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Miami Marlins: Explaining Heath Bell's Struggles and Other Surprises from 2012

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Miami Marlins: Explaining Heath Bell's Struggles and Other Surprises from 2012
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
Carlos Zambrano's pitching performance has been a pleasant surprise for the Marlins so far this season

So the Miami Marlins are about one month into the season now, and everyone knows what that means; it means that now there's enough data to draw conclusions about the future performance of players who are over or under-performing outside expectations!

Just kidding.

I don't think I need to remind anyone that there's an extremely low chance that barring injury, Heath Bell's ERA stays north of 11.00 for the whole year. Or that Omar Infante is probably not going to finish the year with a slugging percentage nearly 200 points higher than Giancarlo Stanton, unless they're playing a practical joke where they're switching offensive skills for the season.

Still, even though it's early, there still may be relevant information to glean from the surprising performances of certain Marlins thus far. Let's take a look, shall we?

 

Heath Bell, RP (11.74 ERA, 3 Blown Saves, 6.88 FIP)- Just to be clear, there has been nothing positive about Heath Bell's pitching so far this season. His "traditional" stats are poor, and his defensive independent stats aren't very good either. He has a 5.87 K/9, a 9.39 BB/9, and is giving up 1.17 HR/9.

Then again, he's only thrown 7.2 innings so far. Drawing conclusions from such a small sample, would, of course, not be productive. Still, it's worth taking a look to see if there's anything wrong with Bell that might lead to continued negative results on the mound.

A couple of things jump out about Bell's performance so far this year. First, according to FanGraphs, his fastball velocity for 2012 is 92.9 MPH, which is by far the lowest it has been in his time in the majors. Second, it seems he's been having trouble fooling hitters: batters are making contact with Bell's pitches 88.9% of the time they swing at them, which is over 7% higher than Bell's previous career high of 81.8%, which he set last year.

Mike Stobe/Getty Images
Heath Bell has struggled in 2012, and whether he will return to his former dominance is unclear

So maybe Bell's relatively low fastball velocity and high contact percentage are indicative of a pitcher whose "stuff" isn't quite as good as it once was. Bell is 34 years old, and perhaps he needs a little bit more time on the mound to get into game shape before his pitches round into form.

Of course, Bell could be completely fine—92.9 MPH is still pretty fast after all, and his performance so far can be chalked up to a small sample size fluke. Naturally, we'll come closer to finding out which explanation is more valid as Bell continues to pitch.

Jose Reyes, SS (.226/.311/.333, .284 wOBA)- The Marlins are paying Jose Reyes 106 million dollars over the course of six years in large part because he was supposed to be the spark-plug at the top of their lineup, getting on base and stealing bases, so he could be driven in by the likes of Hanley Ramirez and Giancarlo Stanton. Over his first 107 plate appearances, Reyes has been as effective at jump-starting the Marlins offense as a Frisbee would be at jump-starting a car.

There's reason to believe that Reyes should bounce back soon, however. One encouraging sign is his walk rate, which is 11.2%, almost 4% higher than it was last year. He's also hitting ground balls at a much higher rate than he did last year (53% this year, 42.1% in 2011), while his fly ball percentage has dropped significantly (27.7% this year, 36.8% last year). Whether this is a product of a small sample or an intentional change in his approach at the plate is not yet clear. What is clear, or at least seems to be clear, is that Reyes is getting a little unlucky. Ground balls are much more likely to be hits than fly balls are, but even with the heavy increase in the amount of grounders Reyes is hitting, his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is .247, 106 points lower than it was last year.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
You can expect to see much more of Jose Reyes on the basepaths in the near future

If Reyes is making a concerted effort to hit the ball on the ground more, then we might see his power numbers drop. But if he maintains his current approach at the plate, it stands to reason that Reyes will be on base a lot more, and soon. And when you think about it, that's what the Marlins are paying him to do in the first place.

 

Hanley Ramirez, 3B (.198/.294/.354, .300 wOBA)- The man who switched positions to make room for Reyes isn't off to such a hot start either, as his slash line indicates. Ramirez's start arguably becomes even more troubling due to the fact that his offensive numbers have declined every year since 2009.

Hanley's poor start might be chalked up to any number of factors. He's striking out 22% of the time, which would be a career high if it stands for the entire season. His infield fly ball rate is 13.8%, which would also be a career high. And like Reyes, he appears to be getting unlucky; he has a BABIP of .221. Then again, perhaps this low BABIP can be, in part, chalked up to poor plate discipline. Ramirez is making contact with 75% of the pitches he swings at outside the strike zone—again, this would be a career high if it stands up over the course of the season and perhaps this is leading to him making weak contact.  

Again, Ramirez's offensive numbers have declined over the past couple of years, and who knows when or if he'll put up a season like he did in 2008 (33 HR, .940 OPS) again. But regardless of the answer to that question, he is not nearly as bad offensively as his current stats indicate.

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
A moment of celebration for Hanley Ramirez during an otherwise poor start to the 2012 season

Omar Infante, 2B (.307/.333/.640, .412 wOBA)- Hey, so it turns out that the Marlins have had at least one player perform surprisingly well so far this year. The most striking thing about Infante's year thus far is the power he's shown; he has more extra-base hits (13, including five home runs) then singles (10).

Can Infante be expected to keep supplying the pop for the Marlins offense? Unlikely, if his past is any indication, as he hasn't hit more than eight home runs in a season since 2004. He's slugging .640 right now, and he hasn't had a slugging percentage over .416 since 2004.

But regardless of whether Infante can keep on knocking the cover off the ball like he has been (and again, history says he almost definitely won't), you can be sure that the Marlins are pretty pleased with his offensive performance so far.

In a year where the Marlins haven't had many standout performances on offense and with Reyes, Ramirez and Giancarlo Stanton struggling at the dish, Infante has been carrying the load for the Fish.

Carlos Zambrano, SP (2.53 ERA, 4.06 FIP)- Yes, the 2.53 ERA looks shiny, but Big Z's FIP indicates that he might begin to give up more runs soon. His BABIP is .244, which is low. He's currently stranding 86.2% of his base runners, and that number is bound to decrease soon; Jered Weaver led the league in LOB% last year with 82.6% of base runners stranded. His K/9 and BB/9 are roughly the same as they were last year, although he has upped his ground ball percentage to 48.9% after it was 42.4% in 2011.

Still, a 2.53 ERA is a 2.53 ERA, which means that Zambrano has been a pleasant surprise for the Marlins thus far, even if his start is likely unsustainable. And a 4.06 FIP is nothing to be ashamed of, especially for a number four starter. So far, the gamble on Zambrano appears to be working out for Miami, although it's anyone's guess how he will pitch after he and Ozzie Guillen inevitably get into some kind of fight. But we can cross that bridge when we get to it.    

Josh Johnson, SP (5.34 ERA, 2.16 FIP)- On the other end of the spectrum, Josh Johnson has a fantastic FIP but a surprisingly bloated ERA. Although Johnson hasn't been striking out as many batters as might be expected (7.85 K/9), he's compensating by rolling up grounders (56% GB rate). Although Johnson hasn't had the blazing fastball this year that we've come to expect from him, averaging 92.7 MPH, as opposed to 94 MPH in 2011 and 94.9 MPH in 2009, he's still been a pretty solid pitcher in most areas this year.

One negative is his line drive rate is 27.5%; In 2011, Edwin Jackson's 24.9% line drive rate was the highest in the league among qualified starters last year. Still, Johnson is striking out a respectable number of guys, limiting his walks and doing a solid job keeping the ball on the ground. His line drive rate will almost certainly decline, and if it does, his ERA will go down with it.

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