Opening Day across Major League Baseball is quickly approaching. If MLB gets to hold a season this year, the first day of the campaign could be very interesting. The Marlins, who are scheduled to visit the Phillies, have no question as to who’ll start that game. This is likely to be the ace of the rotation Sandy Alcantara.
Last season Miami boasted one of the most dominant starting rotations in all of baseball. The Marlins finished 15th league-wide in starters ERA with 4.59 but had a very good top slate of the rotation for much of the 2019 season. Players like Alcantara, Caleb Smith, and Pablo Lopez, were among the main contributors. Now, those three names could all engage in a race for the top spot. However, the expectations for one seems to be bigger than for the other two.
Smith, despite being drafted in the 14th round in 2013, was amongst the stars in the Yankees farm system for four years. In 86 starts on the mound, he never managed an ERA over 4.00 in a season while reaching Triple-A. That lead to a debut for New York in 2017 and a subsequent trade to the Marlins, alongside Garrett Cooper.
As always, he 2019 MLB season was forgettable at best for the Marlins. On-field results, as interesting as it may seem, haven’t shown any kind of improvement. Miami’s number of wins has slipped in each of the last two seasons. Overall, the Marlins went from a 77-win club to a 57-win club in three years. Yet, the positive feeling surrounding the team has been on the upward spiral ever since Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich.
The truth is that the 2019 lineup was nearly abysmal and has seen its fair share of upgrades throughout the offseason. Nevertheless, the focus remains on the starting rotations to determine the team’s success. The offensive production is still questionable and the bullpen could be a serious liability beyond new closer Brandon Kintzler.
This year’s rotation could be the best the team has had in quite some time. The competition for the last spot between Elieser Hernandez and Jose Urena is still to have its conclusion. Either one will give Miami’s starting unit a significant depth. Also, Jordan Yamamoto is set to play his first full season after debuting last summer.
But, as with every rotation in a similar situation, Caleb Smith is the x-factor if the staff wants to elevate its impact. Last year, the Sam Houston State product spent some time on the Injured list but was still able to throw more than 150 innings in 28 starts. Also, he posted a 4.52 ERA. Taking into account production and workload, the only accomplishment more impressive was Sandy Alcantara’s, who had a 3.88 ERA in 197.1 innings pitched.
His true outcome-related figures were also, all in all, pretty satisfying, with one notable exception. Firs, Smith recorded 168 strikeouts, or 9.86 K/9, by far the best mark out of the staff’s top three pitchers. Technically, this marked a slight decrease as compared to 2018’s 10.2 K/9, but that’s with nearly 80 more innings pitched. His biggest improvement was in the control department, where his BB/9 mark went down from 3.8 to 3.5. This is still far worse than Pablo Lopez’s 2.18 but, again, it’s a solid upgrade to his game.
Those two statistical feats elevated his game so much, that they combined to increase his K/BB figure from 2.67 to 2.80. To sum it up, none of these are out-of-this-world, one-year increases. However, they point to Smith either maintaining his level or even improving, compared to a year when he threw nearly 80 innings less. This has given credibility to his high strikeout numbers and decreasing walk numbers.
Another source that would confirm that production/workload correlation is his problematic zone – the homerun ball. In a longer season, Smith almost doubled his HR/9 mark, 1.2 to 1.9. The result? This made for 33 surrendered big flies, tied for most in the National League with Chicago’s Yu Darvish.
Despite his homerun issues, for the most part, it seems like not only is the statistical outcome good, but it is trending upward. This is exactly what projections and simulations are also saying. Smith was the best Marlins pitcher during the OOTP simulation, which is currently at its halfway point.
The first half of the full 2020 simulation saw Caleb register a huge growth. Smith posted a 3.02 ERA, with a BB/9 under 3.0, a K/9 over 9.0, and an HR/9 under 1.0. The latter stat is a shocking revelation, but shows that it’s – at least in theory – possible for him to overcome those big-ball woes. The sims also saw Smith perform better than Alcantara. He had a solid 3.58 ERA but walked nearly four batters per nine. This could be seen as a sign that Alcantara probably won’t decline dramatically, but that Smith is capable of taking over the ace role.
The Marlins rotation could be one of the best in the league at the peak of its development. Alcantara was terrific last year, while Lopez needs to stay at his 2019 level to be a great No. 3 starter. Meanwhile, Yamamoto is the youngest asset of the staff, and Urena or Hernandez would do perfectly for the No. 5 starter. However, Smith is nearing his ceiling at 28 and, simultaneously, hasn’t peaked yet. This could mean that he breaks through in 2020, which would take the Miami rotation to another level.
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