90s fastball followed by beautiful, fading changeup. How effective is that combo? Enough for the change to be responsible for more than half of Sánchez’s strikeouts, holding batters to a .136 average and not a single extra-base hit. But in what was arguably the biggest game of his young career, Sánchez’s game plan was simplified considerably, with only six breaking balls thrown. The Braves whiffed on a lot of fastballs, but they crushed a lot more; this is a team that scored more runs than any other team in 2020 against fastballs.

wRC Against Fastballs, 2020
Team wRC vs. Fastballs
Braves 55.2
Dodgers 53.9
Mets 33.9
White Sox 28.8
Padres 24.6
Yankees 24.5
Phillies 22.9
Giants 17.3
Red Sox 15.9
Royals 14.3
Reds 13.3
Tigers 12.6
Blue Jays 10.3
Orioles 8.8
Rockies 8.3
Athletics 5.9
Twins 0.8
Nationals 0.1
Cardinals -0.3
Marlins -1.2
Astros -1.9
Angels -4.0
Rangers -5.5
Brewers -7.4
Cubs -8.8
Rays -9.9
Indians -11.0
Mariners -14.9
Diamondbacks -18.2
Pirates -33.6

Going fastball-change heavy and getting away from his breaking stuff, which is still not fully developed, went poorly against the Braves. Trevor Rogers had a similar experience, allowing four hits — none of the soft variety — and with the Marlins way behind, the rest of the bullpen could do little more than make sure the chairs were neatly stacked and all the lights were turned off.

The end of Miami’s season wasn’t a happy one, but taken as a whole, it’s hard to look at 2020 as anything other than a success for the team, at least when it comes to the results on the field (their containment of the coronavirus is another matter). Several of the team’s young starting pitchers seem to be panning out, enough to give the Marlins enough confidence to swap Caleb Smith for Starling Marte at the deadline. They have to be pleased with the progress of the franchise, but the (hundred) million dollar question still remains: what happens when it’s time for the Marlins to spend serious money to keep a star or add one?

Atlanta moves on to face the winner of the Padres/Dodgers series. With the depth in their rotation abysmal, knocking out the Marlins in three games is a big deal for the Braves as they never had to dig past Wright for a starting pitcher or seriously tax their (deeper) bullpen depth. Either opponent will likely be tougher than the Marlins or Reds, so the Braves and their fans ought to be crossing their fingers that the Padres push the NLDS to five games. At least whoever they face will be tired.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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3 years ago

It is obvious the Marlins didn’t follow the gameplan. If the Braves are good on fastballs, why are you throwing so many fastballs? You gotta wonder if it’s Marlin’s management, the catcher, or Sixto in this case.

3 years ago
Reply to  JohnnyRingoFWC

Sixto’s curveball and slider are still a work in progress. Only one of Sixto’s six breaking pitches was in the strike zone. Sixto’s cumulative fastball percentage was 72%. Because of his velocity, he got away with a number of pitches in the middle of the plate that the Braves would have squared up another time through the order. He should have thrown a lot more changeups, mixed speed and location, but it didn’t look like he had the best command today.

3 years ago
Reply to  hughduffy

Yeah, a pitching plan is only useful if you can command it. Look at the end of Game 2 in Dodgers/Padres. The Dodgers have used a very specific plan of attack vs Tatis and Machado in all 13 meetings with the Padres to great success: breaking stuff below the strike zone, especially on the outside half, with a dollop of fastballs in above the hands. That’s a pretty tried strategy, but they’ve gone hard on it and it’s worked very well (check out Tatis and Machado’s season lines vs the Dodgers; they ain’t good).

They brought Joe Kelly in to execute that strategy, because 2020 Kelly has been focused on his power curveball (in some of his Sept appearances he threw 100% curveballs, McCullers style), and he threw a ton of exactly the kind of pitches the Dodgers were looking for.

However, since he couldn’t command his fastball at all in order to show he could throw it for a strike in the bottom of the zone, Tatis and Machado were able to lay off enough of those below-the-zone breakers to draw walks. Without the fear of a low called strike fastball, the curveballs were resistable even though they were mostly executed very well, and he couldn’t throw the FB for a strike to punish them when they showed they weren’t biting.

A pitching plan to attack the Braves with non-fastballs is great, but if you can’t command your non-fastball stuff, it doesn’t work, and Sanchez did not appear to have that command today.