Statcast Goofin’, Vol. 2: The weird and weirdly fun Miami Marlins

Even the idea of writing the title of this piece felt a little off. The fun Miami Marlins? The same franchise that sold everything it could the second they had any type of success? The franchise that, prior to 2020, had made the playoffs twice ever and won the World Series both times? The Marlins, a team that’s never won their division and finished above .500 for the fifth time ever last season (out of 28 tries) at 31-29? This is all before we get to how they routinely played in empty stadiums in a pre-COVID time and that they’ve ranked in the bottom five in MLB attendance every year from 2001 to now except for 2012, the first year of their new ballpark.

Yes, I’ve elected to write about the fun Miami Marlins. Even if you get past all those qualifiers, you’ll have to stick with me here past the surface level of fun, because the Marlins meet very few of the traditional requirements I’d look for. As of May 20, Miami ranks 24th in runs scored per game, 26th in Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA), and 27th in strikeout rate. Statcast offers these Marlins as weak hitters, too: their average exit velocity ranks 24th (one spot below the Orioles), they have fewer hard-hit balls (385) than all but five other teams, and dead last in MLB in expected Weighted On-Base Average.

When everything shakes out after small sample sizes become larger, the Marlins are most likely going to end up being one of the five worst offenses in the league. This is all before we pay attention to how they rank eighth-best in runs allowed per game and fourth-best in average exit velocity allowed. If you attend a Marlins game this year, the odds you’re going to see a low-scoring game are higher than almost any other team in baseball. If you attend a Marlins-Mets game, you should probably stay at home instead.

So now that you have all of that in mind, please take me seriously when I say the Marlins – 19-23, currently fourth in the NL East, with playoff odds on Fangraphs of 0.8% – are one of the most aesthetically enjoyable watches you can have in baseball this season. Do they hit like the Astros, White Sox, or Dodgers? No, but they have one budding star and a wide collection of weird also-rans that keep them entertaining. To go with that, they’ve got three of the game’s best young pitchers, all of whom may already be top 50ish pitchers in the league, all of whom are 25 or younger. Let’s explore these weirdos who have great uniforms and reside in one of the strangest stadiums in America.

Also, they just unveiled these utterly amazing new uniforms.

Smooth Jazz is the young star Miami deserves

Of the cities I’ve personally been to, Miami is a strange one. It’s like this weird clash of party culture combined with gorgeous architecture; nothing about what you see in Miami makes all that much sense, but it dances together. It’s a fascinatingly unique place, which is why Jazz Chisholm, Jr. is the perfect future star for this franchise.

Chisholm is barely 23 years old and barely broke into last year’s Marlins roster mostly thanks to the variety of maladies that befell the Marlins earlier that season. Chisholm posted a mortifying slash line of .161/.242/.321, which is, uh, bad. He did post a pair of home runs, but he very much seemed not ready for the whole thing; in 62 plate appearances, he struck out 19 times and reached base just 15 times. It wasn’t a great introduction.

Fast forward to today, and suddenly, Chisholm has developed into one of the game’s most exciting young stars. This is, of course, aided by the fact that he seems like a grand personality. Chisholm dyed his hair blue prior to the season, regularly gives good quotes, and, well, seems like a perfect fit for a franchise (and league) in dire need of a marketable player.

It also helps that in his true rookie year, Jazz has turned into the best hitter on the Marlins roster, posting a slash line of .301/.372/.554. His weighted Runs Created (wRC+) is 157, good enough for 18th-best in baseball and one slot below a guy you may have heard of. Enough about the fancy stats, though: I think you probably want to see the dingers.

The above video represents one of Chisholm’s two homers against 100+ MPH pitches this season, the only two home runs against 100+ MPH pitches by anyone in baseball. (It’s also the only home run surrendered by Jacob deGrom on an 0-2 count in his illustrious career.) In fact, it was the first home run against a 100+ MPH pitch since September 9, 2019 (Miguel Rojas). To do this once in a career is pretty impressive, especially considering Statcast reports no player from 2008 to 2020 managed to hit multiple home runs off of 100+ MPH pitches. So, yeah, imagine the pleasant surprise when Chisholm did it again barely a month later.

Look at where that pitch is; it’s way, way out of the zone. Chisholm doesn’t care, and his bat catches up to a 100.5 MPH pitch several inches out of the zone with relative ease.

