It’s a peculiar thing to say about the team to whom Giancarlo Stanton belongs, but the 2014 Miami Marlins had too little in the way of short-sequence offense. They weren’t helpless; they scored the seventh-most runs per game of any team in the National League. They had the NL’s fifth-highest walk rate and third-highest BABIP. They just lacked the things that turn positive outcomes into runs quickly, things like extra-base hits (11th in the National League in XBH as a percentage of all plate appearances) and stolen bases (a league-low 79 stolen-base attempts all year).
There was one other problem: They struck out too much. In fact, at 22.9 percent, they struck out more often than all but one other National League team. The frequency of swings and misses led to them falling below the league average in advancing runners at second or third base with fewer than two outs, and to a well below-average productive out percentage. (They also had the highest ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio in the NL, which led to the third-highest rate of double plays grounded into per opportunity.) To their credit, the Marlins put their four or five good hitters in a perfectly unbroken sequence and clustered their positive outcomes well, but their combination of strikeout propensity and reliance on singles made an inefficient mix.
Thus, Miami made over its offense—at least, as much as a team with a dazzling trio of under-25 outfielders and a catcher with two years left on his free-agent deal can make itself over. Their three additions reflect their desire to build an offense that, if it must strike out, can better manage to score around that.
Third Base: Casey McGehee → Martin Prado
To make this change, the Marlins traded Nathan Eovaldi, Garrett Jones and minor-league arm Domingo German to the Yankees for Prado, David Phelps and $6 million. They then dealt McGehee to the Giants for Luis Castillo and Kendry Flores, minor-league hurlers as anonymous as they sound. It boiled down to:
|Before Moves||After Moves|
|First Base – Garrett JonesThird Base – Casey McGehee|
Fifth SP – Nathan Eovaldi
Total Cost at Three Spots: $13.1 million
|First Base – OpenThird Base – Martin Prado|
Fifth SP – David Phelps
Total Cost at Two Spots: $9.4 million in 2015, plus $8 million committed to Prado in 2016
I’m being, if anything, unduly generous even to call Phelps their fifth starter. These twin transactions were mostly about upgrading from Casey McGehee to Martin Prado at third base, and the Marlins were willing to get more expensive at the position in order to do so. Why?
Well, like McGehee, Prado strikes out very rarely. He’s not going to exacerbate their strikeout problems. Unlike McGehee, though, Prado has a modicum of power. From 2012-14, Prado has posted striking consistent isolated-power rates (slugging average minus batting average) between .130 and .140. McGehee’s ISO in 2014 was .070. That was much, much too low for someone batting right behind Giancarlo Stanton, and right in front of the atrocious bottom third of the Marlins’ order. McGehee grounded into lots of double plays and advanced virtually no one more than a base at a time. Prado has notched double-digit home runs in each of the last six seasons, and even if he falls short of making it seven, he should put enough balls in the gap to advance runners farther than McGehee did.
First Base: Garrett Jones → Michael Morse
Garrett Jones doesn’t strike out as often as you think he does. He fanned more often than a league-average batter in 2014, but came in with a strikeout rate in the ranger between 20 and 23 percent for the fourth straight season. He also posted an 8.4-percent walk rate, his best since 2011. The problem was, his power began to erode. He posted his worst ISO ever, and had his worst slugging average relative to an average mark for his park and league since 2010. Jones’s consistently below-average BABIP forces him to deliver offensive value via power, or not at all. He (unwillingly, I’m sure) took the latter route in 2014. Rather than pay $5 million to wait and see whether Jones would recover his thump in 2015, the Marlins traded him away, and paid Michael Morse half again as much (plus $8.5 million more for 2016) to take his place.
Why Morse? The answer certainly isn’t to tamp down strikeouts, though it looked, briefly, like the team was trying to do that—they got fairly deep into (ultimately fruitless) negotiations with the Rockies on a Justin Morneau deal in December. Morse strikes out a quarter of the time or more, these days. However, when he makes contact, he delivers much more park-proof, devastating damage than Jones does.
Consider Morse’s home-run spray chart for 2014:
Morse hit 16 home runs in 2014, and certainly would have hit more but for two factors:
- He had only 482 plate appearances in 131 games, missing virtually all of September.
- AT&T Park had the second-lowest home-run park factor for right-handed batters in 2014, according to StatCorner.
That second factor, though, probably limited Morse fairly little, because the 16 homers he did hit flew an average of 417.6 feet. If he had hit just two more and maintained that average distance, he would have qualified for this leaderboard, and placed second on it, just ahead of new teammate Giancarlo Stanton. Presumably, then, Morse will feel the limiting effects of the homer-unfriendly Marlins Park much less than most power hitters would.
Morse will only make the team’s strikeout rate higher, but in this case, that’s not the same thing as making their strikeout problem worse. A team that strikes out a lot is going to have a lower-end on-base percentage, and has to be able to post crooked numbers quickly. Morse contributes to that element of danger, something that was missing from last year’s team.
Second Base: Donovan Solano and Derek Dietrich → Dee Gordon
Marlins second basemen weren’t the main source of their contact shortfall in 2014. In 721 plate appearances, they fanned 135 times, an 18.7-percent rate that falls comfortably below the MLB average. Dee Gordon, for whom the team paid such a steep prospect price, could still whittle that down a bit—he only fanned 16.4 percent of the time. His main contribution, though, will be in the way he makes his teammates’ strikeout rates less of a problem.
As I mentioned earlier, the Marlins stole only 58 bases in 2014, and in only 79 tries. They were a slow and conservative team on the bases. Only the Rangers and Royals relied more heavily on singles than Miami, but those teams combined to steal 200 more bases than the Marlins, so they were better able to put runners in scoring position ahead of those singles. Gordon helps fix that. He stole more bases than the Marlins did in 2014, and stole more efficiently, too. The average runner scored 29 percent of the time in 2014, once they reached base, and took the extra base on a hit by a teammate 40 percent of the time. Gordon scored 43 percent of the time, after reaching, and took the extra base on 63 percent of hits. Even if the Marlins’ offense gains very little in terms of power, they’ll gain in ability to bring baserunners home by adding Gordon.
Our brains sometimes assimilate new information into existing schemata, and sometimes accommodate new information by building a new schema with which to process it. The Marlins couldn’t really change their collective strikeout propensity, not with the resources at hand and the relative inflexibility (in a good way) of their roster, but they could, and did, accommodate that part of their team identity, by adding players who fit better into a strikeout-mad lineup.
A quick word about the excellent, young, strikeout-prone outfield mentioned in passing earlier. You know all about Stanton, who struck out 170 times in 2014 but hits for so much power and draws so many walks and has such a high natural BABIP that it doesn’t matter. You probably know, by now, about Christian Yelich, whose strikeout rate was right around league-average, maybe a hair worse, but who also draws plenty of walks and does the job of a tablesetter well. The guy you probably don’t know, or know only by loose impression, is Marcell Ozuna. Ozuna, the Marlins’ center fielder, struck out 26.8 percent of the time last season, and walked at only a quarter of that clip. He’s a free swinger, but like a lot of hyper-athletic, free-swinging right-handed hitters, he makes up for it. He has plenty of power, and posted a .337 BABIP that feels entirely sustainable, at least for another year or two. With Yelich, Ozuna and Stanton, the Marlins have the potential for a tremendous offensive core in their outfield, so the tradeoffs and accommodations they made in order to keep it intact while lessening the damage done by their whiffs seem well worth the trouble. Though not a likely playoff team, or anything, the Marlins are a dangerous bunch.
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