On deck: Can a pitcher succeed in the major leagues with a minimum of strikeouts? We might be about to find out when Justin Nicolino makes the attempt, perhaps sometime this summer. If pitching to contact has an advocate, it’s Nicolino, who fanned fewer than a batter every two innings last year — just 81 in 170 innings. That might have been a successful strikeout rate 60 years ago, but it is to today’s rate what the price of a newspaper then (5 cents) was to today’s ($1) — a fraction of what you need. No major leaguer who pitched at least 60 innings in 2014 fanned fewer than Nick Tepesch, who whiffed just four batters every nine innings. At that rate, Tepesch’s 4.36 ERA and .774 OPS against don’t seem so bad. Of MLB’s top 10 last season in lowest strikeout rates, the only successes were all relievers — Oakland’s Dan Otero (2.28 ERA, 4.67 Ks per nine) and Pitsburgh’s Jared Hughes (1.96, 5.04) and Braves swingman David Hale (3.30, 4.53). Nicolin’s strikeout rate has been declining as he advances through the minors: from 10.7 in short-season leagues in 2011, to 8.7 in Low A in 2012, to 6.0 in High A and AA in 2013 to 4.2 in Class AA in 2014. None of that has prevented Nicolino from getting hitters out. He was 14-4 with a 2.85 ERA last year, and he has a career 2.64 ERA. In AA, he kept batters off base (just 20 walks and 162 hits in 170 innings), and he kept the ball in the park (10 home runs, or one every 17 innings).
Trivia: Giancarlo Stanton’s 154 home runs tie him for the most in a career by a Marlin. Who is he tied with? And who is the rest of the top five? Answer below.
What he said: Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria on Giancarlo Stanton’s new contract: “The goal is to have winning as part of the tradition of this baseball club.” What he meant: “More than once a decade.”
Outlook: The Marlins don’t seem like the Marlins anymore, and maybe since they try to win so rarely, they’re not terribly good at doing it. Which would explain loading up in 2012 and losing 93 games.
The Marlins spent $400 million this offseason to keep their young outfielders, traded young pitching for veterans Dan Haren and Mat Latos and infielder Martin Prado and Dee Gordon, and then proclaimed themselves a contender in a ravaged NL East.
We’ll see how many Marlins fans, whose skepticism has been earned and evidenced by an NL-worst 1.7 million attendees last year, believe it.
They shouldn’t. The Marlins hope to get Jose Fernandez back in midseason, and if they do they believe they can make the playoffs, and they’ve won the Series twice as a wild card, and why can’t Fernandez be to this year’s postseason what Madison Bumgarner was to last year’s? Other than he’s coming off Tommy John surgery and not likely to be appear in Game 7 in relief on two days rest?
The Marlins traded an alarming amount of young pitching this offseason — Andrew Heaney, Anthony DeSclafini, Nathan Eovaldi — that may be ready to ripen. In return they got a lot of infielders who don’t get on base.
Yes, the Marlins’ infield is better, which indicates how bad it was. No, it’s not good enough. The Marlins will play Dee Gordon at second, and Gordon had more than twice as many steals as walks (64-31). He hit .289, but had just a .326 on-base percentage, and if it falls 30 points Gordon is just Donovan Solano occasionally on second base after stealing it instead of occasionally on first.
Martin Prado walked just 26 times and had a .321 on-base percentage; his OPS hasn’t been above .800 since 2010 and he’s never hit more than 15 home runs.
The Marlins are the White Sox of the NL — they’ve collected a lot of players who make them incrementally better, but as a team, they don’t get on base much, with the exception of their best players (Christian Yelich and Stanton).
What the Marlins do best offensively is strike out. They were second in the NL and third in MLB last year in whiffing, and with their offseason additions, that’s somewhere they could rank No. 1. To returnees Stanton (170), Yelich (137), Marcell Ozuna (164) and Jarrod Saltalamcchia (143), the Marlins added Michael Morse (121 in 438 at-bats) and Gordon (107). If Prado (80) and returning shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria (86) can pick up the pace, the Marlins could have 100-strikeout players at every position.
By May, you’ll notice that a lot of double-figure strikeout games will be pitched against the Marlins. It won’t be a coincidence.
The strikeouts wouldn’t be so much of a problem, but the Marlins don’t walk. They’re not striking out at 3-2 counts because they don’t get there. Stanton walked 94 times last year and Yelich 70, but no other player walked more than 55 times or had an on-base percentage better than .326, except for Casey McGehee (67 walks, .355 on-base), and he’s gone.
None of the additions is going to do much to change that. Morse, who will be better than Garrett Jones at first (who wouldn’t?), walked just 31 times for his 121 Ks; Prado walked just 26 times for his 80; Gordon just 31 times for his 107.
The Marlins’ swing-first approach may help with the pace of play, but not the results of it. Their percentage of pitches swung at should be far greater than their percentage of games won.
The Marlins have won the World Series twice as a wild card, which is the best they figure to be this year. But the ’97 Marlins had Bobby Bonilla, Moises Alou, Gary Sheffield (he walked 121 times that year, which might be as much as the entire Marlins infield this year), Kevin Brown, Alex Fernandez and Robb Nen; the 2003 Marlins had Ivan Rodriguez, Derek Lee, Mike Lowell, a 20-year-old Miguel Cabrera, 23-year-old Josh Beckett and 21-year-old Dontrelle Willis.
The 2015 Marlins have the best young outfield in the game, if not the Pirates’, and hope to have Fernandez back. After that, they’re the opposite of former manager Ozzie Guillen’s press conference: bland. And that won’t be enough to go too far, no matter how much and how long they pay Stanton.
Trivia answer: Stanton is tied with Dan Uggla for most career home runs by a Marlin at 154. The rest of the top five: Hanley Ramirez (148), Mike Lowell (143) and Miguel Cabrera (138).
Team song: Jimmy Buffett: Spending Money