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Entries in Miami Marlins (16)


Hitters Teeing Off on Big Z's Heat

I can't wait for the third and final season of HBO's Eastbound & Down to start in February, but Kenny Powers' antics might look downright prudish compared to what goes down in the Miami Marlins' clubhouse next year. You've got a brand new park arousing SEC suspicion, a manager in need of a three-second tape delay, two star shortstops on the left side of the infield, an Elvis-impersonating closer, and a Twitter-loving left fielder. And now, add Carlos Zambrano to that South Beach powder keg.

The Cubs shipped Big Z to the Marlins for young but lefty-and-homer-prone starter Chris Volstad. Chicago will cover $15 million of Zambrano's $18 million salary for 2012 (no word on whether the Cubbies will chip in for the extra Gatorade dispensers and Louisville Sluggers the Fish will inevitably need). Zambrano waived a $19 million option for 2013 that would have vested if he finished in the top four in Cy Young voting.

While Big Z was once good for 200-plus innings and a sub-four ERA, he's a far cry from Cy Young form these days. The 30-year-old right-hander is coming off his worst season in the majors, striking out a career-low 15.9 percent of batters faced, surrendering a career-high 1.17 HR/9 and posting a career-worst 4.59 Fielding Independent Pitching in 145.2 innings before calling it quits on August 12 after a five-homer outing against the Braves. Volstad actually had a lower FIP, at 4.32.

Zambrano's on-field woes can mostly be traced to his heat. His fastball didn't miss nearly as many bats as usual, and his sinker, well, didn't.

In 2009, hitters slugged .381 against Z's fastball and missed the pitch 16.6 percent of the time they offered at it. Zambrano's fastball was even better in 2010, limiting batters to a .242 slugging percentage with a 21.6 miss percentage (those are just his numbers as a starter, to make an apples-to-apples comparison). But in 2011, opponents teed off to the tune of a .513 slugging percentage and they missed Z's fastball just 11.5 percent. Lefties were especially troublesome, slugging .589 and missing just 10.4 percent of fastballs swung at. Z has lost some zip on the pitch, averaging 90.2 mph compared to 90.6 in 2010 and 91.5 mph in 2009.

In '09 and '10, Zambrano did a good job of limiting contact on fastballs thrown at the knees or at the tip of the strike zone. Check out his fastball contact rate by pitch location, compared to the league average:

Zambrano's fastball contact rate by pitch location, 2009-2010

Average fastball contact rate by pitch location, 2009-2010

This past year, though? Zambrano was seeing red just about everywhere in the zone, and that was particularly the case in the lower half:

Zambrano's fastball contact rate by pitch location, 2011While Z's fastball got hit more often and harder, his sinker refused to stay down. Zambrano threw about 14 percent of his sinkers high in the strike zone in 2009. That increased to 25.5 percent in 2010 and spiked to 28 percent this past year (the average for starters is about 23 percent).

With Zambrano putting more sinkers on a tee, opponents' slugging percentage against the pitch climbed from .343 to .444 to .489. Those high sinkers are the ones hitters scorched last year:

Opponents' in-play slugging percentage vs. Zambrano's sinker, 2011

Zambrano threw fewer fastballs and sinkers than usual in 2011 (a combined 50.5 percent, down from around 54 percent the two previous years), yet 13 of the 19 homers he coughed up came on those pitches.

The Marlins aren't taking much of a financial risk in adding Zambrano to a rotation that already includes Josh Johnson, Anibal Sanchez and Mark Buehrle, and the club's new stadium may well play as a pitcher's park that aids Z in keeping the ball in the park. But if Zambrano doesn't miss more lumber with his fastball and get his sinker to sink, Miami could regret giving up three years of Volstad for one year of mercurial mediocrity.


Josh Johnson Most Important Marlin in 2012

Much ink has been spilt over the nouveau riche Miami Marlins' free agent additions. From franchise shortstop Jose Reyes to ultra-durable Mark Buehrle to closer Heath Bell, the Fish handed out a total of $191 million to bolster Ozzie Guillen's lineup and fill their new $634 million retractable roof stadium. But the difference between the Marlins contending with the Phillies and Braves and once again being relegated to also-ran status may well be injury-prone ace Josh Johnson.

During Florida's bleak 72-90 season in 2011, Johnson was limited to just 60.1 innings pitched by right shoulder inflammation. He threw his last pitch on May 16, with the Marlins eight games over .500 and just one game back of the Phillies. While Anibal Sanchez turned in a quality year, Javier Vazquez was unhittable in the second half and the staff got little help from a plodding defense (17th in the majors in Defensive Efficiency), the Florida rotation was mediocre as a whole. They ranked eighth in the National League in Fielding Independent Pitching (3.88) and 12th in innings pitched, taxing the bullpen often. Without Johnson, the Marlins tried to convert Clay Hensley (5.53 FIP as a starter) mid-season and called on not-ready prospect Brad Hand (5.73 FIP).

Buehrle will provide innings, but Vazquez seems headed for retirement. That leaves Johnson as Miami's best bet at having a top-tier starter to combat the Halladays and Lees of the NL East. When he's healthy, Johnson qualifies. Check out where he ranks in some key categories among starters since 2009:

Batting Average Against: .227, 82nd percent among starters (better than 82 percent of starters). Places between Mat Latos and C.J. Wilson.

On-Base Percentage Against: .284, 92nd percentile. Ranks between Adam Wainwright and Clayton Kershaw.

Slugging Percentage Against: .320, 94th percentile and sandwiched between Kershaw and Felix Hernandez.

