The Carlos Marmol era is going to end sooner than later in Chicago. For many that end cannot come soon enough, but playing around with sortable stats on Fangraphs has led to a want for context and closure on this era. Carlos Marmol, for better or worse, has been a fixture at the back end of the Cubs bullpen for six seasons and has piled up over 500 innings in a big league uniform. He has been one of the most dominant relievers in baseball and a well below average reliever at other times. Inconsistency does not make Carlos Marmol unique amongst relievers, but Carlos Marmol is special.
“Special” is a word that has many connotations that run the gamut of extremely positive to quite negative, and Carlos Marmol is special in every sense of the word in terms of baseball history. Carlos Marmol has a unique position on the career leaderboards for pitchers with 500 innings in the modern era. Since 1901 there have been 2153 pitchers that have thrown at least 500 innings in their career, and of those pitchers Fangraphs had K% and BB% for 1848 of them. Carlos Marmol is one of three such pitchers to have had over 30% of his opposing plate appearances end in strikeout, sharing the distinction with fellow closers Billy Wagner* and Brad Lidge. (For those interested in why they use K% instead of K/9, it stems from this article. If you were curious the order remains the same using K/9 with Wagner, Lidge and Marmol all over 11 K/9)
On the other hand it should be no surprise that Carlos Marmol ranks seventh all time, and active leader, in walks per plate appearance. This fact is the reason for the ire that Carlos Marmol has drawn as a Cub, but it is interesting to note that he is a full two percentage points lower than Mitch Williams in the category. Carlos Marmol is the only pitcher to show up in the top 10 of each list, the next closest would be Armando Benitez who was 5th in K% and 54th in BB% or Ryan Duren who was 11th in BB% and 37th in K%.
The walk rates has always been a frustrating part of Marmol’s game, but it really doesn’t explain the terrible 2011 campaign. Marmol was actually walking less and striking out more batters in 2011 than in 2009 when his ERA was 0.60 run lower.
So what was the difference? A dramatic increase in BABIP explains the rise. Now the subject of BABIP is controversial. BABIP is often cited as one of the primary luck indicators for pitchers, but the amount of luck that affects performance is under question. Research at Fangraphs Community Research points to several factors that might predict lower BABIP including IFFB%. This is significant with Carlos Marmol whose IFFB% has had the following rates from 2007-2012: 10.4%, 14.9%, 20.8%, 6.3%, 9/0%, 11.8%. The other interesting change for Carlos Marmol has been an increase in GB% over the same time period: 31.3%, 34.6%, 35.8%, 35.1%, 39.2%, 40.6%.
The changes in those rate stats show why Marmol failed in 2011 and the first half of 2012. Carlos Marmol became more hittable, and an older article from pitchf/x guru Harry Pavlidis gives the reason for that. The decrease in difference in velocity between the fastball and slider made Marmol more susceptible to balls finding gaps in defense. Carlos Marmol improved dramatically after returning from the DL at the end of the May. Not being allowed to shake off his catcher with a return of fastball velocity dropped Marmol’s WHIP during that stretch to 1.36. This is not a great rate, but it was dramatic decrease from prior to the DL stint of 2.21.
The main concern for most Cubs fans is what 2013 holds for Carlos Marmol. The answer probably lies in between the elite production of 2010 and the well below average production of 2011. A season in the mold of 2009 is probably a likely outcome with the return of velocity on the fastball. Ultimately Marmol is unlikely to finish the season with the Cubs, and the return depends a lot on Marmol’s production to begin the season. That would hardly be special though, and Marmol truly is special.
Carlos Marmol is special because he is the most fascist pitcher in baseball history according to Crash Davis. A staggering 45.6% of Carlos Marmol’s opposing plate appearances have only involved Marmol throwing the ball to his catcher. The next closest pitcher is Brad Lidge at 42%. The gap between first and second place is the largest gap on the chart, and it is impressive to think how close to half the time the batter and defense are not involved when Carlos Marmol is on the mound. Ultimately that is Carlos Marmol’s legacy in Chicago. I am not sure if that is good, bad or indifferent, but it was certainly special.
*A note that I felt needed to be added about the guy who checks in at number 1 on the all-time K% list. I’ve watched Cubs baseball for over two decades now, and so in that time I got to watch my fair share of Billy Wagner. I always knew that he was a very good closer, but after seeing the K%-BB% it dawned on me just how dominant Wagner really was. He is often overlooked in the discussion of greatest closers due to his save totals being well eclipsed by Hoffman and Rivera, but there is certainly a compelling argument that Wagner was better than Hoffman.