One of the strengths of last year’s Miami Marlins team was the bullpen. Marlins relievers in 2014 were able to pitch to a 3.33 ERA and a 3.20 FIP building off a 23.5 K%, 9 BB% and 6.7 HR/FB rate.
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Fielding independent pitching was a stat developed by Tom Tango which aims to create a stat that only takes to account the inputs that the pitcher can directly control: walks, strikeouts and home runs. Incidentally these fielding independent metrics are the ones that relief pitching puts the most emphasis on. The best relievers, even more so than the best starting pitchers, have high strikeout rates, low walk rates and preferably can control the long ball. Put more simply, the best relievers can miss bats.
Front offices have put more and more emphasis recently on this model of relief pitcher prioritizing — guys that can throw hard, guys with “live arms” in scout-speak, and then developing them into pitchers later. This was the case with Chris Hatcher who started his career as a failed catching prospect and in 2014 he was able to put up a 3.38 ERA with a 25.9% strikeout to 5.2% walk rate on a very normal looking .327 BABIP. Unfortunately, Hatcher and his 56 IP went to the Dodgers in the Dee Gordon trade and will have to be replaced.
The Marlins have three sure things in the bullpen: Steve Cishek who had 39 saves last year, Mike Dunn who for better or worse is one the Marlins best relievers and A.J. Ramos who has the best stuff of anyone in the Marlins bullpen. All of the other positions are up for grabs and I think these are the leaders for those other bullpen spots barring the Marlins signing a free agent reliever like Francisco Rodriguez. The Marlins experience with picking guys off the scrap heap last year was honestly a disaster and I would not like to relive the Carlos Marmol and Kevin Gregg experience in 2015 with someone like Rafael Soriano.
Assuming the Marlins go with the guys they currently have on the 40-man roster, the team could go with Cishek, Dunn and Ramos as the best 3 guys followed by Bryan Morris who had a very solid 2014 with the Marlins, Carter Capps who had an injury shortened 2014 and most likely a player like Aaron Crow or Sam Dyson.
I think it would be interesting to do a deeper dive into Bryan Morris and Carter Capps to see why two such different pitchers can have such great success.
Bryan Morris had a very impressive 2014 with the Marlins in which he pitched 40.2 IP and somehow had only a 0.66 ERA on a 3.03 FIP. Morris unlike many relievers doesn’t work off hs fastball and doesn’t throw 95+ MPH. Morris works primarily off his breaking stuff featuring a cutter and sinker.
Morris’ ability to work low on the strike zone is what yielded him a 54.4% groundball rate and an 8% HR/FB in 2014. One of the important factors that led to Morris’ miniscule 0.66 ERA was a ridiculously lucky 92.8% strand rate. Any pitcher who can pitch low in the zone, not give up home runs and effectively get groundballs in high leverage situations will likely have an above average strand rate but a number in the 90’s is very hard if not impossible to duplicate.
Morris was very effective in 2014 but every sign points to him regressing closer to his 3.03 FIP or 2.92 SIERA. It is very hard for a groundball pitcher no matter how weak the contact he gives up to maintain his production at such a level below his FIP production.
Capps, unlike Morris, was relatively unlucky in 2014. He pitched to a 2.35 FIP but gave up a 3.98 ERA; this was largely thanks to a .340 BABIP-against and 69.1% strand rate. Capps has “stuff” as good as anyone in the Majors with his fastball averaging 97.4 MPH in 2014 but his biggest weapon was the curveball with which he was able to yield a 27.16% swing-and-miss rate.
The key for Capps to be successful this year is to be able to throw his fastball for strikes and use his curveball as the weapon it should be. There is no reason why a pitcher with a 29.1% strikeout rate and 5.8% walk rate should have an ERA that high unless it was a case of real bad luck. So the opposite of Morris, we should expect Capps to be more lucky and for him to regress to the mean and have a better 2015 especially if he can stay healthy.
The Marlins bullpen will depend on more than Carter Capps and Bryan Morris having good years but as is often the case, it is not enough to count on your late inning guys, especially when you have a young rotation. The Marlins will have to get a lot of medium- and high-leverage outs in the sixth and seventh innings. These relievers will be key to doing that job.