Who are the 2020 Miami Marlins? Getting to know the Cubs’ wild-card opponents
In any other year, Jason Kipnis knows the x-factor the Cubs have when it comes to postseason experience.
But 2020 is unlike any other year. In past years, the Marlins would have had to take a flight to Chicago and deal with the gauntlet of a raucous Wrigley Field crowd. Instead, they’ll face the Cubs in a best-of-three wild-card round in an empty stadium.
“I think a lot of experience maybe comes with dealing with crowds, dealing with emotions, dealing with noise and all this stuff and that’s just not going to be the case this year,” Kipnis said.
The Marlins were a team with low expectations this season, coming off a woeful 57-105 year in 2019 where they finished with the third-worst record in baseball, 40 games back of the Braves in the NL East and 32 games back of the Brewers for the final wild-card spot. That doesn’t take into account the tumultuous 2020 season they experienced, either.
They were hit hard with a COVID-19 outbreak in the first week of the season and had a total of 18 players tested positive. That resulted in the team scrambling to fill out roster spots, using a total of 61 players this season. There were 18 players that made their MLB debuts this season, they spent 23 days on the road to start the season and they finished the season with a 28-games-in-24-days stretch.
“You’re looking at a team that, outside of our clubhouse, there weren’t a lot of people that had expectations for us and our team believed that we had a good team,” Marlins president Derek Jeter told the Miami Herald. “We went out there and we played every single day to win. And I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
So, outside of being a surprise addition to the 2020 postseason field, who are these Marlins?
Well, they’re a team with some young fireball hurlers at the top of the rotation and speed – lots and lots of speed.
Pablo López, Sandy Alcántara and rookie Sixto Sánchez spearhead their rotation. The trio have combined for a 3.38 ERA and a 1.19 WHIP in 138.1 innings of work.
Reports indicate that the Dominican Alcántara will get the Game 1 nod for the Marlins. Alcántara was acquired by the Marlins in 2017 from St. Louis as part of the deal that netted the Cardinals Marcell Ozuna and has been terrific ever since. He was an All-Star last season, his first full season in the big leagues, where he pitched to a 3.88 ERA with an MLB-best 2 shutouts.
Alcántara relies on a sinker-slider mix in his five-pitch arsenal:
Sinker: 40% usage, averaging around 96.3 mph
Slider: 26.1% usage, averaging around 86.8 mph
Four-seam fastball: 19.9% usage, averaging around 96.8 mph
Changeup: 10% usage, averaging around 90.0 mph
Curveball: 3.9% usage, averaging around 79.8 mph
Alcántara has reached a new level with an improved sinker. In 2019, his sinker was his second-most used pitch at 27.6%, averaged around 95.3 mph on it, opponents were hitting .243 off it and he gave up 7 home runs on that pitch, the most of any of his pitches. This season, opponents are hitting just .185 off his sinker with 0 home runs. He’s added velocity to the pitch and relied on it more with increased effectiveness.
There’s been a push among Miami fans for the fireballer Sánchez to get the nod, although it’d be tough to go with a rookie with 7 career big league starts in the franchise’s first postseason game in 17 years. The Marlins’ top prospect heading into this season has a five-pitch blend and mixes them up well:
Changeup: 26.7% usage, sitting around 89 mph
Four-seam fastball: 23.8% usage, averaging around 98.6 mph
Sinker: 23.6% usage, averaging around 96.6 mph
Slider: 18.1% usage, averaging around 89.1 mph
Curveball: 7.9% usage, averaging around 85.7 mph
The righty has had the most success with his fastball-changeup mix, as opponents are hitting just .148 off his changeup and .217 against his four-seam. If the Cubs face the rookie, they’ll want to try and sit and wait for his slider and sinker. Opponents are hitting .368 off his sinker and .333 off his slider.
López, like Sánchez, relies on a fastball-changeup mix and has a 5-pitch arsenal:
Four-seam fastball: 31.5% usage, averaging around 93.9 mph
Changeup: 29.9% usage, averaging around 87.2 mph
Sinker: 22.5% usage, averaging around 93.4 mph
Cutter: 9.2% usage, averaging around 90.9 mph
Curveball: 7% usage, averaging around 78.7 mph
The Venezuelan righty has had the most success with his changeup, as hitters are hitting just .216 off it, but he’s had good command of all of his pitches. López, who grew up the son of doctors in Venezuela and turned down medical school to sign with the Mariners in 2012, could start one of the Wild Card games for the Marlins.
