Marlins Season Review: Rotation Disappoints

You can check out the first two reviews here and here. And now, let’s move on to perhaps the most disappointing part of this season’s journey, the pitching staff.

Pitching

Team ERA: 4.32
Team FIP: 4.15
Team Pitching WAR: 12.5

Starter FIP: 4.57 (RA scale: 4.98)
Starter tRA: 4.81
Starter WAR: 10.9

Reliever FIP: 4.07 (RA scale: 4.42)
Reliever tRA: 4.56
Reliever WAR: 1.6

The Marlins starting staff, coming off a stellar season by Ricky Nolasco, an encouraging return from surgery by Josh Johnson, and a bevy of young pitchers led by 22-year old Chris Volstad, was supposed to be a team strength. This did not occur. According to FanGraphs, the Marlins ranked 22nd in starter runs above replacement, not reaching the 100 run mark. As a result of early work, the relief corps, which was a strength in the early season, faltered late in the year. It was not helped by the fact that neither “closer,” Matt Lindstrom and Leo Nunez, elicited confidence. In the end, the team’s relief staff ended up 22nd in runs above replacement as well.

Best Performer: Josh Johnson

Johnson was clearly tailing off at the end of the season, but what a season it was. Johnson ended the year with a 3.05 FIP and a 3.54 tRA, good for 7th and 17th best in baseball respectively. JJ ended the season with 191 strikeouts and 52 unintentional walks, rates of 22.3% and 6.1% respectively. Compare that to the league average hitting rates of 18% K% and 8.3% BB%, and you can see that Johnson was well ahead of the pack. Extra props to JJ for increasing his ground ball rate as well; Johnson had 50% of his balls in play go for ground balls, an astounding feat for a pitcher who averages 94 MPH heat with a straight pitch with little sink.

Overall, Johnson racked up 5.3 WAR this season according to FanGraphs, good for 15th in all of baseball among starters and ironically just 0.1 WAR behind former Marlin great and always a Marlins fan’s good friend, Josh Beckett. Not a bad replacement for a great pitcher, I’d say. Here’s hoping the Marlins recognize that as well and lock up Johnson through his arbitration and a few free agent years, so that we can guarantee JJ is our Opening Day starter in 2012 at the new stadium.

Worst Performer: Chris Volstad

I won’t lie and say I wasn’t expecting big things from Chris Volstad. Just like the rest of us, I thought he would join Johnson and Nolasco this year and form a powerful trio of starters that would help carry us to more that a few wins. Unfortunately, such things never came out as we wanted, and Volstad got beat up in a big way. After allowing just three home runs in 365 batters faced last year, hitters erupted on Volstad’s stuff this year, to the tune of 29 home runs allowed. Had Volstad qualified (pitched at least one inning for each team game) this season, that would have tied for the fifth highest total in baseball, trailing only greats such as Braden Looper, Jeremy Guthrie, Bronson Arroyo, and Joe Blanton. These starters all went around 200 innings, while Volstad only mustered 156 1/3 innings, in part due to the high home run counts.

(Interesting note: Volstad only faced 11 fewer batters than Looper, even though Looper threw almost 40 more innings. Looper also allowed a staggering 39 home runs this year, yet went 14-7 for the Brewers. The worst starter in baseball by a large margin won 14 games, yet another reason not to trust wins!)

The point to emphasize with regards to Volstad is that he isn’t bad as he was this year, but at the same time he definitely is not as good as he was last year. That 2.88 ERA is just as much a mirage as the 5.21 from this season. Volstad bumped his strikeouts by one percent and lowered his walks by a similar rate, but the numbers are so small as to be an insignificant difference. It’s likely Volstad’s peripherals haven’t changed a bit and that instead of being lucky on homers like in 2008, he was really unlucky. For Marlins fans, the good news is that we should expect him to trend towards the good in future years. Unlike JJ, Volstad is actually a true ground ball pitcher, two-seam fastball and all. He’s been this type of pitcher in the minor leagues and has shown a good tendency to keep the ball on the ground in the majors as well; 53% GB% in his rookie year, followed by a 47% this season. At this point, we don’t have any idea where his true HR/FB% mean is, but if it’s anything like the league average, Volstad should be a bit lower than league average with his strikeout and walk numbers.

Best Second Half Improvement: Ricky Nolasco

I told you so, right? There was nothing wrong with Ricky Nolasco, as he proved to be even better than the old version of 2008 this season. Ricky increased his strikeout ratios to 24,8% while still walking only 4.7% of hitters unintentionally. Nolasco racked a 4 WAR season even amidst a midseason demotion to Triple-A to “work on things.” It may have appeared that it was just the right thing for Nolasco, since after he returned from the vacation to the minors, he threw 141 innings, striking out 158 (27.6%) while walking just 31 (5.4%). In reality, he was probably pitching at around the level he had been throughout, with a little better luck. His sky-high BABIP and strand rates regressed accordingly, and Ricky appeared to be the old dominant Ricky. He’s in line for a hefty raise, even after the perceived “poor season” that he had, so the Marlins will have to consider what they’ll do with their two ace-caliber pitchers. It will be interesting to see what the plans for both starters are.

Overall, clearly it was a success for the Marlins. On a $36M payroll, the Marlins made $149M in value in terms of free agent dollars, a ridiculous surplus of $113M. The team’s front office delivered again with shrewd moves, including the pickup of Nick Johnson at the trade deadline for essentially nothing. While there’s almost no chance the Marlins resign Johnson, it is good to know that the team was considering the Wild Card hunt and picked up a player with the exact skillset the team lacked, plate patience. It was an impressive run, an impressive (if lucky) season, and I was glad to be chronicling it here, on Marlin Maniac. But now, it’s time to start closing the Marlins’ 2009 chapter and start looking towards 2010, hopefully another memorable year for the Fish.

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Tags: Chris Volstad Josh Johnson Miami Marlins Ricky Nolasco

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