Starting pitching the key down the stretch for the Marlins


The Marlins, over the course of the month of August, have suddenly breathed life into a mostly lifeless offense. Previously, the team was led by Hanley Ramirez and a ragtag band of struggling starters (Dan Uggla, Jorge Cantu) and guys who didn’t belong as starters (Emilio Bonifacio). All of a sudden, the offense woke up in August, culminating in that marvelous double-digit hits streak that was ended in Houston last week. As of yesterday night’s win over the New York Mets, the Marlins stand with a team wOBA of .328, good for 15th in baseball, 5th in the National League, and almost exactly league average. It’s a long climb from having a .320 wOBA, which is what the Fish were sporting at midseason.

However, if the Marlins are to make a push for the Wild Card or the NL East this season, the focus should be on the performance of the starting pitching staff. The Marlins as a starting staff are posting a 4.28 FIP, good for 10th in the majors, but only 8th in the National League (you can blame the NL West for that). Still, that’s been mostly as a result of Josh Johnson and Ricky Nolasco keeping the team’s performance afloat. The remaining three starter slots have all been shaky at best. Chris Volstad is the only starter who has held down a position in the rotation other than Johnson, and of late he has exacerbated his issues. Since Volstad’s impressive shutout of the Giants to end his first half, he’s started eight games and gone only 43 innings, averaging a little over 5 and a 1/3 innings per start. His strikeouts and walks began regressing to his previous season’s totals; Volstad has posted just 26 strikeouts versus 20 walks in those eight starts. And of course, the coup d’etat on Volstad’s ugly performance in the second has been the home runs; he’s allowed nine home runs in those eight games and 43 innings, a rate of 1.9 per nine innings.

What has made it worse is that the Marlins began losing starters at just around this time. Andrew Miller bombed in his only second half start, an outing under three innings in which he gave up four runs while walking four. He was sent down to Triple-A to straighten himself out, only to tweak an ankle and land on the DL. Prospect Sean West has been in and out of the big league squad and shown no signs of being major league ready. Anibal Sanchez made an excellent return to the rotation since being out with injury from the beginning of the year, but he was then promptly shelled earlier this afternoon by the lowly Mets. Burke Badenhop, as solid a long reliever as he’s shown to be, has been disastrous in two spot starts. Rick VandenHurk showed excellent improvement and was pitching well before being sent down to the minors, and remains the lone bright spot of the Marlins fourth and fifth starter attempts.

The club has recently showed an inability to get through the sixth inning with their starters, thus taxing an already stretched bullpen. There’s a question to whether or not the pen is really tired or whether managers simply don’t work relievers like they should, but the Marlins could use some solid starting pitching to at least rest some of the more important cogs for the more important innings in the latter stages of the game. Of course, to read a completely different perspective on this topic, check out this solid rant by MGL over at the The Book blog (for what it’s worth, I think he may be right on this, and an interesting idea would be to have your above average starters pitch normal outings and have a group of maybe four below average or worse starters splits starts).

Of course, even with our best starters we’ve had to be careful with regards to innings. The Marlins were apparently thinking about this last night with Johnson on the hill versus the Mets. The Fish are being cautious with JJ’s innings, and while you may find it difficult to swallow during a pennant/Wild Card race, it’s the right call. JJ’s coming off surgery and is continuing to build on a career high in innings pitched. He’s the most valuable arm we have, and it’s important we keep in healthy and safe, even when we’re trying to win a spot in the postseason. There’s no reason to risk that chance and potentially lose years of greatness for an extra month of baseball.

With this squeeze on innings, the Marlins might have to look elsewhere. We already talked about John Smoltz, but it appears as if the Marlins weren’t terribly excited about bringing the old man back to the NL East to start, and that’s what he ultimately wanted to do. Now there’s news of the Marlins having interest in Brad Penny after he was released last night by the Boston Red Sox. Dave Cameron over at FanGraphs doesn’t think it’s a bad idea for the Marlins, Penny has been average to below average, depending on who you ask and what stat they quote. FIP has no big issues with him, but tRA isn’t a fan. He’s been solid in terms of strikeouts and walks, but he’s also been a bit unlucky and hasn’t gone deep in innings, and while still has a high velocity heater but now no longer can put over of his other pitches. Still, doesn’t this sound a lot like West or Miller with better control?

Ultimately, unless the Marlins went to this splitting starters idea, it would seem like it would difficult to solve our innings issue with someone like Penny. Still, Penny is a better option than the other few guys we have at the fourth and fifth slots, and if you can get him innings in the National League, maybe his numbers improve a bit against iferior competition and no DH, and maybe Penny puts up league average performance on the cheap for the Marlins. It may not be a bad idea, but for the team, time may be running out. If they can’t figure out the starters and how to balance protecting the arms for the future and harnessing them for the race, we might have to call it quits early in September again this year. Right now, the club’s walking a very fine line.