After a very successful 6-1 road trip, the first-place Arizona Diamondbacks (I can't type that without smiling) return home to host the Florida Marlins. As you may know, the Marlins are run according to a cycle of trading expensive stars for dirt-cheap prospects, developing those prospects into all-stars, and then trading them for more dirt-cheap prospects once they become too expensive.
For this reason, the Marlins typically have a bunch of players that no one has ever heard of. Or, if you have heard of them, then they have a bunch of players who you can feel smug about knowing and can invoke to make your friends who don't follow baseball feel totally inferior. Like so:
Uncultured Plebian: "Wow, look at the season Roy Halladay is having, I smell a Cy Young!"
You: "Umm, actually Josh Johnson is having a better season. But you wouldn't know about that since he's not mainstream." ::sniffs derisively::
Uncultured Plebian: "Jose Bautista is amazing!"
You: "Sturgeon McCloud actually has way better numbers in right field. But he plays for the Marlins, soooo...."
Uncultured Plebian: "Really? Because I'm pretty sure you just made up a name by combining a species of fish with the last name of a popular video game fox from the nineties."
You: "SHUT UP, OK! IT'S THE MARLINS, YOU HAVE NO IDEA!"
God, Marlins fans must be insufferable.
Of course, the Marlins are at it again here in 2011, putting together one of the better teams in the National League despite one of the smallest payrolls. Florida is 30-21, which would win them the Wild Card if the season ended today. They've accomplished this by assembling a mouthwatering collection of young talent that features perennial all-star Hanley Ramirez, former Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan, and corner outfielders Mike Stanton and Logan Morrison, who simply ooze talent. In their most recent series, they lost two of three to the Dodgers, but they swept the Giants in San Francisco before that, so we owe them a debt of gratitude.
What the Stats Say (According to Fangraphs)
Arizona (29-24) Florida (30-21) Edge
As you can see, offense is more or less a toss-up, as the Marlins have a slight edge in wRC+, but the D-Backs hold the edge in wOBA, OPS and Runs Scored. In addition, the D-Backs offense is dealing with a lower BABIP than the Marlins, as their mark of .288 has a good chance of regressing a bit, since the league average is .300.
The Marlins do have strong pitching, as you can see from their FIP. It's well-balanced as well, with an FIP from the rotation(3.47) that almost matches their bullpen's (3.36). I guess what I'm trying to say is that the Marlins do pretty much everything well, as their hitting, pitching and fielding are all above average.
The fact that the Marlins have been able to keep their offense afloat despite the struggles of their star Hanley Ramirez says a lot about the other guys in the lineup. And has Ramirez ever struggled in 2011. After a career of putting up an OPS of at least .800 in every season he's spent in the majors, his OPS in 2011 sits at .618, thanks to an anemic SLG% of .311. His struggles are largely due to a truly awful BABIP at .238, over 100 points lower than his career average (.340). It's only a matter of time before his luck turns around, and he should be back to being himself following an uptick in power. Here's hoping he keeps hitting like David Eckstein for the next three games though.
As I said, the rest of the guys have picked up the slack for Hanley. 1B Gaby Sanchez is shining in his second season as a starter, posting an OPS+ of 143. As I mentioned earlier, the Marlins' corner outfielders are going to be good for a long time. Logan Morrison is only 23, but his OPS of .988 would put him behind only Matt Holliday among NL outfielders if he had enough at-bats to qualify. The Hulking Adonis Known as Mike Stanton (that's his full name) isn't far behind, with an OPS of .894. At age 21, the sky is truly the limit for Mike Stanton.
Elsewhere, Chris Coghlan has regressed a bit since his promising rookie campaign, with an OPS+ of only 93. On the other hand, 32 year old utility infielder Greg Dobbs is having his best season by far, with an OPS+ of 140 in 127 PAs. Normally I'd call this completely ridiculous, except that we have Ryan Roberts, so we don't get to talk.
