In the interest of showing some accountability, I’d like to remind you of something. Before the season started, the Marlins projected to be worst in baseball at catcher. They projected to be worst in baseball at first base, and they also projected to be worst in baseball at second and third base, and they projected to be second-worst in baseball at shortstop. They were, basically, projected to be Giancarlo Stanton, Jose Fernandez, and 23 members of the community in good standing. At this writing, the Marlins are third in baseball in position-player WAR, and they’re tied in third in wRC+. It’s not quite like if the Astros were good, but it isn’t dissimilar.
A fifth of the way through the season, feelings about the Marlins are complicated and conflicting. On the one hand, they’re an easy, appealing team to root for, with a lot of young, energetic, lesser-known talent. They’re a feel-good story and an obvious bandwagon candidate. On the other hand, it can be tricky to separate a team from its ownership, and for certain reasons it might work to baseball’s greater benefit to have the Marlins fall flat on their faces every year. You want to root for the Marlins, but you don’t want to side with Jeffrey Loria. It’s a good and bad thing when sports make you think.
But as long as we’re thinking about the Marlins, let’s address all that hitting. Just a year ago, the Marlins were an offensive catastrophe, and a catastrophe offensively. They were supposed to be bad again in 2014. They’ve been anything but, to this point, so one has to wonder: what does this mean? Just how wrong have we been?
Maybe the most interesting and telling way to put it: of the eight Marlins with the most plate appearances so far, the lowest individual wRC+ is 108, belonging to shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria. One season ago, two Marlins finished in the triple digits. They were led by Stanton’s 135. This year Stanton’s at 151, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia is at 169. The Marlins don’t just have an above-.500 record — they’ve earned that record with an outstanding team performance, after coming in looking like one of the worst teams in the league.
So what is there to be made of all the runs? As usual, we’ll turn to history, and to make things simple, we’ll focus on April hitting and hitting over the rest of the season afterward. This cuts off what the Marlins have done so far in May, of course, but that shouldn’t change very much of the message. Below, a graph of data from between 1974-2013, excluding 1995 due to tiny April samples. The first month of this season, the Marlins posted a 104 team wRC+.
Naturally, there is a positive relationship. Perhaps surprisingly, it is not the strongest positive relationship, as April performance tells you only so much about the performance to come. There are scheduling inconsistencies. There are personnel inconsistencies. There is the amount of noise that can show up in samples that are really just some hundreds of plate appearances grouped together. What we can say is, hey, there’s reason to think the Marlins might actually be a fine-hitting team. But there’s absolutely no certain conclusion to reach.
I mentioned that the Marlins put up a 104 wRC+. Let’s look at the performance of teams around that. There are 177 different teams who have posted an April wRC+ between 101 and 107, over the time window described. They averaged an April wRC+ of 104. Here now is a somewhat informative histogram of how those team offenses did upon the beginning of May.
Shift the x-axis numbers a little to the right, if you will. You’re looking at bins. Zero of the teams the rest of the way put up a wRC+ under 70. One came in between 70 and 75. Four came in between 75 and 80, and so on and so forth. The biggest group is between 95 and 100, and the overall average is 98. The total league average is 97. All teams over the window described averaged a 97 wRC+ between the start of May and the end of the year. The teams that began with a wRC+ between 101 and 107 averaged a 98 wRC+ between the start of May and the end of the year, with the message being that the start didn’t really mean very much, going forward. It was only the slightest indication of the group being above-average.
The thing you want to believe in with the Marlins is the youth. We’re always pretty aggressive with our beliefs that young players are improving, and besides the fact that Stanton is healthy again and doing what he’s done before, Marcell Ozuna has been a major contributor. Christian Yelich has been a contributor, and Hechavarria has been a contributor. But then you have Saltalamacchia having the best season of his life. Casey McGehee is blending Mike Trout‘s BABIP with Ben Revere‘s power. Garrett Jones is above his projections, separated from last year by BABIP. Almost everyone has been getting the job done, and while that’s only a handful of lucky flips of the coin, a month of mostly good breaks isn’t the same as six of them. The Marlins are on their way to being the impossible juggernaut, but they’re still barely out of the gate.
Right now, Marlins non-pitchers have a .347 wOBA. The depth chart projects them at .315 from here on out. Average this year is .319; average last year was .318. The Marlins last year were at .285. Throw in a park effect and maybe the Marlins really do have a roughly average lineup. Working in their favor is they get to start with Stanton in the middle. If you believe some of the young players have stepped forward, then there’s a real unit here, even if McGehee drops off, and even when Saltalamacchia drops off. The downside is we can’t conclusively say the Marlins are set for big things. The upside is a lot of the evidence points to the idea that the Marlins’ lineup is at least all right, which makes it one of the most upgraded components in the majors.
Since 1950, the biggest season-to-season team improvement in wRC+ is 27 points. The 1977 Brewers finished at 90; the 1978 Brewers finished at 117. The Marlins can eclipse that if they finish the season with a team wRC+ of 100. That would represent an improvement of 28 points, and right now they’re at 110 through 32 games. If they can hang around 97 or 98 the rest of the way, they’ll make some history. And if they manage to do better than that, they might end up something of a modern miracle. I wouldn’t bet on the 2014 Marlins sneaking into the playoff race, but some weeks ago I wouldn’t have bet that some weeks from then I’d even be writing this kind of sentence.
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