This is a dark horse for MLB's best rotation

February 16th, 2021

At first glance, the gap between the Dodgers’ and Marlins’ rotations appears to be larger than the distance between Los Angeles and Miami.

The Dodgers arguably have the game’s best starting staff after adding reigning National League Cy Young Award winner last week. The Marlins, meanwhile, ranked 14th in the Majors in rotation ERA (4.31) last season, and FanGraphs’ Depth Charts projects the club will finish 27th in pitching wins above replacement this year.

The stats below illustrate the sizable gulf between the projected Opening Day rotations for the two teams. And this doesn’t even include and , who have been relegated to bullpen roles for now.

Wins: 436
Innings: 6,157 1/3
Cy Young Awards: 5
ERA: 3.08

Wins: 34
Innings: 749 2/3
Cy Young Awards: 0
ERA: 4.27

But these two rotations might be closer than you think.

Consider the fact that those five Miami starters each allowed an xwOBA (a Statcast metric that uses quality of contact plus real-world strikeout and walk numbers) of .298 or lower in 2020, when the MLB-wide xwOBA was .312. Only one other team -- the Dodgers -- has five starters on its current roster who fit that criteria.

Most starters with ≤ .298 xwOBA allowed in 2020
Minimum 100 batters faced as a starting pitcher; based on current rosters
Marlins: 5 (Sánchez, López, Hernandez, Alcantara, Rogers)
Dodgers: 5 (Bauer, Kershaw, Buehler, Urías, Gonsolin)
Padres: 4 (Blake Snell, Dinelson Lamet, Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove)
Phillies: 4 (Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, Zach Eflin, Vince Velasquez)
5 teams tied with 3

In addition, Sánchez, López, Hernandez and Rogers all posted an xERA of 3.49 or lower in 2020, something just 36 starting pitchers who faced at least 100 batters accomplished. Once again, only the Dodgers can match that number, with Bauer, Kershaw, Urías and Gonsolin all registering an xERA of 3.49 or lower last season. The Padres (Lamet, Darvish, Musgrove) and Twins (Kenta Maeda, J.A. Happ, Michael Pineda) have three each.

Related

Obviously, last season was a small sample size, and the Marlins’ young arms have much to prove. But here’s why each of these hurlers has a chance to find success and perhaps even give Miami a case for having the game’s best rotation in 2021.

Sixto Sánchez, RHP
Key stat: .192 xwOBA allowed on changeups in 2020

One of the game’s top pitching prospects, Sánchez (the No. 15 overall prospect per MLB Pipeline) possesses strong command and an electric five-pitch arsenal, featuring a four-seam fastball that touches 100 mph, a two-seamer that sits around 96-97 mph, an elite changeup, a curveball and a slider/cutter.

Opponents had a tough time squaring up the right-hander in his debut season, recording a 21.4% sweet-spot rate (second lowest in MLB) and a 5.4% barrel rate (tied for 24th lowest in MLB) against him. Only 14.3% of the batted balls he gave up were hard-hit fly balls or line drives, among the best in the game.

Lowest hard-hit FB+LD% in 2020
Minimum 100 batted balls

  1. Max Fried: 11.3%
  2. Sixto Sánchez: 14.3%
  3. Hyun Jin Ryu: 15.1%
  4. Pablo López: 15.5%
  5. Kenta Maeda: 15.8%

As a result, Sánchez held hitters to a .262 xwOBA despite posting a pedestrian 24.9% whiff rate and a below-average 20.9% strikeout rate. He allowed a minuscule .192 xwOBA in plate appearances ending on changeups, tied for the 14th lowest in MLB against any specific pitch type.

Even if he doesn’t find a way to miss more bats, the 22-year-old could ride his four-seamer/two-seamer/changeup combo to continued success.

Pablo López, RHP
Key stat: 23.8% whiff rate on in-zone pitches in 2020

López had the misfortune of starting against the Braves on Sept. 9, the day Atlanta put up 29 runs in a rout. He lasted 1 2/3 innings, giving up seven earned runs. In his other 10 starts last season, he recorded a 2.59 ERA over 55 2/3 innings.

López, 24, doesn’t have overpowering stuff, but he was able to excel by keeping the ball around the edges of the strike zone in 2020. The right-hander’s edge rate was 46.2%, up nearly four percentage points from 2019. It helped López increase his whiff rate on pitches in the strike zone from 16.7% to 23.8%, which put him in elite company.

When batters managed to put the ball in play against López, he was often able to avoid damaging contact, yielding a lowly 4.3% barrel rate (84th percentile) and a 32.3% hard-hit rate (79th percentile). As we showed above, López had the fourth-lowest hard-hit FB+LD rate in MLB (minimum 100 batted balls), two spots behind Sánchez.

