Fish out of water: Surprising Marlins show a lot on punch

Christian Yelich (right) and Giancarlo Stanton have plenty to be happy about.  

Harry How/Getty Images

We have room to appreciate only so many surprises at once.

We’re all getting our heads around the Blue Jays leading the AL East, with the Rays in last and the Red Sox lousy. The Brewers continue to lead the NL Central, with the Cardinals fighting to stay over .500 and the Pirates fighting to get there. The Dodgers might hurt their necks from looking up at the Giants, and over in the AL West, the Astros might be in the basement, but for several weeks they’ve played like one of baseball’s best teams.

There’s a lot going on, and the Marlins have never been particularly visible, but if you glance over at the NL East standings, you’ll notice it’s not just about the Nationals and Braves.

These Marlins would be interesting if they were hanging around without having suffered the nightmare scenario. It would be remarkable if the Marlins were 34-31 with a healthy Jose Fernandez. But, when Fernandez got hurt, the consensus was that the Marlins were finished. They were already considered a long shot with one of the best pitchers in the world.

As soon as Fernandez went down, the Marlins were forgotten, having lost 50% of their superstars. Yet still they haven’t gone away, and as close as they are to the division lead, they’re also presently in a playoff position. If the playoffs started tomorrow, the Marlins would take on the Braves for the right to face the Giants.

It’s an astonishing thing, the Marlins’ survival, and it’s enough to make you want to look for reasons. How is that team, of all teams, pulling this off? Everyone’s familiar with Giancarlo Stanton, because everyone wants to trade for him, but the rest of the roster’s plenty more anonymous, nationally and also locally.

What you find is that the Marlins have gotten half-decent starting pitching. They’ve gotten half-decent relief, and they’ve been fine in the field. But at the plate, with little notice, the Marlins are in the process of making history. The turnaround, more than anything, has been driven by the bats.

A year ago, the Marlins had the worst offense in baseball, by an awful lot. A couple things. First, I’m going to introduce the stat wRC+. It stands for Weighted Runs Created Plus, and it works a lot like OPS+, in case that’s more familiar to you. Most simply, a wRC+ of 100 is average, and a wRC+ higher than 100 is better than average.

Second, let’s toss out pitchers batting. Those at-bats count, of course, but they’re not really considered part of the offensive attack. Last season, Marlins non-pitchers combined for a 77 wRC+. That was dead last, a full six points behind the White Sox and nine points behind the Yankees.

That was also one of the worst team offenses of all time. Going back to 1920, the worst offense ever belonged to either the 1981 Blue Jays or the 1920 Athletics, who posted a wRC+ of 72. At 77, last year’s Marlins tied for sixth-worst. No one else had been in the 70s since the turn of the millennium. There were 16 different Marlins who batted at least 100 times. Two of them finished as above-average hitters.

So, fast-forward now. After all, last year was last year, and this year is the year after last year. Take out the pitchers and now the Marlins have a team 107 wRC+, which puts them in baseball’s upper third. They slot between the Tigers and Giants, and of the eight Marlins who have batted at least 100 times, seven currently look like above-average hitters.

Obviously, this is a massive year-to-year swing, but where might it rank among all the biggest positive year-to-year swings?

The answer: right now, it’s the biggest positive year-to-year swing. Observe the following table, drawing data, once more, going back to 1920:

In the first row, you see the 2013 Marlins and the 2014 Marlins. You see last year’s non-pitcher 77 wRC+, this year’s non-pitcher 107 wRC+, and the difference between the two numbers, 30. The biggest year-to-year improvement of all time is 27, shared by four different teams, most recently the 1977-78 Brewers. Look down a little and you see a fairly recent edition of the Tigers, who went from dreadful to above-average in bidding farewell to the nightmare that was 2003. Those Tigers invested somewhat heavily in roster upgrades, and there’s no question it paid off.

The Marlins didn’t invest heavily. They did land Jarrod Saltalamacchia to a decent contract, and he’s been an upgrade on Jeff Mathis and Rob Brantly. Mathis is still around, but as a backup, and he’s hitting much better. The Marlins also signed Garrett Jones and Casey McGehee, but neither arrived with much fanfare. Jeff Baker was brought in for a bench role, and to date he’s been a disappointment.

Saltalamacchia’s hit fine. McGehee’s hit surprisingly fine. Jones is hitting like he hit in 2012. These guys have helped, but the Marlins have also drawn on considerably improved youth. More than anything else, the Marlins are loving the return of a healthy Stanton, who’s still only 24 years old. Once more he’s producing like one of the premier sluggers in baseball.

Beyond him, Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna have been fairly steady, and Derek Dietrich was swinging the bat all right before getting demoted to Triple-A to work on his defense. The one regular who hasn’t hit is Adeiny Hechavarria, but even he has been at least a little bit better. This group maybe shouldn’t be this good, but it’s been this good for two and a half months.

Which is why the Marlins are alive today with actual, legitimate playoff odds. Before the year, at FanGraphs, we projected the Marlins to win 45% of their games. Our updated projections think they’ll win 46% of their remaining games, even without Fernandez. And if you use current-season numbers instead of projections, then we think the Marlins will win about 52% of their remaining games.

In short, the Marlins project better than they did in March, even though, in March, the Marlins looked forward to a full season of Jose Fernandez.

Because there’s still the majority of the season remaining, we can’t say yet that the Marlins are putting together the biggest offensive improvement ever. They have a ways to go, and certain players might well perform worse. But right now, they’re the most improved team ever, and even if they don’t finish at No. 1, they’ll still be amazingly improved, and that’s why they’re a team that has to be taken seriously. At a glance, the Marlins looked like a team of two All-Stars and 23 no-ones.

So when they lost one of the All-Stars, it felt like the team would crumble apart. But really, around the remaining All-Star, there’s a reasonable support network. The team could be better, but at least it’s a team that manages competitive baseball. This could be going so much worse.