The Problem With the Marlins

marlins The Problem With the MarlinsLast September, the Mets hosted the Marlins at Shea Stadium, but the cellar-dwelling Marlins could do little besides play spoiler to New York’s season. The 2008 Marlins began a three-game series at Shea Friday night fresh off of taking two of three from the Phillies, and very much in the hunt for a National League East title.

While the Marlins lost two of three to New York this weekend, Florida still stands just ½ game behind New York and 2 ½ games behind division-leading Philadelphia. But the only major change from 2007 to 2008 was dealing Miguel Cabrera, one of the finest hitters in baseball, for a package that has delivered little to the big league club. And 2007’s holdovers are producing at roughly last season’s rates.

The combination of solid individual performances and an easier-than-average schedule has kept Florida in the race. However, it seems as if a more difficult remaining schedule and simple arithmetic will make it difficult for them to stick around, leaving flawed Philadelphia and New York teams to battle for the division title.

There is nothing statistically that stands out positively for Florida as a team besides home runs. The offense ranks sixth in the National League in runs, even though the infield has combined for 96 home runs by itself—as a team, Florida ranks second. The reason is a simple one—the Marlins do little other than hit long balls. The team is ninth in walks, tenth in total hits. The one offensive category Florida leads the NL in is strikeouts.

Of course, the offense has been far more productive this season than the pitching, which ranks near the bottom of the National League. The team ERA is twelfth, with Marlins pitchers allowing 450 walks on the season, fourteenth. The staff is even eleventh in home runs, though in apparent solidarity with the offense, ranks relatively high—seventh—in strikeouts. The Marlins have scored 18 fewer runs than they’ve allowed.

Yes, the only stat that matters is overall record, and the Marlins have outplayed the sum of their runs scored and runs allowed. What the numbers do indicate, however, is that the Marlins will need to improve their play, or face lesser competition, in order to stay with the Phillies and the Mets. And there is little indication that Florida is in position to do either.

Florida has four pitchers with an ERA+ better than league average: Scott Olsen, Ricky Nolasco, Josh Johnson, who is returning from injury, and the highly touted prospect Chris Volstad. While Johnson has previous success in the major leagues, Volstad is actually outperforming his season line in AA—his ERA was 3.36 in AA, 2.67 in five major-league starts.

And all four of Florida’s best starters have a better ERA than their component parts should provide, mirroring the team’s overall success—the four have ERAs of 2.67, 3.34, 3.92 and 4.04, while The Hardball Times estimates their XFIP (true performance ERA) at 4.12, 4.06, 4.24 and 5.13—quite a difference. In other words, while Florida’s pitching has been mediocre at best, there is little reason to expect that the same performance moving forward will provide even those results.

In addition, those starts will come against competition that is better than the Marlins have faced thus far, and more difficult than what Philadelphia or New York will face. The Marlins play just 16 of their remaining 44 games against teams more than a game under .500—for the Phillies, the number is 19 of 45; for the Mets, it is 23 of 45. And 10 of the 16 under-.500 games Florida has left are on the road.

Florida has 22 of 44 games left at home, with Philadelphia at 22 of 44, and 23 of 45 home games for the Mets. But Florida and Philadelphia both have trips to the west coast left—New York has just one series west of Atlanta the rest of the way—in Milwaukee.

For a team that finished 71-91 last season, the Marlins have clearly succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations. But with their current talent level, and upcoming heavy lifting, the team will be hard-pressed to finish even 10 games ahead of their 2007 pace—and that will likely place them a distant third in the National League East.