After an abysmal start to the season, followed by a surprising June, it’s fair to begin wondering what the Marlins are, exactly. Are they the team that looked like it had never even seen a baseball in April, or are they the promising young upstarts that looked like the future of the NL East in June?
In order to help us understand what we’re seeing, I called upon one of the smartest, most informed people I know, Michael Jong, managing editor of SB Nation’s FishStripes, super-duper stat dork, and all-around great guy. He’ll walk us through some of the numbers and statistics that you may or may not have even known existed, give us his take on what’s been going on with the Marlins this year, and offer a glimpse into what he thinks could be the club’s future.
Page Q: The Marlins won 14 games in April and May combined. They then won 15 games in June alone. Here’s the thing, though. In the first two months of the season, they were 6-13 in one-run games with (roughly) a .264 BABIP. In June, they were 5-2 in one-run games with a .299 BABIP. Two statistics that are largely out of their control. So, did the Marlins turn some kind of corner or just run into a stretch of good luck? Or should we just not read too far into any of that, good or bad?
Michael Jong: The Marlins ran into an extended stretch of bad luck in April and May, combined with the fact that the team’s offense was extremely untalented during those months. The returns of Giancarlo Stanton and Logan Morrison have been a huge boost, and combined with better luck on balls in play, the team has regressed a little towards their preseason expectations. Even going 5-2 in one-run games is only a two-win swing most likely, so it is not as if the Fish were so fortunate in June. Things definitely swung their way, but a good deal of their relative success was also based on better performance from better players.
PQ: What’s one statistic you find most interesting about this Miami Marlins team?
MJ: Despite their performance in June, the most interesting statistic for the 2013 Miami Marlins remains this number: .279. That is the team’s wOBA (Weighted On Base Average) for the season. wOBA represents an all-offense statistic that accounts for the performance of all batting numbers and puts them together in one number scaled to OBP. Since the scoring environment changed in 2009, no team has hit worse than a .283 wOBA over a full-season (the 2011 Mariners, if you need to know).
The Marlins are on their way to an ugly low in recent history, and given the lineup the team is running out there on a day-to-day basis, it is difficult to imagine them avoiding this black mark. Outside of Stanton and Morrison, no other Marlin has hit above average thus far this season. The team is regularly throwing out players like Jeff Mathis and Adeiny Hechavarria into their lineups, while putting unproven guys like Ed Lucas or veteran zombies like Placido Polanco in prominent lineup spots. When five or six out of your nine lineup spots are guys hitting worse than Erick Aybar (.290/.307/.382) or John Buck (.218/.284/.394), you are not doing well for yourself.
PQ: That the Marlins are on pace to be the worst hitting team ever in baseball isn’t all that surprising. Especially when you consider, like you said, they’re routinely playing guys named Ed Lucas and Jeff Mathis, who may or may not also be car salesmen. (Prove they aren’t.) I’m curious to understand why the numbers are so bad, though. Taking a closer look at their batted balls numbers, we can see that the Marlins don’t rank very high at anything that isn’t ground balls or pop-ups. That means something. I know it does. You’re much better at understanding these numbers than I am. What conclusions can we reasonably draw from this?
MJ: What that means is that a good reason for the team’s current .275 BABIP is that the club hits the ball pretty weakly. That is an expected side effect of employing Placido Polanco, Juan Pierre, Adeiny Hechavarria, Jeff Mathis, and Ed Lucas, among others. The fact is that, while those players might have been a bit unlucky, they’re also a fair bit bad. As I mentioned, the Marlins are a bad-hitting team that ran into bad luck, and that has translated into one of the worst-hitting teams in the modern era. And when you’re this bad, people gloss over the fact that you might have been unlucky and focus on the fact that every ball you hit is a weak grounder to short. That becomes the narrative, and it’s not entirely an untrue one.
PQ: The Marlins Infiniti Scam™
Step 1: Have many prospects.
