The Marlins Finally Lose a Playoff Serieson October 9, 2020 at 12:35 am

The Marlins Finally Lose a Playoff Series

The Atlanta Braves finished sweeping the Miami Marlins on Thursday afternoon, issuing a 7-0 shellacking to knock the Fish out of the postseason. After holding Chicago’s bats firmly in check in two Wild Card games, the Braves’ bats exploded in Games 1 and 3, with a generally ineffective Miami lineup struggling to keep up.

Coming into the 2020 season, one of the big question marks surrounding the Marlins was just how effective they’d actually be at scoring runs. In 2019, the team finished last in the National League in runs scored, nearly half a run per game behind the 14th-place San Diego Padres. The Marlins added some veteran depth to the lineup in the form of Jesus Aguilar, Jonathan Villar, Corey Dickerson, and Matt Joyce last offseason — which feels like it was about five years ago at this point — and the hope was that with the team’s impressive stable of young pitching improving, they’d score just enough runs to become relevant. With an assist from a 16-team playoff format, that’s exactly what happened; the offense managed to support a generally solid rotation, and the weak bullpen (5.65 FIP) didn’t sink the team enough to drop it below .500.

That blueprint worked against the Cubs and their 10th-ranked offense and thanks to Sandy Alcantara and Sixto Sanchez, seven runs in two games still left Miami with significant room to spare. But shutting out the Braves is a trickier proposition and when Atlanta’s run-scoring machine ramped up, the Marlins failed to match it, leading them to be the first team eliminated from the round of eight.

Kyle Wright was not particularly effective in his first two starts against the Marlins this season, but the third time turned out to be the charm as the Marlins only managed three hits and two walks against seven strikeouts. Wright’s game plan couldn’t have worked out better if he had gotten to write the box score himself, with the Marlins either driving sinkers into the ground or flailing wildly against his breaking pitches. Six of the eight sinkers hit into play had a negative launch angle (-15 degree average), and the Marlins whiffed on 10 of the 15 sliders and curves that they offered at. The result was a famine of decent contact — only two of the balls hit into play against Wright had an expecting batting average above .500. Dickerson’s first-inning single off Wright’s hardest pitch of the night (96.8 mph) was quite nearly Miami’s only offensive highlight.

The Marlins had no more success against A.J. Minter or Jacob Webb, throwing what essentially amounted to side sessions as the margin was already at seven before Wright was pulled after the sixth. Jazz Chisholm, in the last at-bat of his postseason debut, came within inches of spoiling a second consecutive Marlins shutout with a blast off a Shane Greene sinker — Miami’s only barrel of the day — that just missed being a home run by inches.

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Since not even Jacob deGrom has figured out how to hold the opposition to fewer than zero runs, Sixto Sanchez would have likely ended up with the loss even with a very good start. This was not a very good start. In three innings of work, Sanchez walked three batters and allowed four hits, leaving the game with the Marlins in a 4-0 deficit. These weren’t dinky little seeing-eye hits either; six of the 11 balls hit into play had an exit velocity in triple-digit territory. In a lot of ways, Sanchez was fortunate to leave the game with as little damage having been done against him as he did — his xBA suggests Atlanta should have collected 5.9 hits against him. One of them would have been huge, an .880 xBA Nick Markakis lineout with the bases loaded in the second that Dickerson snagged with a diving catch, helping Sanchez escape the inning unscathed.

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Some of the fault has to come down to Sanchez’s approach at the plate. In his first start against the Braves, a very successful six-inning shutout with six strikeouts, he used his slider 21 times to mix in with his bread-and-butter: a high-90s fastball followed by beautiful, fading changeup. How effective is that combo? Enough for the change to be responsible for more than half of Sanchez’s strikeouts, holding batters to a .136 average and not a single extra-base hit. But in what was arguably the biggest game of his young career, Sanchez’s game plan was simplified considerably, with only six breaking balls thrown. The Braves whiffed on a lot of fastballs, but they crushed a lot more; this is a team that scored more runs than any other team in 2020 against fastballs.

Going fastball-change heavy and getting away from his breaking stuff, which is still not fully developed, went poorly against the Braves. Trevor Rogers had a similar experience, allowing four hits — none of the soft variety — and with the Marlins way behind, the rest of the bullpen could do little more than make sure the chairs were neatly stacked and all the lights were turned off.

The end of Miami’s season wasn’t a happy one, but taken as a whole, it’s hard to look at 2020 as anything other than a success for the team, at least when it comes to the results on the field (their containment of the coronavirus is another matter). Several of the team’s young starting pitchers seem to be panning out, enough to give the Marlins enough confidence to swap Caleb Smith for Starling Marte at the deadline. They have to be pleased with the progress of the franchise, but the (hundred) million dollar question still remains: what happens when it’s time for the Marlins to spend serious money to keep a star or add one?

Atlanta moves on to face the winner of the Padres/Dodgers series. With the depth in their rotation abysmal, knocking out the Marlins in three games is a big deal for the Braves as they never had to dig past Wright for a starting pitcher or seriously tax their (deeper) bullpen depth. Either opponent will likely be tougher than the Marlins or Reds, so the Braves and their fans ought to be crossing their fingers that the Padres push the NLDS to five games. At least whoever they face will be tired.

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