Here's why Marlins' rotation could be special

April 29th, 2019

MIAMI -- As one, they watch each other’s between-starts throwing sessions, and during games sit together in the dugout, offering support and bouncing ideas off one another.

Still coming together as a unit, Miami's rotation may have a combined 167 MLB starts between them -- 33.4 per man -- but the Marlins' starting pitchers are driven by the common goal to be one of the best starting staffs in the game.

Based on raw talent and potential, the idea is not that far-fetched.

“We come in every day, and we want to be the rotation that works the hardest, and the smartest,” said Pablo Lopez, a 23-year-old right-hander. “I enjoy very much being around the guys. I enjoy coming to the field early so I can be around them. There's very good energy.”

When the club's upper management committed to building from the Minor Leagues on up, they put an emphasis on infusing as much starting depth as possible throughout the organization. They're pleasantly surprised the current big league rotation has already become their foundation -- for now and the future.

Despite the Marlins’ 8-20 record, the standings don’t tell the story of how the rotation is progressing. And the organization has made it clear that it doesn't intend to trade any of the core young arms any time soon.

“You don't really have to go into the long-range part of it,” manager Don Mattingly said. “It's now. To know that you have that [starting pitching], kind of day in, day out, you're starting to be able to count on it. You're starting to see it now. If we're able to generate runs, we're in games. It's not like we're not in games and we don't have chances to win.”

Lopez, Sandy Alcantara, Caleb Smith and Trevor Richards were all rookies in 2018, and combined they have 81 big league starts. Jose Urena, Miami’s Opening Day starter the past two years, is the elder statesman of the group with 86 starts.

“We're always trying to help each other,” said Smith, 27, the lone left-hander of the group. “We go out to each other's bullpens, and after the bullpen, we talk about the 'pen and try to give them little keys to focus in on to make them that much better.”

Of the five, Urena is perhaps the most likely to be dealt by the Trade Deadline. The other four each has five years remaining of club control. And at Triple-A New Orleans and Double-A Jacksonville, there are reinforcements close to being big-league ready -- like prospects Zac Gallen, Nick Neidert and Jordan Yamamoto.

The quality of talent in the organization jumped out immediately at new pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr., who joined Miami’s staff after being with the Mariners the past few seasons.

“You look at the stuff,” Stottlemyre said. “At some point the pitchability will start to catch up with the stuff. When that happens, you're going to have guys who are going to have an opportunity to impact a game, based on the tools and weapons that they have. They're still going through that transition period of learning who they are.”

The traditional and advanced numbers back it up.

According to Statcast, the Marlins’ starters had the best swing-and-miss percentage in the strike zone of any staff in the Majors at 21.1 percent. They’re also fourth in the Majors in chase rate, meaning getting batters to swing at pitches outside the zone, which is happening 30.1 percent of the time.

In 2017, the final season the Marlins retained their core position players like Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna and Dee Gordon, the rotation was 26th in the big leagues in team ERA (5.12) and 29th in innings pitched (830 2/3).

The 2019 rotation has a combined ERA of 4.28, which ranks near the middle of the pack at 17th overall, and it is eighth in innings pitched (155 2/3) by a starting staff.

“They're all capable of getting outs in the zone, and striking guys out when they get two strikes,” Stottlemyre said. “The swing and miss in the zone is great feedback to give to our guys.”

The day after starts, Stottlemyre breaks down the outings with the starters, informing them of how many first-pitch strikes they throw, how many first-pitch swings they get, how many balls are put in play on those, and how many hits.

“It really is astonishing,” Stottlemyre said. “Sometimes our guys will have 13-15 first-pitch strikes, and they'll have four or five first-pitch swings, and no first-pitch hits.”

In terms of the Marlins’ big picture, how quickly they go from building to contending will rest largely on the strength of the starters. Thus far, they appear up to the challenge.

“It doesn't matter how many young guys we have,” said Alcantara, 23. “When you get the opportunity, you leave everything on the mound in the game.”