Step 2: Have, like, one of those prospects develop.
Step 3: Don’t build around him at all while he’s developing.
Step 4: The rest of the team winds up being no good; might as well trade him for many prospects.
Step 5: Repeat.
It allows the organization to keep payroll low while always looking like they’re only a season or two away from turning that proverbial corner. Is this truly a scam or just a well-intentioned, yet terribly flawed baseball plan? And how does it ever get fixed?
MJ: I’ve discussed this before, and I am perfectly OK with characterizing much-maligned Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria as an incompetent owner rather than a sleazy one. While it has gotten extremely difficult to believe the things that Loria says about wanting to watch over a competitive franchise, he may actually be well-intentioned and just inept at running a baseball team.
The Infiniti Scam that you proposed may just be how the Marlins do business because their leader has no idea how to properly do business. While those one or two prospects flourish, the Marlins do not capitalize (think the 2008 to 2010 versions of this team). When they build and it doesn’t work, they panic and reset too quickly (think 2012). Combine that with poor drafting until recently and the Marlins were left with very little to work with. It is possible that this is not some evil scam to earn a new stadium and your hard-earned money, but rather the moves of a baseball owner who wants to be too involved with player transactions without knowing much about baseball.
Sure, it paints Loria in a more positive light (stupid, I suppose, is better than mean), but it’s probably the best way to portray Loria at this point. Neither view, however, gives the Marlins much hope without the removal of the man in charge. And let’s face it, that will not happen for a long time. Either Loria discovers the error of his ways, moronic or malicious, or the Marlins will need a complete overhaul of the ownership and front office.
PQ: Let’s say Loria isn’t a scumbag and he really is just plain incompetent. That means there’s hope. Sort of. Who are the guys Marlins fans should be most excited about and what would you say is their realistic potential?
MJ: The Marlins thankfully have a large number of promising players coming down the pipeline, and part of the reason for that is precisely because the franchise made its monumental November fire sale trade. Loria may have been wrong to make that move, but no one can deny that, from a baseball standpoint, the Marlins both shed significant salary and got good talent back. Jake Marisnick and Justin Nicolino are top-100 prospect talents, and combined with the group of young future stars such as Jose Fernandez and Christian Yelich, the future could be bright for the Fish within the next two years.
Marisnick is the sort of toolsy raw outfielder who could turn into the next Austin Jackson or the next Cameron Maybin. Yelich is a polished young hitter with athleticism in the outfield who could match defensive prowess with an advanced plate approach. Think of him as an athletic outfielder with Logan Morrison’s type of plate approach. Andrew Heaney, last season’s top draft pick, is mowing through High-A Jupiter on the way to a future #3 starting career. Nicolino is doing the same and got his ticket to Double-A.
Those talents should add up to the current crop of young players in the big leagues to make for a watchable team as early as next season!
PQ: And finally, the question most of us don’t even like thinking about. What are your thoughts on trading Giancarlo Stanton? Assuming he’s willing to re-sign, is it worth it to lock him up with the hope that the new guys around him pan out? Or are they better off getting what they can sooner, rather than wait till his value begins to drop? (This is a trick question, because we both know that whatever they choose will ultimately wind up being the wrong decision.)
MJ: Trading Stanton is an interesting question. Right now, the Marlins would not be able to get fair value for him in the trade market, in the same way that no team could offer fair value for Mike Trout in a trade. But the time for a fair deal is approaching as he reaches arbitration for the first time next year, and if the team has no chance of signing him to an extension that will buy out future free agent years, the Marlins should explore their options.
The tides turn if Stanton is willing to sign a deal akin to his predecessors in the outfield. Guys like Andrew McCutchen have signed long-term contracts despite being superstar talents, and Stanton has just enough question marks regarding health and his 2013 struggles that his demands should be somewhat diminished once the two parties get together. Signing Stanton would absolutely be preferable to trading Stanton.