MIAMI — The Marlins’ foundation is built upon strong starting pitching, so the organization’s success depends upon the rotation setting the tone.
Through 20 games in April, Miami starters boasted a 3.03 ERA — seventh lowest in the Majors. That coincided with the club’s first seven-game winning streak in six years and a 12-8 record, good for second in the National League East.
“Nothing’s really changed in my mind with our club,” manager Don Mattingly said. “We were kind of getting the hit and out that we needed through that streak, and we haven’t quite been able to do that these last few days.”
So what’s at the root of these struggles?
Lack of first-pitch strikes
Getting ahead in counts is pivotal to a pitcher’s success. Not only does it put the hitter in defense mode, but it also expands the zone.
Of the 23 games this season, the past three rank as the following in terms of first-pitch strike percentage:
Sunday: Lowest (38.5%, Alcantara)
Monday: Third lowest (47.6%, López)
Tuesday: Tied for fifth lowest (52.4%, Rogers)
Following Tuesday’s start, Rogers attributed his struggles to two things: his lack of first-pitch strikes and secondary pitches out of the zone. It was eerily similar to what López said Monday.
“I would just say I wasn’t giving myself options,” López said. “I was behind in the count a lot, and they were working a lot of good at-bats. They made me work a lot. I made mistakes, I paid for them, and it’s also one of those nights when I executed my pitches, I also paid for them. They put the barrel on the ball and found some holes, so I’ve got to be more consistent.
“It’s one thing to throw strikes, but you’ve got to get quality strikes to give yourself options so you can keep all your pitches on the table to work up, down, in, out. I wasn’t doing that a whole lot. Hence I found myself just struggling to be ahead in the count, and they made me work. They brought me higher in the zone where they wanted and they were able to put the ball in play.”
Not keeping the ball in the park
In April, Marlins starters permitted 0.67 homers per nine innings — seventh lowest in the Majors. Since Sunday, they have given up five in 14 2/3 frames.
Rogers, who hadn’t surrendered a long ball this season, got taken deep twice in a span of five batters due to missed locations.
Across 25 starts during his NL Rookie of the Year runner-up campaign, Rogers never gave up multiple homers.
Christian Walker ambushed a 95.6 mph four-seamer in the second, while Palm Beach Gardens High product Pavin Smith jumped on a 92.3 mph for a leadoff shot in the third.
Unable to finish the inning
Miami’s last quality start coincides with its last victory Saturday, when Jesús Luzardo went six innings. Alcantara’s calling card is his ability to go deep into games as one of four Major Leaguers to pitch at least 200 innings in 2021. But in Sunday’s loss to the Mariners, he was chased in a three-run sixth. López on Monday couldn’t record the final out of a two-run fifth.
On Tuesday, Rogers permitted a leadoff single in the fifth to Sergio Alcántara, then nearly wiped it out with a potential double-play ball. But Miami settled for a fielder’s choice. After Cooper Hummel stole a base, Jordan Luplow walked on four pitches. Following a mound visit, Ketel Marte knocked a first-pitch RBI ground-rule double. Rogers was pulled for Cody Poteet, who gave up a scorched (105.5 mph exit velo) two-run double to Walker that went under third baseman Brian Anderson’s glove.
The Marlins are 3-6 this season when their starter is unable to complete their final inning.
“You don’t want to be there,” Rogers said. “Five innings is a lot better than 4 1/3, you know what I mean? It’s never the goal. You get handed the ball where I want to go nine every time, and that doesn’t always happen. Like I said before, just got to keep working and keep improving.”