What Chisholm is doing is rather unique, especially for a rookie who wasn’t all that much of a can’t-miss prospect. Chisholm signed as an international free agent with the Diamondbacks in 2015 and ended up with the Marlins in the 2019 Zac Gallen trade. Entering 2021, Fangraphs had Chisholm as a low-end top 50 prospect and the Marlins’ fourth-best; their most likely outcome showed him as a fine everyday starter. He’s been more than fine, I’d say. The below graph is a simple, meaningless one from Statcast showing those who are both hitting the ball well and are fast on the basepaths:

(The dot to the immediate left on Acuna is Mike Trout, for the record.) Is Chisholm anywhere as good as Ohtani, Buxton, Acuna, or Trout? Uh, probably not, at least not yet. But as a general list of Guys I Look Forward to Watching Every Day, Chisholm has rapidly ascended to the very top of this list. This combination of power and speed really isn’t that common, and as of the time of writing, Chisholm and Fernando Tatis, Jr. (another player at the top of such a list) rank almost equally. Baseball needs more players as fun, as likable, and as talented as Jazz Chisholm.

The Marlins also have some other players of interest – Jesus Aguilar and Miguel Rojas are both very good hitters worth your time – but everything here is put in the shadow of Chisholm, a player eight years younger than both Aguilar and Rojas and with a far brighter future than either.

A three-headed monster that deserves serious investment

If you’re old enough to remember the 2003 Marlins, that team had an intoxicating collection of young pitching talent on their roster. Some names you’d remember right off the bat (Josh Beckett); others might take a few minutes or hours to picture (Dontrelle Willis, Brad Penny). Either way, those Marlins rode their way to stardom off the back of three excellent 25-or-younger pitchers, the three of whom combined to allow just five earned runs in 32.1 innings of work in their World Series victory over the Yankees.

These Marlins, of course, are very likely to not achieve the same level of stardom. Two of their three semi-stars are already 25, with the third (Trevor Rogers, 23) being two years older than the youngest of the 2003 group. Still, Miami has somehow stumbled their way into a fabulous collection of pitching talent that, hopefully, they won’t sell away this time.

The best of the three, at least via his work this season, is Rogers. The 23-year-old ranks 15th in the majors in Wins Above Replacement (1.5, one spot below Max Scherzer), holds a 1.74 ERA (a problematic stat, obviously) that ranks fifth-best, and is striking out 11.32 batters per nine innings of work. Rogers’ go-to is a four-seam fastball, a pitch he throws 61% of the time that’s accumulated 43 strikeouts in just nine games of work:

Interestingly, Rogers appears to have made this pitch a bit better from 2020 to 2021, when it was actually a below-average MLB pitch. While 2020 provides the smallest sample size of any MLB season in modern history, it did seem notable that hitters weren’t having much of an issue catching up to Rogers’ fastest pitch. Opposing hitters posted a .444 wOBA (very bad!) on his four-seamer. However, the Statcast data showed a player who may have simply been unlucky. Per their expected Batting Average and expected wOBA data, Rogers’ best pitch should’ve been posting a .195 opposing BA and a .314 wOBA, not the actual .314 and .444 numbers it got.

Fast-forward to May 2021, and he’s experiencing more positive regression to the mean than almost anyone in baseball. This year, batters are hitting his four-seamer at just a .205 rate, and he’s added a full 1.4 MPH on average to this pitch. That’s important, because it makes his best secondary pitch, a changeup with elite vertical movement (+5.7 inches of movement versus the average, fifth-highest out of 63 qualifying pitchers) significantly more effective.

In both seasons, Rogers has held a remarkably stable Whiff% of around 34-35% on this pitch, but the key this year is that fewer opponents are able to hit it well. The Hard-Hit Percentage on his changeup is down around 4% from last year, and opposing batters aren’t having much luck getting a productive at-bat out of it. Hitters are 9-for-50 (.180) against this pitch, with only two extra-base hits.

Lastly, Rogers’ most improved pitch is a slider that he tries to push down and away from right-handed hitters and down and in on left-handers. (Interestingly, he uses his slider much more frequently against lefties than he does his changeup. We only have 117 pitches of data here, but that’s just under the 124 times he threw the slider last year. Compare these numbers and you’ll see how much better it’s been:

  • 2020: 30.9% Whiff%; .404 wOBA; .593 Slugging Percentage (.410 expected)
  • 2021: 45% Whiff%; .241 wOBA; .214 Slugging Percentage (.291 expected)

This isn’t typically Rogers’ at-bat-ending pitch, but it’s one he uses to get a lot of weakly-hit balls. Only 27.3% of contact against Rogers’ slider is that of the 95+ MPH exit velocity variety, and it rarely produces anything other than a weak groundout or line drive.

Rogers is making things look easy right now. Even if his numbers regress somewhat – both Fangraphs and Statcast see some less-sunny numbers coming his way – he’s still on track to be one of the 30 or so best starting pitchers in baseball. Lest we forget, this is a 23-year-old in his first full season doing that. The potential is very much there, and he’s a fairly obvious pick for the Marlins’ most likely All-Star in two months.

The #2 pitcher here is the oldest of the trio by a few months. Sandy Alcantara came to Miami by way of a trade with St. Louis in 2017, and in this, his third full season as a starter but only his second as a 162-game feature player, he’s blossoming in real time. The ERA of 3.63 may not jump off the page, and neither will the less-flashy strikeout numbers, but Alcantara has progressed from a likely reliever to the second cornerstone of one of baseball’s best rotations. In lieu of strikeouts, Alcantara has produced an array of off-speed material that makes his 96-98 MPH four-seam fastball a tough one to catch up to.

