If you told me in December of 2019 that we would see the Miami Marlins in the playoffs sooner than Mike Trout and the Angels, I likely would have died of either laughter or embarrassment at that very moment. The Marlins playoff odds on March 11th, 2020 were 0.2%, and they were projected to be among one of the worst teams in the league. The additions of Corey Dickerson, Jonathan Villar, and Jesus Aguilar was viewed as adding players to field a watchable team in 2020. This was not a team in win-now mode, and even entering the shortened 60-game season with an expanded playoff format they were projected to make the playoffs only 9.2% of the time. This would rank as the 3rd lowest in the league and rank only above the Mariners at 5.5% and the Orioles at 1.4%.
Have you ever thought about why MLB teams play 162 games in the regular season? The logical answer to this question is that the league wants to make sure the best teams get into the postseason so a longer season should be a better reflection of true talent. While adding more games to a season will reduce the variance in a season, 162 is still nowhere near enough for us to determine which teams are the best by record alone. In a 2014 article for Beyond the Boxscore, Daniel Meyer ran simulations to determine how often the most talented team would end up with the best record over the course of four different regular season lengths.
As you can see, getting the regular season to reflect the true talent of the best team in the league is very difficult. Meyer points out that these figures are dependent on how much better the best team is from the mean, but it really shows just how random baseball truly is.
Teams like the Marlins are the beneficiaries of small samples due to this randomness, and with each game added to the season, we could expect to see a decrease in their chances of making the playoffs. The number of games was not the only shortened factor that benefited the Marlins this season. After playing 3 games to open the season, the Marlins had to postpone seven straight games and with MLB making some make-up doubleheader games seven innings as opposed to the usual nine, we would see another increase in the variability of this season for the Marlins.
Over the season, the Marlins would play 14 seven-inning games, which made up 23.3% of the total games they played this season. In those seven-inning games they went 10-4 which is a .714 Win%. This season, the Dodgers Win% was .713 so the Marlins played the like the best team in baseball in seven-inning games. If we look at their Runs Scored (RS) and Runs Against (RA) in those 7 inning games, we can see that they were almost the exact same figure. We can use the Pythagorean Theorem of baseball to come up with their expected record in those games.
After calculating their expected results, we can see that the Marlins performed much better than expected in 7 inning games. Especially when we look at their 9 inning games, we can see that they struggled in games that have less variance. We can see that the Marlins likely benefited from the rule change more than the teams that they were facing, and the odds just happened to be in their favor.
Using the figures given to us by totals of xWins and xLoses categories and comparing them to the actual results, the Marlins won five more games than they were expected to win. In a 60-game season, a five-game over-performance in expected record is the equivalent of over performing your Pythagorean win expectancy by 14 games in a 162-game season! If this season were 162 games and they maintained the same run differential, they would have been expected to win 70 games. A 14-game improvement from that would swing them to 84, which would put them in the hunt for the wild card even in the regular playoff format.
This article has been composed of lots of negativity, and I feel it is important to point out some of the spectacular performances that made this playoff appearance possible. At age 31, Miguel Rojas broke out with a 142 wRC+ and 1.6 fWAR, which was tied for the team lead with SP Pablo Lopez. Speaking of Lopez, in 11 starts the 24-year-old had a career-low 3.09 FIP (15th best among MLB Starters with at least 50 IP) and a 3.98 SIERA (29th best). Their top pitching prospect, Sixto Sanchez, made his MLB debut this season, and in his 7 starts he had 39 IP and a 3.46 ERA and showed his superstar potential with his disgusting repertoire. Third basemen Brian Anderson continued his good start to his MLB career with a 121 wRC+ and 1.2 fWAR and is looking like a big piece of this team’s future whether it be through trade or at the hot corner.
It is not surprising to see that this Marlins team severely over-performed their true talent, but a team this bad making the playoffs has been something I have wanted to see for such a long time. I view the Marlins making the playoffs kind of like a position player pitching. Could they get all three outs and embarrass the other team? Probably not, but there is certainly a chance that it could happen, and I would not want to miss out on it. I want this team to win the World Series, and it would certainly be the most 2020 thing possible if the Marlins were able to advance past the Cubs in the first round of the playoffs. I will be tuning into every game of this series as there is a chance we will not see a team this bad make the playoffs ever again.
(Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire)