The Phillies and Marlins have one of the strangest rivalries in baseball.
It rarely seems to matter which team is on a hot streak or which squad sports more talent in a particular year – the results are always the same. Neither has a distinct advantage, and while one club may beat up on a third party, neither seems to do much damage to the other.
In 2007, the teams split eighteen games. In 2008, the Marlins won 10 of 18 over the Phils. In 2009, they again went 9-9. If you do the math, you see that since the contemporary golden era of Phillies baseball began, the Marlins (counting this year) have a 30-27 advantage. This is despite the fact that since 2007, the Phils are 32 games better than the Marlins overall, and have a winning percentage 64 points higher than the boys from South Florida.
On a large scale, fans, players, and management alike probably don’t place the Phillies’ record against the Marlins at the top of their respective priority lists. After all, the team has reached back-to-back World Series and won three consecutive NL East titles without once outdoing the Fish in an annual head-to-head series.
But should the Marlins ever put together two solid halves of baseball, as opposed to the one solid half they produce every year, this could be a problem.
Simply put, the Marlins match-up well with the Phillies. If a three-game series features Ricky Nolasco and Josh Johnson, you are quite safe in assuming the Marlins will take at least two of three games.
Since Nolasco became a bona fide top-of-the-rotation pitcher in 2008, he is 5-1 with a 2.92 ERA and an extremely impressive 1.01 WHIP vs. the Phils. He has allowed only 50 baserunners in 49 1/3 innings pitched, while striking out 37. He stifled the Phillies once again last week, cruising to a complete game win after being spotted five runs in the top of the first.
Johnson, in that same time-span, is 3-1 with a 3.35 ERA, and has more strikeouts (42), but fewer hits (40) than innings pitched (40 1/3.) Like Nolasco, Johnson has compiled a 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio against the Phils.
With these two effective youngsters, and the underrated acquisition of former Tigers lefty Nate Robertson, the Marlins could prove to be a formidable foe as the season goes on.
This is no longer a team built upon wild swinging and pure power – it is one stocked with as deep a starting staff as any in the league, and one that has gotten more mature and patient at the plate (see: Uggla, Dan, as well as the development of Chris Coghlan and Cameron Maybin.)
Looking first at the rotation as a whole, we see that it contains:
- A dominant one-two punch of Johnson and Nolasco,
- A solid, dependable, much-needed lefthanded third starter in Robertson,
- Chris Volstad, a 6’8″ right-hander who has been brilliant against the Phillies in six starts,
- and an enigmatic Anibal Sanchez as the fifth starter.
Now, I won’t sit here and tell you that I think Sanchez will ever live up to his billing (because he makes it more and more apparent with each start that he will not,) but the fact that he has a no-hitter under his belt at least tells you that on a given day, he can be absolutely dominant.
For a fifth starter, can you really ask for more than that? Would you rather have as your fifth starter Sanchez, or, say, Todd Wellemeyer?
Better than the Braves?
In comparing the Marlins rotation to the Phillies only other NL East rival, the Braves, we see relative equality. Entering the 2010 season, the Braves were widely touted as having the best five-man rotation in the majors, but I vehemently disagreed.
Had they held on to Javier Vazquez, the Braves unquestionably would have possessed the deepest staff in baseball, but without him I didn’t, and still don’t understand the love affair with Atlanta’s starters.
It seems that nobody has noticed the fact that Derek Lowe has stunk since coming to Atlanta. You would think that a sinkerballer going from one pitcher’s park (Dodger Stadium) to another (Turner Field) would continue to be successful, but such has not been the case.
Since joining the Braves, Lowe is 18-10 with a 4.67 ERA. Please ignore the win-loss record, because all it indicates is that Atlanta has hit well in his 37 league-average starts. His 1.52 WHIP is very high, especially when compared to his career mark of 1.29.
He’s walked 3.2 batters per nine innings while striking out only 5.2. Even if you’re not into stats, you can see that walking 3+ batters per game while striking out only 5 is pretty unimpressive…and Kyle Kendrick-y.
Lowe led the National League in hits allowed last year, with 232 in 194 innings. Adding in this year, he has allowed almost 11 hits per 9.
His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was higher than that of most pitchers in ’09, which usually shows that a pitcher has been unlucky. But with a sinkerballer who has given up so many hits in an infield that is not thought of as defensively inferior, I reject the notion that Lowe’s been unlucky.
He’s just been an old sinkerballer who has not been inducing ground balls the way he has in the past. Lowe’s groundball percentage last year was 56%, well below his career average of 64%. His line-drive percentage has gone up every year since 2006, showing that batters are simply hitting the ball harder off of him than they used to.
