The smaller the sample, the greater the chance of an unexpected result. It’s an axiom of statistics, of sports movies, and of baseball. Given 162 chances, or 60, or seven, the favorite will usually prevail. But the shorter the confrontation, the greater chance the underdog has. When an innocuous-looking Corey Dickerson fly ball carries over the Wrigley Field wall, it’s not just one of thousands of bounces that even out over time—it means something.
Even in a best-of-five or best-of-seven series, Miami’s surprising Game 1 victory over the Cubs may have been a curiosity, at most a prelude to a more interesting series than anyone but contrarians and Marlins partisans expected. Instead, according to FanGraphs, it took Miami from a roughly 2-to-1 underdog to a roughly 2-to-1 favorite in a best-of-three series.
Everything about the 2020 season is to some extent weird, and the successful playoff underdog is no exception. The Marlins have had three owners in their 28-season history, all misers, and each more odious than the one before. The current majority owner, private equity baron Bruce Sherman, operates the ballclub less out of interest in winning a World Series than owning an asset whose value will appreciate regardless of victory. As a result, the 2020 Opening Day roster was a collection of guys: a few veteran sluggers who couldn’t find a gig elsewhere as a platoon left fielder or DH, a few former prospects acquired when the team sold off its last generation of stars, along with three calling birds, two French hens, and a partridge in a pear tree.
On the opening weekend of the season, this collection of guys took two of three from the Phillies in Philadelphia, then suffered a COVID-19 outbreak, necessitating a one-week break in the schedule and the recruitment of still another collection of guys until the original roster could return to health. Much as this part of the story tends to get spun as just another piece of adversity to overcome, the truth is darker. The team’s response at the time left much to be desired: The Marlins outbreak occurred mid-series, and the team forged ahead and played on the say-so not of the league, or team doctors, but of a group chat of Marlins players. All of the Marlins players who tested positive returned to play this season; as far as we know, they did not suffer serious side effects or infect anyone outside the league’s testing umbrella. That was far from certain at the time.
But that collection of guys, supplemented by midseason acquisitions like outfielder Starling Marte and reliever Richard Bleier, coalesced into not only a baseball team, but a pretty good one. Not overpowering in any one area, but good enough to be credible everywhere. Between Dickerson, Jesús Aguilar, Garrett Cooper, and Brian Anderson, the Marlins have a solid offensive core, even after Marte broke his pinkie in Game 1. (Marte reportedly may try to play through it.) Shortstop Miguel Rojas, the longest-tenured member of the team, had the best offensive campaign of his career at age 31, hitting .304/.392/.496 with five stolen bases. He singled and scored on Dickerson’s home run in Game 1.
If the Marlins can finish the Cubs off in Game 2, it likely won’t be because of their offense. After starting Kyle Hendricks in Game 1 (and watching him surrender that home run to Dickerson), Cubs manager David Ross will call on Yu Darvish in Game 2. Darvish, after a few uncertain seasons, has reemerged as Chicago’s ace, and one of the very best pitchers in all of baseball. No offense would head into Game 2, against Darvish, and expect to tee off.
But the Marlins might have the kind of starter who can hold serve. Sixto Sánchez, a stocky 22-year-old rookie acquired two years ago in a trade package for J.T. Realmuto, is one of the few pitchers in baseball who can match Darvish’s stuff. Sánchez got knocked around in his last two regular-season starts, but every pitch he throws is absolutely filthy.
Sixto Sánchez, 100mph Fastball, 89mph Changeup and 88mph Slider, Overlay with Tails. pic.twitter.com/WUBCfjaDyL— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) August 29, 2020
The Marlins have famously never lost a playoff series in franchise history, and both of their previous title runs were backed up by rookie starters in their early 20s: Dontrelle Willis in 2003 and Liván Hernández, who won MVP honors in both the NLCS and the World Series, in 1997. And while Sánchez is inexperienced, manager Don Mattingly hasn’t babied him. Sánchez has thrown seven full innings in three of his seven career starts, allowing two earned runs or fewer in all of them. His competition in those starts: the Rays, Blue Jays, and Phillies, who missed the playoffs because of their bullpen, not because of an offense that finished tied for fifth in MLB in runs scored. Between those starts, Sánchez also held Atlanta, the highest-scoring offense in baseball, to three hits and no runs over six innings.
Sánchez could beat Darvish head-to-head, but he might not have to. Considering the clubs’ respective bullpens, the Marlins would be in decent shape even if Sánchez only fights Darvish to a draw. Of the three pitchers who came in to relieve starter Sandy Alcantara in Game 1, none threw more than 17 pitches—Bleier threw only one. Chicago’s bullpen is in rougher shape. The Cubs are already down one key reliever, Rowan Wick, who’s not on the roster after suffering an oblique injury. Their best reliever, Jeremy Jeffress, threw 22 pitches in Game 1, and gave up three hits and two runs. Craig Kimbrel is on the roster, but he’s been unsteady all season, and nobody’s going to forget his rocky 2018 postseason anytime soon.
Should the Marlins lose Game 2, FanGraphs has them as a slight favorite in a potential Game 3. But Miami won’t want to take things that far. The longer this series goes, the more likely it is that the Cubs will leap back off the mat and return affairs to their expected course. Good news for Miami, all it needs to win is one game.