Alcantara has always had elite arm strength – FanGraphs themselves highlighted it in their 2019 scouting report – but the off-speed stuff took a while to develop. In 2017, Alcantara’s first partial year in the majors, all four of his pitches where seen as below league-average, the best of which was a changeup he used around 13% of the time. Even as recently as last season, Alcantara rarely relied on this pitch, and it was generally seen by Statcast as roughly a league-average off-speed option.

In 2021, Alcantara has somehow turned his most forgettable pitch offering into his very best. It’s produced a 37% Whiff%, a .127 opponent batting average, and a lot of gross swings:

The easiest explanation for this sudden shift is a relatively simple one: improved command. In 2020, Alcantara’s 68 changeups were scattered all over the place, and it appears he genuinely did not know where it would end up:

After a full offseason of work, Alcantara has nearly quadrupled his usage of the pitch this season, clearly in part because he’s improved his command of it:

Largely gone are the attempts to make this a down-and-in pitch for left-handers. Too frequently, Alcantara’s pre-2021 changeups ended up just being inside and not sinking, which led to five homers against the pitch in 2019 and 2020 combined and a lot of easy hits. Now, Alcantara just makes this pitch go down and stay down, and hitters haven’t adjusted to it yet. His control has improved immensely, which is allowing him to make a lot of guys look silly. Most importantly, they just can’t make good contact: no starting pitcher in baseball has a lower Barrel% (how often a batter hits it in the “sweet spot”) than Alcantara as of today at just 2.6% of all contact swings.

Lastly, Pablo Lopez doesn’t strike out that many people (8.4 per nine innings, the lowest of the three), partially because he has a league-average fastball at 94 MPH and very little spin or movement on the pitch. Instead, like Alcantara, Lopez has made a pretty dramatic shift to his changeup and to off-speed pitches in general. Just 31.8% of Lopez’s pitches are four-seam fastballs, and instead, he’s made a shifty change his main pitch of choice:

However, Lopez’s four-seamer is giving him a lot of productive outs. Statcast produces something called Run Value, which is a measurement of how many runs your pitch is keeping off the board per 100 pitches against the average pitcher. (Or something like that.) Lopez’s four-seamer is one of the 50 best pitches in baseball right now, mostly because he leaves very few balls over the middle of the plate. Like Alcantara, his command is up and the improvement is real:

The fun thing about these Marlins is that, after profiling their four best players, there’s still some more unique and intriguing pieces beneath the surface. Yimi Garcia (a reliever) is running wild with a 1.53 ERA and rarely walks anyone. Dylan Floro regularly produces some of the lowest exit velocities in baseball and offers a sinker/four-seamer combo that’s proving extremely difficult to put in play.

Along with that, the minor leagues have a pair of fascinating pieces that I’d really like to see in the majors at some point this year. Jesus Sanchez is a 23-year-old outfielder that got a few plate appearances last year, and while it seemed like his momentum towards the majors had largely died out, he’s been demolishing AAA pitchers so far this season. In just 13 games of play, Sanchez has knocked seven homers and is hitting .509.

Alongside Jesus is another Sanchez: Sixto. He’s 22 and likely would’ve made the roster to start the season had he not had a shoulder injury. Sanchez got seven starts last year (plus one in the playoffs) and showed why he’s such a tantalizing prospect. Sanchez’s fastball (used 23.8% of the time last year) averages 98 MPH, has an unusually high amount of horizontal movement, and resulted in a swing-and-miss nearly 30% of the time.

However, the real star of the show was his changeup. (Something about the Marlins and their changeups, I tell you.) Sanchez’s change merely rated out as one of the most dangerous pitches in the game; in terms of pitches used in at least 50 plate appearances, only two pitches in all of baseball – Tyler Clippard and Devin Williams’ changeups – were deemed superior on a RV/100 rate. It doesn’t get a ton of whiffs, but it’s proven extremely difficult to make good contact with.

Collectively, these Marlins probably won’t make a ton of memories for the average baseball fan. They aren’t expected to hang around the playoff race for long, and truth be told, they’re more likely to end up with 90+ losses than they are to factor into a wild card race at all. And yet: you really need to watch this team, particularly if any of Rogers/Alcantara/Lopez are starting and especially if one or more of the Sanchezs are called up soon. Even if none of their three best pitchers are on the mound, Jazz Chisholm has become a must-watch hitter on every at-bat.

Yes, the Marlins are weird, but they’re a particularly pleasing type of weird that makes for a good viewing experience. They’ve got a load of fascinating prospects, some quality young talent, and multiple future All-Stars. Watch them before everyone else catches on in two years.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s