Editors Note: At the time of writing, Miami sat in first place in the NL East. At the time of publication they are in second, one game behind Atlanta.
A Bleak Beginning Turns Brighter
As of August 6, Don Mattingly became the winningest coach in Florida/Miami Marlins history with 282 wins since joining the club in 2016. The former Yankee first baseman is pulling the team out from under two consecutive last-place finishes in the NL East, plus an early-season COVID-19 protocol breach that led to at least 18 players testing positive and the league rescheduling dozens of games in the wake of the outbreak.
Despite everything, Miami have taken a motley crew of journeymen players to first place in the division with a .667 winning percentage even after seeing much of the roster move to the injured list with COVID at the end of July. Marlins CEO Derek Jeter said the team “let their guard down” while on the road in Atlanta early in the season and expressed disappointment in players who didn’t wear their masks or social distance.
The team entered August decimated, receiving news of more and more players testing positive by the day. As of August 1, FanGraphs projected that Miami’s odds of reaching the postseason were 7.2%, trailed only by the Pirates (5.3%) and the Orioles (3.1%).
And what does it take to overcome those odds, to calm the drama and perform in the big leagues with minor leaguers, waiver acquisitions, and free agents? According to the team, it has all to do with what their manager is bringing to the clubhouse. “It’s Don Mattingly,” said closer Brandon Kintzler. “You watched him from when you were a kid. The guy was gritty. That’s what he brings. That’s what I hope this team becomes, a gritty team.”
A Steady Presence
Mattingly’s reputation for being a consistent, steadfast competitor has served him well in the Marlins fray to this point. After joining the team in 2016, he survived a change in management in 2017 and a major rebuilding period following the loss of stars Giancarlo Stanton and J.T. Realmuto in recent years.
Mattingly has spoken about the importance of maintaining strong messaging and developing a healthy team culture in the rebuilding era, pointing out that it’s not just talent that wins games, but having a cohesive team that understands their purpose and knows what’s expected of them.
“Just the fact that players know what to expect,” Mattingly explained during a press session. “That they are comfortable with you, and that they can talk to you. It’s not like a different system all the time. I’m pretty consistent in my personality with them.”
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Since the COVID-19 outbreak, the Marlins have drawn much of their roster from their farm system and off the MLB waiver wire. It’s a group who have seen some bleak sights recently, but according to their skipper, they are closer than ever to turning a corner.
“I feel like the whole organization is making that move forward,” Mattingly said. “We felt that in Spring Training. We felt that with our young players, and they’re not even all here yet. It’s an organizational thing. That’s the only way you turn the culture around. That’s what you feel is happening. It doesn’t mean it’s going to work out, but it feels good right now with what these guys are doing. They’re playing hard, and they’re having fun.”
It speaks volumes that players respect what Mattingly, Jeter et al. are doing with the club, and even more so that they’re buying into the program. The results of Miami’s cultural shift is reminiscent of the New York Yankees’ organisational power: the Yankee Way. If you wear the pinstripes, it’s a lifestyle and a state of mind. It’s a code of conduct, and a lifelong fraternity, and that Yankee connection may well be playing a role in reinventing the Marlins as an underdog suddenly worthy of respect in the league.
The Yankee Connection
Obviously Mattingly and Jeter represent the big Yankee names and the loudest voices that have lived the “Yankee Way,” but the Marlins have more New York depth than just their most visible leaders. Miami bench coach James Rowson served as the Yanks’ hitting coach and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. is the son of storied Yankee Mel Stottlemyre Sr., while hitting coach Eric Duncan was drafted by the Yankees and played in the minor league system before getting into coaching.
On the field, catcher Francisco Cervelli spent seven seasons with New York from 2008 to 2014. MLB commentators around the league have heralded Cervelli as a key contributor to team life. He’s notorious for being a gamer: energetic, strategic, and wears his emotions on his sleeve. For a young squad, he’s a great example of honing sound defensive skills and the ability to be a spark plug in key moments. Especially on a team full of young talent, Cervelli serves as a model of what an everyday player can contribute to the team on the field and in the clubhouse.
The Next Gen Has Arrived
Miami’s farm system contributed much of 2020’s comeback story, thanks in large part to director of player development and scouting Gary Denbo. (Denbo, naturally, was the Yankees’ vice president of player development and helped usher in the newest generation of New York stars prior to joining the Marlins.)
So under the tutelage of Mattingly and the Marlins’ coaching staff, the likes of 3B Brian Anderson, CF Monte Harrison, and OF Magneuris Sierra have been able to see regular playing time and succeed under difficult circumstances.
Anderson in particular has been clutch at the plate and has shown incredible power. He currently leads the team in OPS at 1.007 and sits atop the team’s home run leaderboard with 4 along with Jesus Aguilar.
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Harrison and Sierra are somewhat wildcards, but they both offer all-around speed in the field and on the base paths. Both have notched stolen bases and Sierra is making a push to play every day with above-average offensive output (.286/.421/.500 over seven games).
Whether their ability to perform is the result of organisational culture or coaching style, the through line leads back to Don Mattingly forging the path ahead for a team whose outlook was miserable as recently as two weeks ago. As of August 13, Baseball Reference now put Miami’s odds to make the playoffs at over 30%.
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