Marlins' young rotation has had ups and downs this season
AUG 30, 2014 11:20a ET
Miami Marlins pitching coach Chuck Hernandez doesn't prescribe a full-fledged philosophy, but this point of emphasis seems simple enough.
"You've got to command your fastball and you've got to be able to throw secondary pitches over the plate," Hernandez said. "If you do that you'll get a lot of quick outs. If you don't command the fastball you'll get into a lot of deep counts. I don't necessarily say 'four pitches or less.' I say 'stick your fastball where it belongs.' The byproduct of that is going to be quicker outs."
During spring training, pitching was considered the strength of the ballclub. How could it not? In 2013, it set a franchise-low record with a 3.87 ERA and finished eighth in the National League.
It boasted the youngest rotation (24.027) in the majors at the start of the season, ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays (25.321). Aside from righty Tom Koehler, the other four starters were 24 years old or younger.
But Miami's rotation has changed from Opening Day to the last weekend of August. Gone are ace Jose Fernandez and fourth starter Jacob Turner. Thirteen guys have started, including lefty Brad Hand who originally lost out on the fifth spot, and veteran Brad Penny, who arrived last month after a two-year absence from the majors.
Understanding that inconsistency comes with inexperience and youth is a lesson in itself. After accepting that fact, a pitcher can focus on commanding the fastball and working with his repertoire.
Each member of the rotation has seen his ups and downs. The 4.14 ERA ranks third-to-last in the NL, better than just the Arizona Diamondbacks (4.46) and Colorado Rockies (4.99). Despite this, the Marlins can still build confidence and belief in winning ballgames at this level.
"It's a good group," Hernandez said. "There's a lot to learn. You watch them grow up. It's fun to watch. The game is the best teacher of all. They see what's good, what's not good. When they struggle the game tells them 'this is why you struggled.' It makes your immediate process of working on things that much faster. It's the same thing they heard in the minor leagues, they just never believed it because they were a little more talented than the minor leagues and they won anyways despite their flaws.
"Here your flaws are exposed a little bit more. As a pitching coach I'm a lucky guy because we've got quality arms -- relatively young guys -- that it's basically guys getting their career started."
GAMEPLAN ON THE MOUND
Though each pitcher has a different arsenal and ways of getting hitters out, one thing remains the same: get and stay ahead.
"I've talked to some pitchers -- good ones, Hall of Famers -- and their theory was to pitch to their strengths but try to get early contact," catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. "They're going to throw strikes early in the count, get early contact and once they get to two strikes they have that opportunity to get the strikeout. If not they're still going to make a good pitch to get the out."
A pitcher will go about achieving that through various pitches and mentalities.
Since rejoining the rotation, Hand has focused on at-bats lasting four pitches or less. Not only does it equate to quicker outs but less likelihood of walks -- something that has plagued him in the past.
All-Star right-hander Henderson Alvarez, who has three complete game shutouts this year, works to contact yet can throw his 96 mph fastball for a strikeout when the occasion calls for it. His 88-pitch complete game on June 3 against the Rays included five strikeouts, eight hits and no walks.
Righty Jarred Cosart, who pitches to contact, likes to keep his defense involved. The game's pace plays a role in how a team performs. Limiting his pitch count not only allows him to record quality starts -- the standard for starters these days -- but go even deeper into games. As a result, his club has a better chance to win.
"That gets you focused in the strike zone and attacking with your best stuff," Cosart said. "For me, I'm trying to get them to put the ball in play and still learning how to sequence and stuff like that. If they put the ball in play with the defense you have behind you're going to be in good shape, especially (at Marlins Park). It's a good philosophy to have."
This can differ from their time In the minors when overpowering guys at the Double-A and Triple-A levels was common. But that won't work in the majors. It becomes a chess match, particularly with veteran players. Cosart noted Adrian Beltre of the Texas Rangers, who is 6 for 9 with two homers and four RBI against him.
No matter the pitch selection, execution is vital. Each pitch must be thrown with conviction.
"When you come through the minors that's what they try to stress to you is try to force early contact," Koehler said. "Guys get in trouble when they get strikeout-happy and you end up throwing five, six extra pitches and next thing you know you've got at-bats lasting 10 pitches. They end up haunting you later on. Also, you throw four pitches or less and you have a better shot not walking guys and keeping off the basepaths. That's how you win ballgames."
When the Marlins signed Penny to a minor-league deal in June, the organization wasn't sure whether it would need him during a wild-card chase.
Penny, a proven big leaguer, could eat up innings that southpaw Randy Wolf failed to do earlier in the year. Penny has come on in relief this past Sunday in Colorado and Friday in Atlanta.
More importantly, however, is the impact he can have on the young staff with his 14 seasons of experience. His advice can help with the pitchers' growth.
Cosart and Penny run together and talk baseball. The 36-year-old sees the younger version of himself in the 24-year-old. How so? "A lot of times you're going to be too perfect. He seems like that type of guy."
Every pitcher wants to be stingy giving up hits, but the moment he realizes batters are paid to get them, learn to limit the consecutive ones.
"Brad Penny had a good quote for me," Cosart said. "He's given up 2,000 hits in his career but he's had a good run at it. You're going to give up hits, you're going to give up homers. Minimize the damage and execute with your best stuff."
Like his younger counterparts, Penny has had to make adjustments and evolve his game. He admitted to getting away with a fastball-curveball his first five seasons but now mixes up more pitches to get hitters' timing off.
"You have to be (more of a pitcher)," Penny said. "The older you get your body doesn't allow you to do what it did at 22. You've got to stay in shape and do the best you can with that and the other is go out there and focus and make pitches. When you're 22 throwing 95, 96 mph, you can get away with balls over the plate. When you're older you probably get hit a little more often.
"You see how they feel and their approach to getting outs and pitching in general. You give them the advice that you think would help through your personal experiences."
The beauty of a young rotation is it can develop its talent together. Cosart saw the beginnings in Houston before arriving in Miami at the trade deadline.
"We were really young, but they're still waiting for the next wave of guys moreso than here," Cosart said. "I think you're going to see this group for a long time. ... I think we're way ahead here. The atmosphere is fun. We have a good mix here. We have a lot of veteran guys and then for the most part considered a young team."
Much has been said about each member of the rotation likely setting a new career high in innings pitched this season. Koehler called it a loaded statistic because innings aren't the same. One may go for just four pitches while another lasts for 30.
Both Alvarez and righty Nathan Eovaldi missed months of 2013 with right shoulder inflammation, taking a step back in the process. The former did go 187 1/3 innings for the Toronto Blue Jays prior to the 2012 offseason trade. Eovaldi has already surpassed his highest mark by 11. In 2012 between the minors, Los Angeles Dodgers and Marlins, he went 154 1/3 frames.
Something as simple as logging innings, like commanding a fastball, will pay off in their future.
"That's the first step of being a good pitcher," Hernandez said. "Getting all the way to the finish line we'll see how it goes. We're going in unchartered waters for all of them. It's just part of what goes on because you don't feel the same in September as you do in April. They're all going to go through that. Hopefully the first time get through it and know next year 'I know I can do that.' It's the first time they're getting it, and it's part of us becoming a good team. When you're a good team you've got five starters that can win a game."