Strikeout Percentage: 23.6%, 86th percentile. Between Zack Greinke and Latos.

Walk Percentage: 6.9%, 81st percentile. Between Justin Verlander and CC Sabathia.

The key for Johnson is a devastating mid-to-high-90s fastball. When hitters do manage to make contact (which isn't often -- his 20% miss rate with the pitch is ninth among starters since '09), it's weak contact. Look at opponents' in-play slugging percentage by location vs. Johnson's heater, compared to the league average. When Johnson keeps the ball low, they've got no chance:

Opponents' in-play slugging percentage vs. Johnson's fastball, 2009-2011

Average opponent in-play slugging percentage vs. fastballs, 2009-2011

Johnson has held hitters to a .338 slugging percentage with his fastball since 2009, trailing only Felix Hernandez among starters.

With a wicked fastball, Johnson ranked ninth among starters with 12 Wins Above Replacement from 2009-2010. Verlander, Greinke, Halladay, Lee, King Felix, Tim Lincecum, Ubaldo Jimenez and Jon Lester were the only guys with higher WAR totals, and Johnson placed high on the WAR leader board in 2011 before his shoulder shut him down. To keep pace with Philly, Atlanta and an upstart Nationals team, the Marlins need a healthy, Cy Young-level season out of Johnson.


Reyes Gets Six Years, $106M from Fish

SEC wrangling about stadium financing and long history of cobbling together a club on a couch coin budget aside, the Miami Marlins proved they were serious about significantly boosting payroll by signing shortstop Jose Reyes to a six-year, $106 million deal with an option for 2017 that could increase the total financial commitment to $120 million.

To be sure, signing Reyes through at least age 34 is fraught with risk. He has suffered from chronic hamstring problems dating back to his early twenties, including DL stints for the issue in 2004, 2009 and 2011. The 28-year-old has played 295 games out of a possible 486 over the past three seasons, or about 61 percent.

But it's also true that Reyes is a true franchise player when he's on the field. The switch-hitter has a .306 average, a .352 OBP and a .452 slugging percentage since '09, with a .355 Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) bested only by Troy Tulowitzki (.396) and Hanley Ramirez (.374) among shortstops. Reyes' bat has been about 16 percent better than those of his shortstop peers (.306 wOBA), making him immensely valuable even though advanced defensive metrics suggest he's not covering as much ground in the field as he once did.

Reyes likely won't maintain his career-best .386 wOBA in 2011, which was largely the result of a 40 point boost in batting average on balls in play (.353 BABIP last year, .314 career). But he did improve his already-stellar contact ability, cutting his strikeout rate to seven percent from 10.7 percent in 2009-2010. The reason? Better plate coverage against "soft" stuff -- curveballs, sliders and changeups. That was especially the case on breaking and off-speed pitches thrown inside:

Reyes' contact rate vs. "Soft" stuff, 2009-2010

Reyes' contact rate vs. "Soft" stuff, 2011Reyes swung and missed  25.5 percent of the time against soft stuff from 2009-2010, but just 17.3 percent in 2011. On soft stuff thrown inside, his miss percentage dropped to 21 percent from 30 percent. With fewer whiffs, his wOBA versus soft stuff improved to .308 from .245 (the MLB average is .273).

Given Reyes' history of leg injuries and time missed, it would be quixotic to think he is going to be a 140-150 game-a-year shortstop as he soon exits his twenties. But, as Fangraphs' Dave Cameron points out, Reyes' contract basically values him as a star-level player who will appear in 110-120 games per year. Plus, research by Tom Tango indicates that speed players like Reyes tend to age better than the general baseball population.

Cameron estimated that, adjusting for inflation, Reyes would need to post around 19 Wins Above Replacement over the next six years to make good on his contract. How likely is that? To get a rough idea of how Reyes could age, I turned to Baseball-Reference's Similarity Scores. Here are his most statistically similar players through age 28, as well as their performance from age 29-34. Rollins and Furcal haven't reached 34 yet, so I substituted projections from The Hardball Times' Oliver forecasting system:

Sources: Baseball-Reference, The Hardball Times

*= Oliver Projections from Brian Cartwright's projection system at THT

These six middle infielders averaged 4.1 WAR at age 29, 2.6 WAR at age 30, 2.5 WAR at age 31, and 4.2 WAR at age 32. With the Oliver projections for Rollins and Furcal included, they average 1.7 WAR at age 33 and 0.7 WAR at age 34. So overall, that's an average of 16 WAR during ages 29 to 34, with star-level performances from Trammell and Sandberg, average to above-average work from Rollins and Furcal, and something less than that from Templeton and Fernandez. There's plenty of variance here, but history suggests 15-20 WAR during the life of Reyes' contract is reasonable.

Reyes' signing also means that Hanley Ramirez must find a new position. Few shortstops have rated as poorly as Ramirez -- he's been about seven runs worse per 150 games than an average player at the position over the past three seasons, per UZR -- but he could fare better at third base. The Fans rate his arm as strong, if not exactly accurate, and Fielding Bible Plus/Minus Data indicates that most of his defensive woes come on balls hit to his right. That would likely make Matt Dominguez's standout glove and questionable bat trade bait.

Obviously, no $100+ million contract comes without significant risk. Reyes could go bust in South Beach, betrayed by his aching hamstrings or forced to move down the defensive spectrum. But Miami seems to have at least in part accounted for Reyes' dubious health history in this deal, and other comparable Expansion-Era middle infielders have produced at a level necessary from age 29-34 to make Reyes' pact look like a market-value deal with some upside.