Longtime Marlins infield coach Perry Hill has taught some of the best defensive squads in the franchise’s history.
One such unit went on to win the 2003 World Series.
Last season, the Marlins played their best defense since that memorable championship run.
And when Hill has looked around at that same squad that returned nearly intact this spring, he sees plenty of similarities.
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“Those teams [back around ’03] stayed together for a few years,” Hill said. “You need that consistency to build continuity. These guys are already good players, but they have the potential to be really, really good.”
Although the Marlins enter this season with question marks about their depth of pitching and if their lineup will produce significantly more runs than in 2015, one thing is certain:
This team can play defense.
The Marlins committed 77 errors as a team, which broke a franchise record and was the second-fewest in baseball, tied with the Orioles and behind only the Dodgers’ 75.
They also matched the 2003 squad’s franchise-record .987 team fielding percentage, which was tied for second in the majors with the Orioles and the Giants, and also only behind the Dodgers (.988).
Both marks were notable improvements over 2014, when the team committed 97 errors and posted a .984 fielding percentage, finishing 12th and right at the major-league average in both categories.
The Marlins ranked fourth in the National League in defensive efficiency (.694) and 10th overall in the majors last season. In 2014, they finished 25th in the majors.
“It’s all about outs,” manager Don Mattingly said. “If you’re not playing good defense and giving the other team an extra three or four every night, it ends up costing you. Sometimes you can get away with it, but over 162 games you’re not going to win too many games if you do that.”
Should the Marlins duplicate such defensive prowess, it should help a pitching staff that has added talent behind ace Jose Fernandez and a bullpen that will rely on a few young arms for depth as well.
“It’s incredibly comforting as a pitcher because one of the hardest things as a pitcher is to get that ground ball with two outs and mentally you shut down,” Marlins pitcher David Phelps said. “Then somebody boots it and you’re like, ‘Oh, great I have to get the next guy.’ On this team, we don’t have to worry about that.”
The starting infield returns intact from the end of last season and has the potential to go down as one of the best the club has ever had.
The Marlins turned 162 double plays last season — fifth in the National League and 16 above the league average. They also ranked third in the NL in defensive runs saved (plus-33), a drastic improvement over their minus-3 rating the previous season.
Four players — second baseman Dee Gordon (13th), third baseman Martin Prado (20th), shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria (27th) and right fielder Giancarlo Stanton (29th) ranked in the top 30 among NL players in defensive runs saved.
Several Marlins credited Hill as one of the biggest reasons for the team’s development into an outstanding defensive team.
Versatile infielder Chris Johnson signed with the Marlins in the offseason and said the chance to work with Hill influenced his decision.
“It starts with Bone,” Johnson said, referring to Hill by his nickname on the team. “He sets the tone from Day One of spring training. He’s been constantly yelling stuff like, ‘We’re the best, nobody better and we don’t miss,’ and he holds us to that.”
Gordon, the reigning NL batting champion and Gold Glove winner at second, signed a five-year contract extension in the offseason.
Hechavarria was a Gold Glove finalist and many believe would have won it had it not been for a hamstring injury ending his season at the start of September.
Prado had the best fielding percentage (.976) of any National League third baseman with 1,000 or more innings played last season, which tied Evan Longoria for the major-league’s best mark in that category.
In the outfield, Christian Yelich won a Gold Glove in left field in 2014 and has remained steady on defense. Yelich, center fielder Marcell Ozuna and All-Star right fielder Giancarlo Stanton, if they can each stay healthy, could make up one of the best outfields in baseball.
“Our guys take pride in their defense, and they always have for as long as I’ve been here,” Hill said. “This group is no different. I see no reason for that attitude to change this year.”