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How Does a Fish Hit?

What they do well, how they compare to the Phillies, and good lord what is that run differential

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Miami Marlins Rhona Wise-USA TODAY Sports

There’s all sorts of strange things you can drag up from the deep. Fish with more fangs than Kyle Schwarber has dingers, jellyfish that glow like neon signs, squid with arms that can stretch halfway from home plate to first. But few denizens of the deep are quite as odd as the 2023 Miami Marlins.

The Marlins are one of the few teams in history to make the postseason with a negative run differential; in fact, their -57 run differential is the worst that any playoff team has ever had. Of course, you might expect an increase in teams with negative run differentials playing into October, due to the added wiggle room the expanded postseason offers. But the Marlins made it in as the second Wild Card team. They would have made it even if the new format hadn’t been adopted.

How’d they get here? And what does their run differential say about their chances against the Phillies in the Wild Card?

A quick look at the stats reveals the main culprit behind that mediocre run differential: The Marlins have scored 666 runs this season, fewer than any other team in the Senior Circuit, and fewer than all but 4 teams league-wide.

That being said, the Marlins do some things quite well at the plate: Their 1427 total hits are good for 6th most in baseball, and their team batting average of .259 is good for 4th best. Compare to the Phillies (1417 hits and a team batting average of .256), and the Marlins seem to be just about equal to the Phillies in this regard. Of course, the Marlins team batting average is elevated by the presence of NL batting champion Luis Arráez and his .354 average, but it’s clear that the Fish can get hits.

Total hits and batting average, however, are just one part of the offensive picture. And the other offensive statistics are substantially less sunny for the visitors from the Sunshine State. The team OBP for the Marlins is a middling .317, good for just 19th in the league. Fish of course cannot walk, and the Marlins commitment to realism in this regard (only 3 teams took fewer free passes), is laudable but perhaps ill-advised. The team slugging percentage of .405 is also 19th-best in the league (one need not be a sabermetric genius to figure out where the team OPS ranks). When compared to the Phillies in this regard, the visitors don’t stack up nearly as well as they did when BA and total hits were the metric: the Phillies rank 13 spots higher in the category of team OPS, 6th overall.

Looking at the type of hits the Marlins get helps to explain the run differential as well: no team in baseball can boast more singles than Miami, but a majority can brag about getting more doubles and homers (they rank 22nd and 23rd, respectively), and half the league can claim as many or more triples (Miami’s total of 23 three-baggers is tied for 15th with Atlanta). The Phillies are top 10 in all three categories.

With this in mind, the nature of the Marlins 2023 offense becomes clear. They’re good at getting hits, but they lack the slugging needed to reliably turn those hits into runs. Their lack of walks doesn’t help, and they’re not taking advantage of stolen bases either (they’re tied for 23rd with 86 swipes). They’ve made it this far by winning a shocking amount of their one-run games. You could call that luck, or an outlier season begging for regression to the mean; for the moment let’s say that the Marlins are doing just enough to win, and often not much more.

The Phillies, with a much more potent offense, should be considered to have a significant advantage at the plate. Of course, the small sample size chaos of a three-game series means that there is no guarantee that the Phillies’ statistical offensive superiority will translate into wins over the course of this matchup. Case in point: the Phillies outscored their Floridian friends in their head-to-head matchups this season (4.9 runs per game vs. 4.1), yet lost the season series 7 games to 6. The statistics are clear, but the story is yet to be written.