Monday, May 25, 2015

Next Up: The Miami Marlins

I was at a college reunion over the weekend so I didn't do a preview of the Pirates' series against the Mets. I would've said some of the same things I'd said about the Twins: team's been a pleasant surprise to date but appears to be overachieving. What I wouldn't have said was that the series would turn out to be a shellacking: Pirates outscoring the Mets 21-4, beating Thor and The Dark Knight along the way. As a result, the team's offense looks less inept: tied for the fourth-worst park-adjusted OPS, fourth-worst on base percentage with the bases empty, below-average offensive performance at three positions (first base, shortstop, and right field). Hey, those are all improvements! The two most disappointing players in April are having a May resurgence. Josh Harrison's slash line has improved from .213/.250/.363 in April to .312/.333/.455, while Andrew McCutchen's gone from .194/.302/.333 in April to .321/.411/.580 in May. The Pirates will attempt to keep it going, hosting three games against a Miami Marlins team that appears to be in disarray, before starting a West Coast swing on Thursday.

How Are They Doing Lately? The Marlins' 12-16 record over the past 30 days is the fifth-worst in the National League. Over the past two weeks, they're 3-10, the worst record in the league. A week ago today, they fired their manager, Mike Redmond, and replaced him with their then-general manager, Dan Jennings. Jennings' managerial experience consisted of...well, he coached at a high school in Alabama in the 1980s. Seriously. Redmond was fired following after a 1-7 run, culminating in the loss of three straight to the Braves. Under Jennings, the Marlins extended the losing streak to eight straight before taking two over the weekend from Baltimore.

What's Going Right? Over the past 30 days, Marlins starting pitchers have a 3.83 ERA, sixth best in the league. They're helped by a home park that suppresses offense, but still, for a team that's had arguably its two best starters (Jose Fernandez and Henderson Alvarez) on the disabled list for all but four starts this year, that's not bad. The relievers have a 3.50 ERA over the past 30 days, sixth best in the league, but that's misleading.

What's Going Wrong? Disregard that reliever ERA: The Marlins have four saves and six blown saves over the past 30 days. By the measure Win Probability Added, which calculates the odds that a team will win a game at any point, the Marlins relievers have been, by far, the worst in the league. On offense, the team has been sixth in batting average over the past 30 days but tenth in on base percentage and thirteenth in slugging percentage, indicating that they've gotten a bunch of singles but little else; they're eleventh in walks, fourteenth in doubles, and tied for twelfth in homers. 

Who's Hot? The Marlins offense consists largely of second baseman and leadoff hitter Dee Gordon and rightfielder and No. 3 hitter Giancarlo Stanton. Over the past 30 days, Gordon's batting .380 with nine stolen bases (both first in the league) while Stanton has eight homers (tied for sixth) and had driven in 26 runs (fourth). Outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, 41, is defying time with a .314 batting average over the past 30 days. The team's best starting pitcher has been Dan Haren, who threatened to retire during the offseason when the California native was traded away from the Dodgers in the deal that brought Gordon to Miami. He's 3-1 with a 2.97 ERA over the past 30 days. Fellow starters David Phelps (1-1, 3.07 ERA) and Tom Koehler (2-1, 2.41) have been solid as well. None of the three get a lot of strikeouts, which suggests they might struggle to keep up their recent performance. Reliever A.J. Ramos, who became the team's closer on May 12, has two saves and a 0.71 ERA over the past 30 days, and setup man Sam Dyson has a 1.93 ERA over 14 innings.

Who's Not? Third baseman Martin Prado exemplifies the problem with the Marlins' offense. He's batting .267 over the past 30 days, above the league average of .255. But he's walked only four times and he's had only five extra-base hits to go with 26 singles, so his on base percentage of .309 compares to a league average of .317 and his .345 slugging percentage compares to a league average of .400. As I said, the Marlins get a bunch of singles and little else. Two players who were expected to be significant contributors to the offense have been awful: Left fielder Christian Yelich has a .189/.283/.264 slash line over the last 30 days, and first baseman Michael Morse has been worse: .203/.239/.234 with no homers. The Marlins starters after Haren, Phelps, and Koehler have been bad, and demoted closer Steve Cishek has two saves, three blown saves, and 6.08 ERA over the past 30 days. 

What's the Outlook? The Marlins were viewed by some as a playoff contender this year. (Not I.) Instead, they're last in the National League East, and their 18-27 record gives them the third-worst winning percentage in baseball. The main hope is the return of Fernandez from Tommy John surgery sometime over the summer. The Pirates will face one of the Marlins' best starters, Phelps, tonight, countering with Charlie Morton's first start following offseason hip surgery. The struggling Jeff Locke (6.67 ERA, fourth-worst in the NL over the past 30 days) and the not-struggling Gerrit Cole (1.95, sixth-best) start the next two nights. The Marlins haven't announced their starters. If the Pirates can take the series 2-1, they'll return to .500. A sweep would put them two games over .500 for the first time since April.

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