Crushing DreaExpectation Management, Part III: The Florida Marlins

Let’s get right into it. The Marlins stand at 10-1 this fine Sunday morning, and they come by it honestly–they’re hitting well enough to get by and pitching like a staff full of Johan Santanas (with a team ERA+ of 153, that actually beats Santana’s career 145). Most figured them for third or fourth, and Baseball Prospectus thought they’d lose 90 and finish behind the Nationals. What the hell?

What they’re saying: Come on, no one talks about the Marlins. My law school friend Jeff, the only Marlins fan I know (or even know of), puts up a new, increasingly excited facebook status with every win. That’s all I got.

Okay, seriously:

  • The Herald’s Linda Robertson says that the Marlins’ winning is a good sign, which is why they pay her the big bucks.
  • Josh of Jorge Says No! opines that the Fish, alone among your surprising-starters, are for real.
  • USA Today’s Mel Antonen spotlights the Fish and Jays as “low-payroll, high-expectations” teams, and seems to conclude that the former are the most likely to keep it going.

So there are some expectations here. I think there were some expectations among some people coming into the season, actually, given that they won 84 games last year. But nobody expected a .909 start, and now nobody has any clue what to expect.

Reasons for Hope: Well,

  • Nobody knew what to expect from these starters. The oldest among them (Ricky Nolasco) is 26, and with just 388 big-league innings, he’s got at least 100 innings on each of the other four. Part of the Marlins’ projected struggles came from rather gloomy projections for each of the five starting pitchers, and each of them could significantly beat those projections. With the possible exception of Anibal Sanchez (who can hold his own), all are hard throwers who rack up strikeouts, which is exactly what they need with this defense–which is, um, not great. If this pitching staff is even half as good as they’ve looked so far (aside from Nolasco, who has struggled but will rebound), they’re in much better shape than most people thought.
  • They have one of the four best players in the Major Leagues, and you could make a good case that he’s the best. Hanley Ramirez looked like a terrible defensive shortstop in his breakout 2007, but measured out as more or less average in 2008, and has been downright good in the way-too-early going in 2009. If Hanley can hit and run like Hanley does and play a good shortstop, that’s about the best weapon a team could have. And he hasn’t really started hitting yet this year.
  • About three years ago, Jeremy Hermida was expected to be a superstar by now. He stumbled a little in ’06, had a very nice year in ’07, took a huge step back in ’08, and now seems to have been more or less forgotten (though playing for the Marlins has that effect). He’s still just 25, and one thing I’ve noticed is that if everybody thought you had that kind of talent once, you probably did, and might start showing it at any time (there are, of course, a few exceptions–I’m looking at you, Delmon). Hermida is doing a fine job in the early going, and I expect him to significantly outperform most of his projections. Also, Cameron Maybin was a top prospect even more recently, and he can’t be as bad as he’s played through the first eleven.

Why it won’t happen:

  • Emilio Benifacio. He of the .679 OPS and 76 OPS+ in about half a season’s worth of career PA and an underwhelming .285/.341/.362 minor league line. Not a good player. Guys like this don’t suddenly become good players. His flukish, scorching hot start will probably keep him in the lineup much longer than he deserves, and he’ll be seriously costing the Marlins runs starting…now.
  • That BABIP thing again. They’re batting .354 on balls they put in play, which is about 25 points above the usual major-league leading team BABIP. The culprits, not surprisingly, are the guys who are playing miles over their heads–Bonifacio at a ridiculous .500, catcher John Baker at .444, and Dan Uggla (a good hitter, but not a .314 hitter) at .429. Those bloops and dribblers will stop finding the holes quite so often, a few line drives will be scorched right at somebody, and those BABIPs will slip back toward .300. And then they’ll stop scoring runs.
  • On the other hand, maybe Maybin just isn’t as good as we all thought (or just isn’t ready yet). After the guys I just mentioned, he has the highest BABIP at an unsustainable .389. But he’s struck out in 43% of his plate appearances, so he’s still hitting a dreadful .219/.286/.250. If he’s terrible and Hermida doesn’t have a big breakout year, this team will have a hard time scoring runs once its luck starts to even out.
  • Speaking of luck due to even out, they’re hitting like Albert Pujols (.340/.438/.530) with runners in scoring position. That won’t last, either.
  • Their pitching staff may be great, but it’s not going to be this great. Four of the starters and the team’s closer all have ERAs under 2 (Nolasco is the odd man out, struggling at over 6).

So basically, aside from Maybin and Nolasco, everything that coul;d possibly have gone right for them so far, has, and any of it could (and probably will) start going wrong again.

What PECOTA Says: the forecasting system liked the Marlins to lose 90 at the start of this year, and their updated Playoff Odds Report, surprisingly, hasn’t changed much. They’re ending up an average of 73-89, and missing the playoffs 93.41% of the time.

My take: That seems extreme. The team has already won 10 of its first 11 (of course, the odds were last put together when they were 9-1, but I doubt one more win changes things much at this point), and would have to play just a little better than .400 the rest of the way to make it to 89 losses. I don’t see that happening. The forecasts are based on pitching projections that I think are suspect–I expect all five of the starters to outperform what PECOTA sees for them. That said, they’re going to have a really tough time keeping up with the Mets and Phillies in this one. I see them going 78-84, five or six games ahead of the Nationals for last, with a chance to get a little lucky and break .500 (but still fall 10+ games behind New York and Philly).

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