The Miami Marlins are back in the playoffs for the first time in 17 years when their Wild Card series begins versus the Chicago Cubs. Although the Cubs are favored and expected to win, the Marlins have the makeup to not only make this an interesting series, but to win the three-game set and advance.
The Marlins enter the postseason with a 31-29 record, the franchise’s first winning season since 2009. They finished second in the NL East but sported a polarizing minus-41 run differential through 60 games.
The Cubs, meanwhile, lead the NL Central almost wire-to-wire, despite it being a division with three other playoff teams. Chicago finished with a 34-26 record and a plus-25 run differential, but they sputtered to end the season. The Cubs were 4-6 over their last 10 with a minus-6 run differential.
These two teams are evenly matched and sport similar strengths. Here’s a look at five keys for the Marlins this Wild Card series in the playoffs.
Marlins Playoffs: Getting Ground Ball Outs
Yesterday, the Marlins announced their starting rotation for the three-game series in the playoffs. Sandy Alcantara (3-2, 3.00 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 39 K) will start Game 1. Sixto Sanchez (3-2, 3.46 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 33 K) will take Game 2. Pablo Lopez (6-4, 3.61 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 59 K) gets Game 3 if there is one.
Starting pitching remains the Marlins’ strength this season. While the team’s overall ERA stands at 4.86 (21st in MLB), if you take the collective ERA of the 15 pitchers who threw the most innings this season, that number drops to 4.23, which would be 12th in MLB.
Marlins starters square off against an inconsistent Chicago offense. Although the names are well-known, the Cubs lineup has posted just a .220 batting average (27th) and scored 265 runs (20th). They have a strikeout-rate of 25.7 percent, which is 14th in the league, and a chase-rate of 27.5 percent (16th). Their 568 strikeouts were fifth-most in the NL.
The Cubs lineup lacked the consistency seen in years past, but it’s loaded in experience. They relied a great deal on the long ball, connecting on 74 home runs, including 30 at home.
Marlins starting pitchers need to limit walks and keep the ball within the friendly confines of Wrigley Field if they want to be successful in these playoffs. Alcantara sports a 50.4 percent ground-ball rate, and that’s the lowest rate of Miami’s three starters. Sanchez’s ground-ball rate is 58 percent and Lopez’s is 52.8.
Getting those ground ball outs will be key for Marlins pitchers this series.
Leveraging the Bullpen
The Marlins used a staggering 37 different pitchers this season, including 28 different relievers. Overall, the bullpen ERA finished at 5.50, fourth worst in the league. A closer look at that number reveals it as a flawed measure.
17 of those 28 relievers pitched less than eight innings out of the ‘pen but surrendered a whopping 65 earned runs over 59.2 innings combined. Hence, the inflated bullpen ERA. If you take the Marlins top-five relievers, you’ll see a group that posted a 2.00 ERA over 85.2 innings pitched. That would be the best mark in the league by far.
Brandon Kintzler, Yimi Garcia, Brad Boxberger, James Hoyt and Richard Bleier sport a mix of stuff and experience and should be able to save games if given the opportunity. As a group, those five are 13 for 18 in save opportunities. As a team this season, the Marlins are 29-0 when leading after six innings, so the bullpen has come through.
Marlins manager Don Mattingly will need to leverage these top-five arms to win this series.
Marlins Playoffs: Finding the Offense
One of the frustrations for the Marlins this season has been an inconsistency on offense. The Marlins score 4.38 runs-per-game (21st in MLB). The offense overall is middle-of-the-pack in batting average (.244; 17th) and OPS-plus (92; 19th). However, Miami has been shut out a league-high seven times.
Miguel Rojas (.304/.392/.496) and Jesus Aguilar (.277/.352/.457) have been the two best hitters in the lineup. Brian Anderson has also consistently got on base and has hit the ball well with a .810 OPS.
As a team, the offense did its best work with two-outs. Their .251 average with two-outs is fifth-best in the NL and their 122 runs scored with two-outs are sixth-best in MLB. With runners-in-scoring-position and two-outs, their .256 average is sixth-best in the league, and their 90 RBI are fifth-most.
The Marlins have a limited history with Chicago’s Game 1 and Game 2 starters.
Versus Kyle Hendricks, Starling Marte sports the most experience with 26 at-bats and six hits. Corey Dickerson is 4-for-16. Rojas, Anderson and Lewis Brinson are a combined 5-for-34. Jorge Alfaro has had some success, going 3-for-7.
Versus Yu Darvish, Marte and Dickerson are a combined 9-for-24 with three doubles and two home runs. Rojas, Anderson and Brinson are 2-for-14. Chad Wallach is 1-for-4 with a home run versus Darvish.
The Marlins offense will need to find some level of consistency to be successful during these playoffs. They’ve struggled versus soft-tossers like Hendricks, but the key will be getting on base.
Keeping the Running Game Going
The Marlins playoffs success will certainly hinge upon not only getting on base, but also putting pressure on Chicago’s defense once they do so. Miami sports a great deal of speed throughout the roster and regular lineup.
In 2020, the Marlins stole 51 bases over 60 games, which was the second-highest total in MLB. The team even stole home three times this season. This approach is a philosophical change for the Fish, considering the 2019 club stole just 55 bags in 162 games.
With Marte, Rojas and Jon Berti, the Marlins deploy speed that could be effective versus a soft-tossing pitcher like Hendricks. Cubs catcher Willson Contreras threw out nine of 26 runners this season, but the Marlins can be selective with their moves. In addition to the regular starters, Mattingly can also inject speed with Brinson, Monte Harrison and Magneuris Sierra as potential base-stealers late in games.
Putting the pressure on the Cubs defense will force Chicago to execute and could lead to the Marlins scratching out an extra run or two. And runs will be at a premium in this playoffs series.
Defense Wins Championships
The Marlins defense features a number of athletic, rangy players that catch the ball well. Miami sports plus-defenders across a number of positions, including Anderson at third base, Rojas at short and Marte in center.
As a whole, the Marlins registered a .980 fielding percentage this season with 40 errors (seventh-most). While those numbers aren’t great, the turnover in the roster led to some of these defensive issues.
Marlins pitchers induced 55 double plays this season, which was second-most in MLB. Marlins relievers lead the league with 32 double plays.
One interesting choice Mattingly will have to make will be who starts at catcher. Alfaro produces more offensively, and can control Chicago’s running game, but Wallach is the better defensive receiver. Wallach seems to have developed a positive chemistry with Lopez and Alcantara of late. That chemistry could be key.
In recent years, World Series champions have sported more defensive-minded players behind the plate to great success.
Marlins Playoffs: Prediction
The Marlins have a tall task ahead of them, but if Alcantara can help them win Game 1, the Marlins should be able to win this playoff series in three games. The opportunistic offense will need to come through, but, as they have all year, this Marlins group is resilient and believes in itself.
Alcantara said during Spring Training, “We’re going to surprise people.” And that could very well continue for the Marlins in these playoffs.