For the first time since 2017, the Chicago Cubs have won the NL Central and will play more than one playoff game after the regular season. I am proud, I am excited, but to be perfectly honest, I’m not really shocked. The Cubs may generally be trending in the wrong direction, but they still had the majority of their core intact this season, and a bit of a fire lit underneath them in the form of David Ross.
Their playoff presence is not at all a *shock*, especially considering how static the NL Central talent has been outside of Cincinnati over the past 1.5 years. But the Marlins?
That’s much more of a surprise.
Even in an expanded field, the Marlins were exactly nobody’s pick to make the 2020 postseason, let alone as the sixth seed (out of eight). Not only did they deal with a COVID-19 outbreak that made things even tougher on them, they just don’t have a very high-profile roster loaded with star players.
I mean … seriously. Can you name these guys?
But it’s more than that. At least for Chicago. Because 100% of the Cubs games this season were limited to teams in the NL and AL Central, we didn’t even get a chance at exposure throughout the regular season. So with a hugely important series coming up, I thought we should try to figure out what the Cubs are running into.
Full disclosure: I didn’t watch a single Marlins game this season, so I’m going to do some pretty heavy on-paper scouting right now. It’s better than knowing nothing.
Team – Offense
Overall, the Marlins finished 18th in baseball with a 95 wRC+ (three spots ahead of the Cubs, 91 wRC+), though they were a LOT better against left-handed pitching (111 wRC+, 9th in MLB) than right-handed pitching (89 wRC+, 24th).
Basically, that means they were 11% better than league average against southpaws and 11 percent worse than league average against righties. That’s a huge 22 percentage point gap, and one that’s making me think about the most effective Game 3 starter if it came to that ….
Taking handedness out of the equation, the Marlins were not much of a power team, with just 60 homers (26th), a .384 SLG (25th), and a .141 ISO (28th). That’s due largely to a league “leading” 47.6% ground ball rate and the fourth lowest average exit velocity in MLB. They really shouldn’t win with power. (Also, it’s notable that the Cubs are one of the best teams at converting ground balls into outs.)
But it’s not like the Marlins are some big-time contact team, either. The 2020 Marlins own the 9th highest strikeout rate (24.8%) and just the 17th highest batting average (and that’s despite the 10th highest BABIP in MLB this year).
Long story short: They strike out a lot, the hit more grounders than everyone, they don’t hit for much power, and the batting average they do have was built largely on BABIP.
But that’s not to say they didn’t have solid individual performances.
Individual – Offense
For example, Miguel Rojas, who had never once in his six-year career finished a season with above average offensive production, has been a relative monster through his 40 games: .304/.392/.496 (142 wRC+). Still no power there, as you can see, but his 12.6% strikeout rate is just barely above his 11.2% walk rate, both of which are well above average. I do think most of his production is BABIP-fueled, as well – especially with a pretty mediocre average exit velocity and barrel%, plus a career-high BABIP, but he is swinging at FAR fewer pitches out of the zone than usual, so maybe there’s something to it.
Here’s a look at their other above average offensive contributors:
Garret Cooper (133 PAs): .283/.353/.500 (133 wRC+)
Brian Anderson (229 PAs): .255/.345/.465 (121 wRC+)
Jesus Aguilar (216 PAs): .277/.352/.457 (121 wRC+)
Jon Berti (149 PAs): .258/.388/.350 (114 wRC+)
Again, when it’s not against a lefty, this offense is pretty toothless. I suppose they could get lucky by putting balls in play, so perhaps a strong defensive lineup wouldn’t be out of the question.
The Marlins are going to go with Sandy Alcantara, Pablo Lopez, and Sixto Sanchez (in some order after Alcantara in Game One) for their theoretical three-game series against the Cubs. But for as much as you’ve heard of this electric rookie, Sixto Sanchez, things have certainly started to derail.
As the 19th best prospect in MLB, Sanchez debuted on August 22nd, and had a perfectly solid start against the Nationals (5.0 IP, 6H, 3ER, 0BB, 4Ks). After that, he went on an absolute tear that caught the attention of the entire league, lasting 7.0 innings against the Rays, 7.0 innings against the Blue Jays, 6.0 innings against the Braves, and 7.0 innings against the Phillies, allowing just 3 earned runs TOTAL with 25 strikeouts against just 5 walks.
Note: That includes three playoff teams, and two of the top offenses in MLB.
But the book may have finally caught up. In his two most recent starts, the Nationals tagged Sanchez for 5 earned runs over 4.0 IP and the Braves put 4 on the board over 3.0 IP. Sanchez walked 6 batters over those 7.0 innings and struck out just 4. That was the second time each team saw Sanchez, so the Cubs would be wise to see how their approach may have changed.
It’s not like the other starters aren’t impressive, though. Alcantara has made 7 starts this season, as well, with a 3.00 ERA and 3.72 FIP. In his brightest moments of the year, Alcantara held his own against the Phillies (6.2 IP, 1ER), Rays (6.0 IP, 1ER), and Yankees (7.1 IP, 2ER), never walking more than three in any one start.
Lefties have been FAR better against Alcantara both for his career and this season, so the Cubs lineup should be well-suited to face him.
And finally, Lopez has been pretty excellent this season, besting his impressive 3.61 ERA with an even better 3.09 FIP. He’s got a 52.2% groundball rate, a 24.6% strikeout rate, and a 7.5% walk rate. Lefties also hit Lopez better than righties – rather significantly – but none of these guys will be an easy matchup, by any stretch of the imagination.
Instead, the biggest takeaway is that NONE ARE LEFT-HANDED. Avoiding southpaws may well be the key to the Cubs playoff success, given how atrocious they’ve been against lefties this year.
But this is the playoffs. Heck, it’s not just the playoffs, it’s a THREE-GAME playoff series. Bullpens are going to matter. A lot.
So how do the Marlins stack up? Overall, the Marlins bullpen has the 5th worst ERA in MLB at 5.50, but that’s not actually all telling, right? In a short series like this, you’re like to see only the top 3-4 arms from the ‘pen, and on that front, they do have some legitimate weapons.
That includes former Cub and current Marlins closer Brandon Kintzler. Yup. Over 24.1 innings pitched this season, he did what he does best: get a shitton of ground balls (57.3%). Combined with an impressive 86.4 MPH average exit velocity (30th in MLB), he has limited the damage tremendously (2.22 ERA). HOWEVA … he’s just asking for trouble with a 13.9% strikeout rate and a 10.9% walk rate. Especially with a 90% strand rate. If there were a second-half to this season, I’d be selling on Kintzler. Big time.
But there are others. Yimi Garcia has allowed just one earned run over 15.0 IP this year, with 19Ks against 5 walks. In a way, he’s sort of the anti-Kintzler: 90.0 MPH average exit velocity, 19.0 degree launch angle, 33.3% fly ball rate, etc. Against Kintzler, you just have to elevate. Against Garcia, you’ve got to make contact.
James Hoyt (14.2 IP, 1.23 ERA) and Richard Bleier (13.2 IP, 2.63 ERA) are the other two arms you’ll likely see out of the pen.
NOTE: Jose Urena fractured his arm yesterday and will now not be on the Marlins playoff roster/in their bullpen as expected.
The Marlins, of course, have not been to the postseason since their 2003 World Series title, and that’s really all we need to say about that.