The Miami Marlins went into this offseason realizing they couldn’t full address their starting rotation dearth. They devised a plan, and Mattingly has clung to it.
The Miami Marlins entered this season knowing the bullpen would do the heavy lifting. The plan was to have the starters go five solid innings, anything else was a bonus. From there, a heavily priced bullpen consisting of veteran arms and young flamethrowers would dominate.
The Marlins expected to ride an average starting rotation, and plus bullpen into the playoffs. Two months into the season, manager Don Mattingly has stayed the course with the plan made in the offseason. For better or worse, it appears that’s how he’ll coach the team the rest of the year.
Through the month of April, the Miami Marlins were as good as advertised. They were 11-8 before going into the tailspin spiral that would leave them scrambling for answers. Even when they were getting quality starts from their rotation, they weren’t letting them go deep into games.
Don Mattingly appears to give his pitchers innings or pitches, whichever comes first.
A prime example being the case of Wei-Yin Chen throwing a no-hitter through seven innings and getting pulled. Chen was at 100 pitches, and there was a lingering fear that letting him go longer in the game would cause further injury to his pitching arm. That happened anyway.
In fact, seven innings matches the longest outing of any Marlins pitcher the entire season. Dan Straily managed to go seven innings one time this year as well. Other than those two starts, the Fish have pulled their starters at the end of the sixth inning or sooner.
The strategy was sound in principle. However it hinged on getting five or six solid innings from your starter every night. Bridging a two-to-three inning gap to the closer on a nightly basis is no small task. Every pitcher on the staff would need to perform their duty flawlessly every time out.
As it turns out, the starting pitching crumbled. Several times a week, starters would be chased in the third inning, and the bullpen would need to mop up the rest of the game. Mattingly stayed the course, and the bullpen started to give too.
With every arm already having thrown a significant number of innings by mid-May, the bullpen was struggling. They were unable to hold a lead when they were handed one. They were unable to keep a deficit within striking distance. As the starting pitching improved, the bullpen continued to flounder.
Instead of reassessing the state of pitching staff, Mattingly continued to march tired arms out in the sixth and seventh inning every night. Frustrating as it was, starting pitchers were being pulled after six innings despite being under 90 pitches and continuing to pitch effectively.
Starting pitching the silent hero
It’s now been nine games in 11 days since the Marlins had a starter get pulled before completing five innings. Working deeper into games, coupled with two days after before and after the Oakland A’s series, has allowed the bullpen to recover physically.
Mattingly continues to use the same strategy with his pitchers that he used through the awful month of May. The only difference is now the starters are getting better run support, and they’re pitching into the sixth inning. The bullpen is still being asked to do heavy lifting, but the kind they’re prepared to do.
Particularly early in the season, teams tend to be more careful with their starting pitchers. They don’t want to put too much wear on their arm before they’re fully stretched following an extended offseason. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Marlins pitchers go a little longer in games where they are doing well, but no more than an inning.
The strategy isn’t a bad one, in and of itself. But holding fast to an ideology irrespective of what else is happening around the club isn’t wise. The team will likely experience extreme ebbs and flows much like the way they did in May.
It appears that seven innings is the absolute cap for Don Mattingly and the Marlins this season. Love it or hate it, that is the way the team will be managed all season.