While the Miami Marlins didn't enter the season as anyone's choice to make a run to the Wild Card -- outside of NESN -- after a strong start, and an even stronger run differential, that upstart team from South Florida may just be able to sneak their way into one of the six available slots in this season's NL playoff picture.
Led by two of the best young players in baseball -- Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Fernandez -- the Marlins have been brilliant at home and have managed to outscore their opponents by 23 runs in just 30 games so far this season. Yes, it's only been 30 games, but with a significant amount of blue-chip talent and some quality performances by smart veteran pickups, there's definitely a reason to be optimistic they can keep their relatively hot start going.
The plus-23 run differential is the best in their division and second-best in the National league overall behind the high-octane Rockies, who have let up 28 additional runs but scored a whopping 37 more than the very respectable 137 runs Miami have scored this season.
It's also been done with a much more balanced approach than most other net-positive teams such as Braves, whose +14 run differential has much more to do with a shutdown pitching staff giving up just 83 runs than a particularly good offense. In fact, only the AL West-leading A's, who lead the majors with a mind-blowing +50, and the Marlins' divisional rival, the Washington Nationals, find themselves alongside Miami in the top ten of both runs scored and team ERA.
The dominance of the pitching staff is barely surprising, and definitely not unexpected. Ace Jose Fernandez has all the tools to be a future Cy Young winner, while young studs like Nate Eovaldi and resurgent prospects like Tom Koehler have been having their best seasons in their relatively short careers. Although their bullpen hasn't been nearly as dominant as the starting staff, they've still managed to keep their fair share of leads with a 3.80 ERA.
Of larger concern is the offense continuing to produce runs at a prodigious enough clip to keep them in the neighborhood of sixth-most in the majors, where they currently reside. Giancarlo Stanton may rake like the leaves are falling, but the chief concern going into the season was whether or not anyone other than he and fellow outfielder Christian Yelich were going to be able to hit at a major league level. But even though no one on the team has set the world on fire, there's an even distribution of runs scored, and veteran pickups Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Casey McGehee are playing some of their best baseball in years.
And while "regression to the mean" is on the mind of everyone watching McGehee hit .315 despite being a career .260 hitter, it's not entirely outside the realm of possibility that he's experiencing a quasi-resurgence back to his best two seasons as a member of the Milwaukee Brewers when he hit .310 and .285.
What this all essentially means is that, given the evidence -- if not necessarily a preponderance of it yet with such a small sample size -- it's easy to see the team maintain at least some semblance of the production they've enjoyed so far, especially from their young and hungry pitching staff.
However, there are two separate parts to the equation of predicting a playoff berth: projecting performances and determining whether they meet the criteria for a playoff berth. For the Marlins, this season began somewhat strongly, with some predicting an 83-79 finish based on their winning percentage as early as nine games into the season. This has largely held true, based on the same article's formula for determining the likely winning percentage for the rest of a season. But, what it doesn't take into account is the team's potential in maintaining their run differential, and possibly even improving upon it.
Sites like FanGraphs, however, do not see the current run differential as sustainable -- in fact, they see the team going through a 55-run swing in the other direction before the end of the season -- but for the sake of this discussion, we'll allow for the possibility that this team can maintain its well-balanced attack. Using Bill James' Pythagorean expectations to predict win totals -- and averaging the totals for the last ten teams to finish sixth in the league in runs scored -- gives us around 84 wins this season. And even with the expanded Wild Card, that total would leave them just barely on the outside looking in.
But if this Marlins team has proven anything so far, other than that they can exceed expectations, it's that the only reason they're "closer to winning an NBA championship than a pennant this year" is because the Heat also play in the 305.