The Marlins Were Awful. Now They’re Kinda Interesting?

Six weeks ago, the Miami Marlins looked dead in the water. They were 10-31 at the time, and given their tough schedule ahead, they had a small yet tangible shot at eclipsing the 1962 Mets’ record for the most losses since integration. Jay Jaffe covered Miami’s putrid start, and the details were very grim indeed:

They’ve lost seven games in a row… They scored a grand total of eight runs in that span, never more than two in a game… 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?

Miami’s ineptitude at the plate explained most of the trouble; the Fish were scoring barely 2.5 runs per game. They were also on pace to hit fewer than 100 home runs, an astonishingly feeble output in today’s dinger-happy game.

But in baseball, yesterday’s trends are tomorrow’s distant memory. Miami commenced a six-game winning streak the day Jaffe’s post went live, and they’ve gone 20-17 since publication — an 88-win pace. Obviously, they’re not that good: even terrible squads can string together a .500 stretch over 40 games. Still, the club’s recent surge has given them a better record than four other teams in the majors. Even stranger, the Marlins are… gulp… surprisingly entertaining!

Part of that is because Miami’s recent flirtation with competence has been a team effort. The pitching numbers were never all that bad, and the offense has scored nearly 4.5 runs per game since bottoming out in mid-May — decent production even before accounting for their cavernous home stadium.

Encouragingly for the dozens of Miami-Dade residents still tuning in, the biggest contributions during that stretch came from young players. Squint and you can see, if not a promising young core, at least the spine of a functional, club-controlled offense:

2019 Batting Numbers
Player BA OBP SLG wRC+
Garrett Cooper .315 .385 .503 138
Harold Ramirez .288 .347 .413 106
Brian Anderson .254 .339 .415 104
Jorge Alfaro .261 .312 .419 97

They aren’t all building blocks. Ramirez looks like a fourth outfielder on a BABIP bender, and for all of Alfaro’s obvious talent, there’s a limit to how much damage you can project a guy to do when he strikes out a third of the time and only walks by accident.

But Anderson and Cooper seem like legitimate cable news lineup anchors. Anderson posted the league’s quietest 3.5 WAR season as a rookie in 2018, and after a very slow start, his numbers at the plate are just about in line with last year’s production. The good-at-everything, great-at-nothing skill set has mostly gone out of style these days, but there’s still space in the game for a doubles hitter who can take a walk and bat .260. Top that off with solid defense at multiple positions, and you have a pretty good player.

The breakout candidate here is Cooper. Like Anderson in 2018, Cooper’s strong start this season came seemingly out of nowhere. Acquired along with Caleb Smith in what appears to be a pretty shrewd trade with the Yankees (minor league arm Mike King went the other way), Cooper is replicating his solid minor league production. His big league slash line (.305/.365/.461) is strikingly similar to the numbers he posted across seven minor league seasons (.305/.371/.473).

While we should always be skeptical any time a 28-year-old rookie scorches the ball for a month or two, there’s a lot to like about Cooper when you look under the hood. His average exit velocity is comfortably above average. He hits the ball hard pretty often. His walk and strikeout numbers are respectable. He’ll chase a pitch off the plate occasionally, but not so often that he looks naive or exploitable. His xwOBA and xSLG numbers are both ahead of his actual (already good) wOBA and slugging percentage. And while he wasn’t one of Miami’s top prospects, Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel called him a 5/6 bat with “the tools to start” in their rundown of Marlins farmhands this spring.

It’s easy to see why he fell through the cracks. As a bat-first guy without 70 raw power or a history of 20-homer seasons, he was never going to move quickly, and he’s been buried in systems laden with good hitters in right field or at first base. It’s far too early to say that he’s this kind of player: his current numbers are boosted by a lofty BABIP and there’s only so much weight you can give a 150 plate appearances. At the very least though, he’s worth monitoring.

While the offense’s unexpected vein of form has been a big part of Miami’s turnaround, the young pitchers are a bit more interesting. As a group, they’ve been pretty good this year. No team has accrued more value from their rookie hurlers than Miami and, with a pretty anonymous cast of characters, Marlins starters are 13th in baseball in WAR.

The key to any fun-bad team is having a lot of guys on the roster toeing the line between “potential good player” and future “remember some guys” fodder. In this arena particularly, the Marlins staff delivers.

Sandy Alcantara is perhaps the best example. The right-hander has one of the strongest arms in baseball, and he’s routinely touched triple digits. But with a low-spin fastball and middling secondaries, he has one of the lowest strikeout rates in baseball. So far this season, he’s made it work anyway through a combination of A) a ton of ground balls and B) just enough missed bats, thanks to three pitches that have generated whiff rates above 10%.

In Zac Gallen, the Marlins appear to have extracted more out of a player than prospect buffs anticipated at the time he was dealt to Miami in the Marcell Ozuna swap. Then a righty with a 45 fastball and passable offspeed pitches, Gallen’s heater jumped a few ticks this spring. He led all of minor league baseball in strikeouts at the time he was recalled, and in two big league outings, he’s whiffed 14 hitters in 10 innings. The increased velocity has not only pushed his fastball into the low-mid 90s, but it’s done wonders for the sharpness on his slider and the drop on his change. That cambio in particular looks pretty nasty:

In Jordan Yamamoto, the Marlins have another recent arrival dancing on a knife’s edge. He has even less of a fastball than Gallen, but he’s a true kitchen-sinker: He works with six distinct pitches, including a devilishly slow but spinny 12-6 curveball. In their prospect report, Eric and Kiley wrote that “Yamamoto was the best pitchability prospect in the Fall League” and that he has “advanced feel and command of several good secondary pitches.” Right-handers with fringy fastballs generally don’t have a ton of big league success, but he’s in the right ballpark and his feel for the craft both gives him a chance and makes him a fun watch. As a bonus, he’s got plenty of swagger out on the bump:

However successful this group winds up becoming, they’ll do little for the club’s overall notoriety. While the young arms and breakout bats may yet be solid players, they lack the star power of Christian Yelich, or the otherworldly talents of Giancarlo Stanton and the late Jose Fernandez. If that core of players couldn’t put fans in the seats, it’s unlikely that this one will attract anything more than a few wandering eyes on MLB.TV.

And that’s a shame. Whether Miami is actually good or not is for time and the player development staff to sort out. But now that the Marlins have rounded into passable shape offensively, this is actually a pretty interesting club. There are a bunch of young players finding their way here, many of whom have burst onto the scene without a significant prospect pedigree. If you don’t want to root for a winner, you might as well pull for the biggest underdogs.

We hoped you liked reading The Marlins Were Awful. Now They’re Kinda Interesting? by Brendan Gawlowski!

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sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

I read an article saying the Marlins wanted to trade one of their starting pitchers for a middle of the order bat. My first thought was: They aren’t seriously thinking about displacing Garrett Cooper, are they?