Insightful Commentary: This is the first time in recent memory that Joe Saunders has actually had a better ERA going into a baseball game than his opponent, which shows that he's getting better results lately. Last time out, he had his best performance of the season, going eight innings and giving up only two runs against the Rockies at Coors. What's more, he actually had decent peripherals for a change, as his 4:1 K:BB rate in the game marked the first time since April 27 (!) that he had more strikeouts than walks in a game. Progress!
His opponent, Chris Volstad, has actually gotten quite unlucky in his third full season in the majors. His ERA is 5.40 despite an FIP of 4.01 and an xFIP of just 3.56. His BABIP isn't unreasonable, but his Strand Rate is only 63.7% (MLB average: 73%). This means that about ten percent more of his baserunners score once they reach base. Either he is simply terrible pitching from the stretch, and his career numbers suggest that this isn't the case, or he's likely to regress to the mean. Expect the latter.
Insightful Commentary: It's funny, but at no point during Kennedy's previous start did I feel completely comfortable. He gave up some very solid contact, he only struck out three batters, and the seven hits he allowed were the most since the dreaded St. Louis game. But when I looked up, Kennedy had only given up one run through eight innings of work, something he did only twice last season. There have been a lot of little victories in what's shaping up to be a very fun season for the D-Backs, but watching Ian Kennedy mature into an ace is probably my favorite.
You might remember Anibal Sanchez as one of two pitchers to ever no-hit the Diamondbacks. That was in 2006. Back then, he was a 22 year old rookie with a sexy fastball who looked like he would be a star for years to come. That still may occur, but it's been struggle for Sanchez since then, as he's battled injuries and wildness. At least so far in 2011, he seems to be past all that, as his 2.60 ERA is augmented nicely by a 2.74 FIP. I think we should have St. Penelope ready for this one, just in case...
Wednesday: Daniel Hudson (6-5, 4.13) vs. Javier Vazquez (3-4, 6.02)
Insightful Commentary: Not too much went right for Daniel Hudson in Houston. His slider wasn't working, and he wasn't getting calls on the edges of the strike zone, so a lot of his offerings were right down the middle. He also had typically bad luck on balls in play, and the result was six runs in by the fourth inning. But he gutted it out and still went six innings, and was eventually rewarded with a win. Good pitchers had bad starts sometimes, and I maintain that Daniel Hudson is a very good pitcher.
Wednesday features another blast from the D-Backs' past in the form of Javier Vazquez. The former D-Back is now a back-of-the-rotation starter for the Marlins. He's had a rough go of it this season, as the 6.02 ERA indicates. His strikeouts are down, his walks are up, and his HR/FB rate is actually below average, indicating that he still has some regressing to do, in one area at least. Vazquez is 35, and it's looking as though the end might be near.
Final Verdict: Optimism.
It has returned to Diamondback fans, after two seasons of being banished in favor of despair and Tankapalooza and vague "hopes for the future." You can see it everywhere on this site, from the spike in the Fan Confidence Rating, to the surge in activity on Gameday Threads, to the influx of new visitors over the past week. It's fun, and it's not something I realized I ever lost until I found yourself rooting for a first-place team after two seasons with more than 90 losses.
And, you know what? The optimism is warranted, because this team is better than the last few incarnations. Sure, they've gotten a bit lucky over the past two weeks, but bad baseball teams don't go 14-2 over a given stretch. Am I saying they'll make the playoffs? No, but even if they don't, this team is making progress, and it's a lot of fun to watch.
I'm not quite sure if I'm all the way on the optimism bandwagon, but my pessimism is wavering somewhat. The Florida Marlins are a good baseball team that does pretty much everything fairly well, but there are reasons to be hopeful. The Diamondbacks are coming home, where they're 16-10 this year. Also, they have the apparent pitching advantage in two of the three games, with the other game being started by Ian Kennedy. And I think we should all know by now not to count out Ian Kennedy. I say Diamondbacks two games to one.
GO FIRST PLACE D-BACKS!
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