The trio is tough and could give the Cubs lineup fits, but if there’s one thing the Cubs offense has shown it’s patience. The Cubs had an average of 4.11 pitches per plate appearance, the third most in baseball behind Cleveland and Cincinnati. That could play crucial in the 3-game set.
If the Cubs can drive up pitch counts like they’ve done all season and turn to the Marlins’ bullpen early in games, their offense has a chance to feast.
Miami had the fifth-worst bullpen in baseball by ERA, sporting a 5.50 ERA in 230.2 innings of work. The Marlins relievers have a 1.55 WHIP, fifth worst in baseball and opponents are hitting .269 off them, the fourth-worst mark in baseball.
Those numbers are a little skewed, though. The back of the bullpen has been stellar for Miami. James Hoyt and former Cub Brandon Kintzler have anchored the back of the pen. Hoyt is 1-0 with a 1.23 ERA in 24 games and Kintzler has 12 saves and a 2.22 ERA. Yimi García is 3-0 with a 0.60 ERA and a 0.933 WHIP in 15 innings. If the Cubs can run up pitch counts and force the young starters into hitter’s counts, they have a chance for success before turning to a strong backend bullpen.
So, what’s this Marlins offense like? Well, blink and you may miss them.
This is a speedy team and they love to use it. The Marlins are second in baseball in stolen bases with 51 this season, led by Jon Berti with 9. Monte Harrison is their “designated” runner, with 6 stolen bases, many of them coming off the bench in pinch running scenarios.
The Cubs battery is crucial for success against the Marlins’ offense. Victor Caratini and Willson Contreras will need to be ready to make throws to nab would-be baserunners and Cubs pitchers will have to keep Marlins hitters at bay. A passed ball or wild pitch could turn around a game with the Marlins’ speed.
There’s some misconception about this Marlins team. While their rotation is anchored by young pitching stars, their hitters aren’t young. The Marlins had the fifth-oldest starling lineup by hitters in baseball, with an average age of 29.
Among those veteran players are some familiar faces for Cubs fans. Starling Marté was with the Pirates from 2012 until last season, Jesús Aguilar was with the Brewers from 2017 until last season and Corey Dickerson was with the Pirates in 2018 and parts of 2019. Here’s how they’ve fared at Wrigley Field in their careers:
Marté: .272/.319/.477; 66-for-243 with 10 home runs and 32 RBI
Aguilar: .265/.383/.306; 13-for-49 with 8 RBI
Dickerson: .323/.391/.468; 20-for-62 with 1 home run and 6 RBI
To have success, the Cubs pitching corps will want to try and get this lineup to chase – and maybe chase early. The Marlins have the sixth-highest chase rate in baseball at 29.5% and the 11th highest first-pitch swing percentage at 60.4%. With some combination of Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks likely starting the first two games of the series, the Cubs will have two of their best pitchers in terms of mix to try and stymie the Marlins’ offense.
While David Ross has done wonders in his first season as the Cubs’ manager, Don Mattingly, another NL Manager of the year candidate will be opposing him in the visitors’ dugout at Wrigley Field. Not only has Mattingly led a 105-loss team from last place in the NL East to the playoffs, but he’s dealt with a massive COVID-19 outbreak and pieced together a revolving door of players to field a playoff team.
Much credit should be given to the Marlins’ veterans, too, for keeping spirits high as they spent 8 days in quarantine in a Philadelphia hotel and nearly a month away from Miami to start the season. While every team has been through a lot this season, not many have been through what the Marlins have gone through.
Kintzler has been a calming influence on the Marlins ‘pen, too. He’s cracked jokes, had fun and helped keep the team morale high, even with all they’ve been through. He wasn’t surprised with how 2020 played for the Marlins.
“I’ve been playing a long time,” Kintzler told reporters on Friday. “But I’ve never been part of a group that was that tight that wanted to fight together. That’s my mentality. I always want to fight. It’s me against the world. And it was us against the world. Everyone was already mad at us, thinking that we messed up for getting COVID. We just came together.”