With Marlins spring training games starting this weekend, what are the Marlins getting with their six significant offseason pickups?
Some buzz on each, including feedback from two veteran big-league scouts:
• How did Dan Straily go from winning one major league game combined in 2014 and 2015 and being waived by the Padres 11 months ago to finishing 14-8 with a 3.76 ERA with the Reds last season?
Credit Straily’s diligence and – no joke – some guy who specializes in banking analytics.
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Straily prefers to identify the banking analytics man only by his first name (Michael), but he had a key role in helping Straily get back on track, three years after he went 10-8 with a 3.96 ERA for Oakland and was fourth in AL Rookie of the Year voting.
Michael is “a good friend, a distant relative of sorts,” Straily said. “He does banking analytics but he loves baseball. He helped me behind the scenes, helped give me more game notes.”
With Michael’s help, Straily dove into analytics more than any pro athlete I’ve interviewed in 30 years. Determined to find out “which are the best pitches to throw against certain hitters,” Straily had Michael help produce tons of data, and Straily studied other pitchers such as Matt Cain – one from each division – “who throw my speed and with my spin rate and my spin angles.”
For example, before facing an opponent, he would study tape of at least one big-league pitcher who throws a changeup “exactly like my changeup and see how those pitches do against certain hitters.” He used analytics to raise his release point to create more deception.
It’s a huge undertaking but “it helped me prepare more, and that's kind of the key to having a good season,” he said. “Now going into the game, there’s not a lot of guesswork. I have a plan. I had a big change in terms of pitch selection more than anything else. I threw way more changeups last year. Just mixing speeds a lot more; not being predictable.”
Though he allowed a National League leading 31 homer runs last season, he had one of MLB’s best sliders, allowed the seventh-fewest hits per nine innings in the NL and was 14th in wins and 17th in ERA among NL starters.
“We always scouted him hard when he was with Oakland,” one AL scout said. “Not a real hard thrower, but commanded it well last year. Average stuff but I give him credit for what he did last year.” Though ESPN’s Jim Bowden said Straily is due for a regression, the Marlins say they adamantly disagree. So, presumably, does Michael, who has set up Straily’s fan page.
•. Notable about Edinson Volquez, who signed for two years and $22 million: He allowed the most earned runs and the third-most hits in the American League last year. The good news: He was a combined 26-16, 3.30 ERA for Pittsburgh and Kansas City in 2014 and 2015 before falling off to 10-11, 5.37 with the Royals last season.
“He has never been as good as [his salary], but he’s better than the year he had last year,” an NL scout said. “His command has gotten him in trouble. But he’s got big stuff, can pitch anywhere from 92 to 94 [mph].
“His stuff was as good as ever last year, but his changeup – which was well above average – is not as good as it used to be. The guy has fallen in love with his curveball, even though his changeup is a better pitch. He uses his curveball too much for me.
“One problem is he never gets deep enough into games. He has a lot of deep counts and will have nights when he’s just not very good. But when he’s right, he’s better than a run-of-the-mill fourth starter, as far as his stuff. He's not a 1, 2 or 3 starter because he doesn't have that kind of command. I’ve never been in love with Volquez because of his command. But being reunited with [Marlins pitching guru] Jim Benedict will help him.”
• Notable about Jeff Locke, who signed for one year and $3 million after going 9-8 with a 5.44 ERA for Pittsburgh: In his career, the left-handed Locke surprisingly has allowed a higher batting average to lefties (.272) than right-handers (.267)… He has a 1.76 ERA and allowed just a .211 average in four games at Marlins Park… He yielded too many base-runners last season (194 in 127 innings, with 73 strikeouts)…He sometimes has difficulty in the third and fourth innings (5.42 and 5.16 ERA in those innings).
Locke, who remains sidelined with a sore shoulder, figures to open the season in the bullpen if he’s healthy but “he's a solid fifth starter when going well and he might do better pitching in that ballpark,” the NL scout said. “That’s a reasonable price for him.
“Remember, the kid made an All-Star team in Pittsburgh a few years ago . At times, he pitches better than a back of the rotation starter. As fifth starters go, he’s decent. But to this point, he’s been a really inconsistent guy whose command gets him in trouble.
“His stuff is vulnerable, so when his command isn’t good, he’s not what he needs to be to be better than a marginal fifth starter. When he’s been good, he pitched inside with his fastball, had success angling the ball in on right-handed hitters and was aggressive and fearless pitching in. He has a useful breaking ball.
“There’s also a confidence factor with him. I always felt he loses his confidence quickly. These Pittsburgh fans were brutal with him. He has been whipped good by them….
“The Pirates put a turn in his delivery couple years ago but took out that turn this past year. He still hides the ball pretty well, has some deception. Even though he had a difficult year last year, he was throwing the hardest he has ever thrown, even touched 94. He’s not considered a power pitcher but always had good arm quickness.”
• Notable about right-handed reliever Brad Ziegler (two years, $16 million): Has a 2.44 career ERA, including 2.25 last year, when he had 22 saves, eight holds and six blown saves… Batters hit .261 off him last year, .242 in his career…. A submarine pitcher, Ziegler’s 66.3 percent ground ball rate leads all pitchers since 2008 with at least 550 innings, and by a wide margin over No. 2 Dallas Keuchel’s 58.9 percent.
“Good signing,” the AL scout said. “He gets less credit than he should because he’s not overpowering, but he’s been pretty good. He gets ground balls. Comes from tough angle. That plays really good in that [Marlins] ballpark. But he did well in Fenway too. They have two pretty good closers now [Ziegler and AJ Ramos]. That bullpen should be a strength.”
• Notable about right-hander Junichi Tazawa (two years, $12 million): Since 2012, he is 96th among 256 relievers in earned-run average, according to fangraphs.com… He was 3-2 with a 4.17 ERA last season, with 16 holds and two blown saves; batters hit only .245 off him, compared with .265 earlier…. He has 79 holds, four saves and 22 blown saves (usually as holds) in his career.
“Pretty good signing, especially when you see what Mike Dunn got (three years, $19 million from Colorado),” the AL scout said. “He was really good in 2013 and the last couple years were a little down. When his velocity is good, he's really good.
“He's a curveball early guy and then likes to finish guys off with a fastball. When he's throwing 93-96, he's really good. [He averaged 92.8 mph on his fastball last season, which was down a bit.] When he throws less than that, his confidence goes down. He's an eighth inning guy when he's going good. Overall, a serviceable guy.”
• Backup catcher AJ Ellis (one year, $2.5 million; hit .216 with 22 RBI for the Dodgers in 2016):
“I’ve worked with people who have had him, and they love him,” the AL scout said. “He meant a lot to Clayton Kershaw. He isn’t going to hit, but he’s everything billed as far as being a quality backup who’s defensive minded and can handle a staff.”