The Marlins’ Five Greatest Pitchers
Kevin Brown (1996-97)
The quiet, sometimes surly and lanky right-hander had established himself as a solid pitcher through his first ten major league seasons in the American League, but he had never gotten his earned run average below 3.30. That all changed when he moved to Florida in 1996 and began a short but highly accomplished two-year run with the Marlins.
In his first year at Miami, Brown dominated opponents with an electrifying, National League-best 1.89 earned run average—ending a three-year run of ERA titles by the incomparable Greg Maddux. Despite the outstanding mark, Brown finished second in the Cy Young vote to Atlanta’s John Smoltz, who benefitted from more wins (24, to Brown’s 17). A year later, Brown’s ERA rose to a still-respectable 2.69 with a 16-8 record, but he threw the majors’ only no-hitter on the year when he shut down San Francisco on June 10; the only baserunner he allowed came with two outs in the eighth when he plunked pinch-hitter Marvin Benard.
During the 1997 postseason—Brown’s last days with the Marlins—he overcame a stomach flu to throw 140 pitches in a complete-game, Game Six victory over the Braves to clinch the NLCS; but he fell flat in his two World Series starts against Cleveland, losing both to the Indians and opposing starter Chad Ogea.
Brown became part of the great Marlins post-championship purge, sent to San Diego and then, a year later, signing what was then the largest contract in baseball with the Los Angeles Dodgers—a deal the Dodgers would later regret as Brown succumbed to constant injuries (which led to a dalliance with steroids, according to the Mitchell Report).
Josh Johnson (2005-2012)
The big (6’7”, 240 pounds) right-hander from Minneapolis continually threatened to become one of the top aces in the game with the Marlins—so long as he stayed healthy.
Johnson was an integral part of the terrific Marlins rookie ensemble (along with Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla) of 2006, and became part of the first rotation in major league history to feature four rookies with ten-plus wins each. But his path to stardom took a detour a year later when he underwent Tommy John surgery for a bad elbow; he fully recovered in 2009, producing a 15-5 record—but really took off in 2010, winning the NL ERA crown with a 2.30 mark while going 12 straight starts in which he allowed three or fewer runs.
With an arsenal of pitches highlighted by a fastball in the mid-90s (if not faster), Johnson was thought highly enough of by Marlins management to be handed a four-year, $39 million deal prior to 2010, a rare high-priced contract given by the team’s outlandishly low-budget owner Jeffrey Loria. That love ended after 2012 when Johnson was sent away with most every other high-priced Marlin to Toronto in a controversial deal that chopped the team’s payroll down by two-thirds.
Dontrelle Willis (2003-07)
Like a comet, the career of the flamboyant southpaw from Oakland glowed bright—but all too brief, flickering out before he even turned 30. Still, the accomplishments of the “D-Train” were enough that he remained the all-time franchise leader in wins until Ricky Nolasco passed him up in 2012.
Willis captured the attention of the baseball world in 2003 as a 21-year old when he exploded out to a fast start using a wild leg kick; though his success flattened out in the latter stages of the season (to the point he was used mostly in relief during the Marlins’ second championship run), his 14-6 record and 3.30 ERA still earned him NL honors as Rookie of the Year. After a subpar sophomore effort, Willis appeared to graduate to a big-time ace in 2005, leading the NL with 22 wins (against ten losses) and five shutouts to become the first and only 20-game winner to date in Marlins history; he finished second in the Cy Young vote to St. Louis’ Chris Carpenter.
Complimenting his pitching success, Willis was respected with a bat in his hands; he hit .234 with eight home runs and five triples in five years at Florida, and once in 2005 was placed seventh in the batting order—the highest such standing for a pitcher since 1973.
After his magnificent 2005 performance, Willis began a decline that accelerated with alarming speed after his trade to Detroit two years later; receiving $10 million a year from the Tigers, all Willis could give during the duration of his three-year deal was a 2-8 record and a 6.86 ERA, further punctuated by a mind-numbing 92 walks in 101 innings. After numerous comeback attempts with multiple organizations fizzled, Willis announced his retirement at age 30.
Josh Beckett (2001-05)
The lean right-hander born outside of Houston possessed a blazing fastball (recorded as high as 98 MPH), but failed to leverage it towards any kind of qualified success until the end of his third season—when the Marlins made their second run at a world title. It was then that Beckett exploded onto the national spotlight; he threw a two-hit shutout against the Cubs in Game Five of the 2003 NLCS, reversing the series’ momentum and launching the Marlins on a three-game rally to overcome the Cubs; and he delivered the franchise’s greatest pitching performance (if certainly not its most memorable) when, in Game Six of the World Series against New York, he threw another shutout on five hits at Yankee Stadium to clinch the Fall Classic against the heavily favored Yankees. Going into the postseason, Beckett had never thrown a shutout at the major league level.
Florida fans, fully expecting an ace-level encore from the brash Beckett in 2004, were disappointed instead to see him finish at just 9-9 as he suffered from frequent blisters. He improved to 15-8 the following year, but as free agent eligibility neared, the cost-conscious Marlins—as they often do—got rid of Beckett, trading him and fellow veterans Mike Lowell and Guillermo Mota to Boston for four relative unknowns (including future stars Hanley Ramirez and Anibal Sanchez).
Robb Nen (1993-97)
At first glance, the calm and congenial Nen didn’t seem to fit the mental mold of a big-time closer, but he nevertheless became the all-time saves leader for the Marlins with a speedy fastball that sometimes topped 100 on the radar, mixed in with a killer slider.
The son of a former major league infielder, Nen was traded to the Marlins during their inaugural year from Texas and gradually evolved into the full-time closer role; he emerged among the game’s best by 1996, saving 35 games with a heady 1.89 ERA. Though that mark jumped to 3.89 a year later, he was still sharp enough to convert all four of his save opportunities during the 1997 postseason. Nen was let go in the Marlins’ ensuing fire sale, traded to San Francisco and solidifying his stature as one of the game’s premier closers—though his career ended on a sour note when he blew the save that would have clinched the 2002 World Series for the Giants over Anaheim; he never pitched again as a damaged shoulder suffered that year took too long to heal.
Miami Marlins' Team History: Year-by year records, statistics and an oral history of the Marlins, decade by decade.
The Marlins' Five Greatest Hitters: A list of the five greatest hitters based on their productivity and efficiency.
The Marlins' Five Greatest Games: A list of five memorable games and other notable personal achievements that have defined the Marlins' history.
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