In addition to being hit harder, Lowe hasn’t been able to induce nearly enough swings and misses. In the past, Lowe has used a low sinker to get batters to chase non-strikes and usually flail at the disappearing baseball. Last year, though? Not so much. Batters made contact on 72% of Lowe’s pitches out of the strike zone in 2009, a huge leap from his career mark of 59%.
Why do you think Atlanta tried so vigorously to trade Lowe in the offseason? They saw the writing on the wall. Unfortunately, no team wanted his massive contract, forcing the Braves to instead part ways with the infinitely more valuable Vazquez.
Back to the question at-hand – which rotation is scarier, the Marlins’ or the Braves’? Since I’ve just detailed why Derek Lowe is no more than a fourth starter, let’s rearrange the two rotations to allow us to make an easier comparison. The ten men pair off as follows:
- Josh Johnson – Jair Jurrjens
- Ricky Nolasco – Tommy Hanson
- Nate Robertson – Tim Hudson
- Chris Volstad – Derek Lowe
- Anibal Sanchez – Kenshin Kawakami
(Before going into each matchup, allow me to first let you off the hook if you have previously confused Kenshin Kawakami with Hiroki Kuroda. Don’t be embarrassed, I ran into this often on Twitter. People would argue with me about the Braves rotation and tell me why Kawakami was the best fifth starter in the league, before realizing he wasn’t the K-surnamed Japanese righty that had dominated the Phillies on multiple occasions.)
Johnson vs. Jurrjens
Some of you may disagree, but I take Johnson over Jurrjens here, and it’s not even close. Sure, Jurrjens has straight-up killed the Phillies in his career and has run through the league with relative ease in his first few seasons, but in his career he has struck out 6 per 9 while walking 3 per 9. By no means are those numbers the “be-all, end-all” for pitchers, but they are surely an important measure of a pitcher’s stuff and the sustainability of his success.
As we saw in San Diego recently, when Jurrjens fastball isn’t moving and his location is not precise, bad things happen. How bad? Try, 8 earned runs to the worst offensive team in baseball at the most spacious park.
Nolasco vs. Hanson
Too close to call. Hanson has been prodigious in his 23 major league starts, and despite Nolasco’s incredible strikeout-to-walk numbers, the veteran simply cannot be deemed better just because he is a veteran. I call this a wash; a tie. In a few years, we might be comparing Tommy Hanson to Tim Lincecum, but for now, it’s too early to call him better than Nolasco. It is not, however, too early to call him worse.
Robertson vs. Hudson
One of the reasons I dismissed the claims of Atlanta’s rotation being the best was that I didn’t trust Tim Hudson’s ability to return from several injury-plagued seasons. If he’s feeling any rust, he sure hasn’t showed it in two starts this year. Should Hudson stays healthy, we can expect him to go something like 15-8 with a 3.43 ERA. He’s still damn good, and I can’t think of a team in baseball that wouldn’t want a healthy Tim Hudson as its number three. No contest.
Volstad vs. Lowe
I don’t pick favorites based on name, I vote based on production and what-have-you-done-for-me-lately. If you can give me one good reason that Lowe should be ahead of Volstad on this list given recent production, I’ll listen. But I’m looking at the numbers and I do not see it.
Sanchez vs. Kawakami
As previously stated, I’m not an Anibal Sanchez fan. I’d rather have a fifth starter with potential over a fifth starter like Todd Wellemeyer – or, dare-I-say, Jamie Moyer – but that doesn’t mean I’m in love with Sanchez.
We know very little about Sanchez’ opponent, though. Kawakami pitched 142 innings as a starter last year and compiled a 3.97 ERA. He struck out 6.2 per nine and walked 3.4, unimpressive K/BB numbers. In an extremely small sample size, he’s been an adequate fifth starter, and I give him a very slight edge over Sanchez just because Sanchez hasn’t been good since 2006.
For those of you tallying at home, that’s 2-2-1, with one of the Braves advantages being very slight. All things considered, the rotations are equally deep and dangerous.
We’ll discuss hitting another day, but I’ll let it be known now that I don’t trust a Braves offense relying on the aging Chipper Jones, a has-been Troy Glaus, an undeveloped, crowned-too-early Jason Heyward, an enigmatic Yunel Escobar, an unsustainably hot Martin Prado, and an overrated Nate McLouth, to make it through a full season.
We just caught a glimpse of what the 2010 Marlins have to offer, now we’ll get a chance to take a look at the Braves. This little conversation might need reexamining after Thursday.