Elieser Hernandez, RHP
Key stat: 27.4 K-BB% in 2020

A right lat strain sidelined Hernandez in early September, ending a promising season in which the right-hander recorded a 3.16 ERA with 34 strikeouts and five walks over his first six starts. Hernandez’s 27.4 K-BB% was a top-10 mark among starting pitchers who threw at least 20 innings in 2020.

Highest K-BB% among starting pitchers in 2020
Minimum 20 innings as a starter

  1. Shane Bieber: 34.0%
  2. Jacob deGrom: 32.1%
  3. Trevor Bauer: 29.9%
  4. Tyler Glasnow: 29.0%
  5. Corbin Burnes: 28.4%
  6. Kenta Maeda: 28.2%
  7. Drew Smyly: 27.8%
  8. Elieser Hernandez: 27.4%
  9. Dinelson Lamet: 27.3%
  10. Kevin Gausman: 26.8%

Hernandez averaged just 91.3 mph with his four-seam fastball last season, but he showed excellent command in working around the edges of the zone. In fact, no pitcher who tossed at least 100 pitches in 2020 had a higher edge rate than Hernandez’s 51.4%.

Hernandez’s slider has proven to be his best pitch. Using it more than one-third of the time, he has held opponents to a .212 xwOBA in plate appearances ending on sliders over the past two years.

Sandy Alcantara, RHP
Key stat: .305 xwOBA on fastballs in 2020

Acquired as part of the package the Cardinals sent to Miami for Marcell Ozuna after the 2017 season, Alcantara has become a rotation staple for the Marlins, posting a 3.69 ERA in 45 starts. That includes a 3.00 ERA in 2020, when the righty recorded his best strikeout (22.7%) and walk rates (8.7%) in his three seasons with the club.

Like Sánchez and López, Alcantara minimized hard air contact in 2020, with his 20.5% hard-hit FB+LD rate tying for the 30th-lowest mark among the 135 pitchers who permitted at least 100 batted balls. The 25-year-old gave up just four home runs across 42 innings, continuing a trend of keeping the ball in the park.

Alcantara didn’t allow a home run on fastballs, making him the only pitcher with at least 100 plate appearances that ended with a heater and not give up a round-tripper. His xwOBA allowed on fastballs has dropped every year, which is a good sign for a pitcher who throws a fastball roughly 60% of the time.

Trevor Rogers, LHP
Key stat: 49.1% edge rate in 2020

Rogers (Miami's No. 9 prospect) made his debut three days after Sánchez in 2020, but he didn’t perform nearly as well as his teammate, recording a 6.11 ERA in 28 innings. The Marlins had a quick hook with the southpaw, pulling him before the fifth inning in five of his seven starts.

There were some positive signs, however, including Rogers’ 30.0% strikeout rate and 5.3% barrel rate. Like López and Hernandez, Rogers showed an aptitude for pitching to the edges of the plate, recording one of the highest edge rates (49.1%) in the game. He also posted a whiff rate of 29.7% or higher with three pitch types -- his changeup, slider and four-seamer, which had a spin rate that was well above average at 2,426 rpm.

Rogers ended up with a 3.49 xERA, and the 2.62-run difference between his xERA and actual ERA was the 14th largest among qualifiers.

Depth

If one of the Dodgers’ top starters goes down, they can turn to May, Gonsolin or Josiah Gray (MLB’s No. 58 prospect) to fill in. The Marlins don’t have that type of depth to lean on, putting more pressure on their inexperienced top five, but the club does have some intriguing arms in its farm system.

While Max Meyer (MLB’s No. 28 prospect) may not be ready until 2022, the Marlins could call upon Edward Cabrera (MLB’s No. 68 prospect), a hard-throwing 22-year-old righty. According to MLB Pipeline, there are some in the Marlins organization who believe Cabrera has a brighter future than Sánchez.

Outfielder Monte Harrison (Miami’s No. 10 prospect) has had a chance to watch Cabrera up close and thinks he could be just as good as the other starters on the staff.

“Don’t get me wrong, Sandy [and] all those dudes are great pitchers,” Harrison said recently on MLB Network Radio. “Sixto has a great presence on the mound. I love the way he competes. But it’s the simple fact that [Cabrera has] always been in the shadow of them. [People thinking] he’s not that guy, he won’t be that ace guy. But in my mind I think he is. Just the way he works at it, his mindset and the way he goes about it on the mound. He just doesn’t have a care in the world, and I can’t wait for him to get back on the mound and really prove to people this year that he’s one of those dudes too.”

Other rotation options include Braxton Garrett (Miami’s No. 7 prospect), Nick Neidert (No. 11), Paul Campbell (No. 25), Jordan Holloway (No. 27) and Daniel Castano. All except Campbell debuted in 2020, though they threw a combined 46 innings -- 29 2/3 by Castano.

With so much uncertainty, there’s a lot riding on Sánchez, López, Hernandez, Alcantara and Rogers in 2021, but their performance last season suggests they could be up to the challenge.