The Marlins’ Middle-Infield Magic Trick by Jeff Sullivan May 20, 2015 The Miami Marlins have been in the news this week, because they did something that’s at worst kind of stupid, and at best pretty confusing. But the Marlins only did something newsworthy in the first place because the team, overall, has been an early disappointment, and disappointing baseball teams tend to leave a few people jobless. But there’s something else true about even the most disappointing teams: not everything is going wrong. It’s kind of the key to keeping yourself interested — even bad teams have bright spots, promising spots. With this in mind, let’s watch Dee Gordon make a throwing error. This is from Tuesday’s game. It’s a weird play, but it’s ultimately a play that didn’t go in the Marlins’ favor. You can sort of understand why Gordon had the throw sail away. He had to hurry, with the runner busting it down the line, and as Gordon prepared to throw to first, he had his path crossed by Adeiny Hechavarria. That’s stressful and distracting! But, the error was ruled. It was just Gordon’s second error of the year, and his first of the throwing variety. I’ve included this play for two reasons. One, it happened while I was researching this post, so it’s timely. And two, it’s a relatively rare example of this Marlins middle infield not turning a ball in play into an out this year. See, up the middle, the Marlins have Gordon and Hechavarria almost every single day. To this point, they’ve been surprisingly tremendous. I know everything you have to tell me about sample sizes. I write for FanGraphs. I have to know that stuff. But still, I have a plot for you. This is a plot of 2015 defensive data, showing middle-infield UZR and DRS. Why both? Why not both? The Marlins are highlighted in bright, ugly yellow. The other highlighted point, I’ll explain a bit later. The teams with good numbers are in the upper right. The teams with bad numbers are in the lower left. What we assume is that the numbers are reflective of performance. Some people think that’s too big of a leap with defensive stuff, and I get it, but this is what the data’s showing. By Defensive Runs Saved, the Marlins have had baseball’s No. 1 middle infield. By UZR, they’re fourth. If you simply average those two, the Marlins scoot back into first. And Gordon and Hechavarria have actually been better than that. Again, by the numbers. Combined, they’re at +14 DRS, and a hair above +9 UZR. Taking a look at the comparable middle infields, one of them has Andrelton Simmons in it. One of them has Jose Iglesias in it. One of them has Zack Cozart in it. The point: This is good company. The Marlins are faring very well. And now look at that green point. What that shows is where the Marlins would be on the same plot if you plugged in the 2014 performances for Gordon and Hechavarria over 2015 innings totals. They’d be around -2 DRS, and around -3 UZR. So you’re already looking at improvements of 12 or 16 runs. I don’t need to tell you those numbers are big. In the recent past, the stats haven’t loved Gordon, and they haven’t loved Hechavarria, even though the Marlins themselves have been in love with his ability. Now these two have become something to behold, in a good way. The token .gifs of defensive excellence: Wow! Yikes! Zabadoo! Wowie wow-wow! These are plays where it would’ve been easy enough to see something go wrong. Hechavarria, for example, easily could’ve had a throw sail a few feet off line. Then these wouldn’t be outs, and they wouldn’t be amazing plays. But the plays got made. The throws were on line. Statistics measure results. The results of these plays were outs, so the Marlins get credit. Absolutely, some of this could be randomness. Maybe the Marlins aren’t this good. Based on the track records, the Marlins probably aren’t this good. But can we at least say the Marlins appear to be improved? They always liked Hechavarria, and now he’s generating the statistics. They just got their hands on Gordon, and the guy’s a former shortstop. There’s ability there, and people say good things about Marlins coach Perry Hill. Let’s consider Perry Hill. This was Hill, on Hechavarria and the statistics, in 2013: Added Marlins infield coach Perry Hill: “I guess the numbers don’t lie. I need to do a better job getting him in the right place, bottom line.” At that point, it seemed like Hechavarria was under-performing, statistically, because of his positioning. Fast-forward. From this past spring: “[Gordon]’s played a couple of years in the big leagues, and he knows what he’s got to do,” Hill said. “He’s got some things he has to work on. He knows what they are. And we’ve got to get those addressed in the next six weeks.” From later, some real substance: “Bone’s been great for me,” Gordon said. “Before Bone, I didn’t know to [move to different marks on different counts]. I was just being athletic and catching a baseball. He’s taught me a lot.” Bone is Hill’s nickname. According to Gordon, Hill got him focused on his positioning — not only between at-bats, but between pitches. Gordon says he’d never done that before, and maybe that’s all the evidence we need. From the same article, on Hechavarria: “Hech is figuring out the hitters and moving with the counts and that’s something he hasn’t done much before,” Hill said. “It’s what our system is designed to do — use the marks, play the counts. Dee picked it up immediately. You watch him, he’s probably moving now three, four times in the count to one hitter.” Again, here you see a player doing something he didn’t used to do so much. I don’t know why, for Hechavarria, it would only just start sinking in now. He’s not a rookie, and it’s not his first year working with Hill as an instructor. But defensive improvement is a tough thing to observe and analyze on the same level of granularity as things we do with PITCHf/x. We sort of have to take people at their word for certain things. If the quotes are to be believed, Gordon and Hechavarria have become much more situationally aware, getting themselves better prepared before there’s even a baseball in the air. Positioning isn’t all of defense, but it’s a major component, and one area where you could understand a meaningful step forward. That’s where we are today. However, much has gone wrong for the Marlins. They seem to have a defensively gifted middle infield. They always figured Hechavarria was gifted, but that seemed to be more about seeing him by his ceiling, instead of by his overall performance. Now it looks like Hechavarria is approaching that ceiling, as he’s polished some rough spots. And the Marlins have Gordon doing something he for whatever reason didn’t do in Los Angeles. There’s no doubting the athleticism. Never was. Now there’s also superior performance. So the Marlins fired a coach. Seems like a good thing there’s a certain coach they kept.