What were you doing as a 20-year-old?
Well, if your name is Jose Fernandez, then the answer is dominating big league hitters.
After breezing through both Class-A levels in 2012, Fernandez was expected to open his age-20 season at Double-A Jacksonville with the potential to reach the major leagues by the end of the year.
But after last-minute injuries to a pair of their starters, the Miami Marlins decided to promote Fernandez directly to the major leagues and insert him into the Opening Day rotation.
While many questioned the rationale behind the move, Fernandez quickly eliminated any doubt about his ability to compete in the major leagues this season by allowing one earned run and striking out eight batters against the Mets in his debut on April 7. Since then, Fernandez has emerged as the consensus top young pitcher in baseball, as well as the front-runner to take home NL Rookie of the Year honors.
However, the right-hander’s success this year extends well beyond a piece of hardware—Fernandez is having one of the greatest age-20 seasons in baseball history.
Let’s take a look at how his performance compares to the other 20-year-old potential stars that came before him.
The Big Three: Gooden, Valenzuela and Fernandez
After debuting with the Dodgers during the final month of the 1980 season, 20-year-old Fernando Valenzuela took the baseball world by storm the following year. As "Fernandomania" spread throughout the nation (as well as his native Mexico), the left-hander became must-see TV and emerged as the driving force behind the Dodgers’ World Series title.
At the time—and until it was obliterated by Doc Gooden several years later—Valenzuela’s age-20 season was one of the best (if not the best) in baseball history. And after tossing eight complete-game shutouts and registering a 2.48 ERA with 180 strikeouts in 192.1 innings, the southpaw was named the National League Cy Young winner and Rookie of the Year.
Gooden’s performance in 1985 ranks as one of the more dominant individual seasons in baseball history. In addition to tossing 16 complete games and logging 276.2 innings, the right-hander posted the best ERA (1.53), ERA+ (229) and average game score (70.4) for a qualified pitcher in his age-20 season. Like Valenzuela a few years earlier, Gooden was named the National League Cy Young Award winner.
Jose Fernandez won’t come close to matching Gooden or Valenzuela’s workload this season, as the Marlins plan on shutting him down somewhere between 150 and 170 innings. However, the short leash hasn’t prevented him from leaving his mark in the record books.
As you can see, Fernandez’s 6.1 H/9 and 9.6 K/9 rank as the best totals among the trio of hurlers during their respective age-20 campaigns. More significantly, it reflects the right-hander’s utter dominance and overall consistency this year against advanced competition.
Fernandez vs. His Peers
Everything about Fernandez’s performance this season in the major leagues is special: the electric arsenal, pitchability, makeup, and most importantly, the ability to make swift adjustments. Therefore, even though his numbers don’t stack up against Gooden or Valenzuela’s, they are considerably better than those posted by other notable age-20 hurlers since the 2000 season.
If we compare Fernandez’s age-20 campaign to those of Felix Hernandez, CC Sabathia and Rick Ankiel, it’s obvious that the Marlins right-hander is the superior pitcher, as he paces the group in ERA+ (158), opponent OPS (.524), bWAR (4.5) and average game score (61.7). And if not for Ankiel’s 9.9 K/9 in 2000 and King Felix’s 2.8 BB/9 in 2006, Fernandez would likely rank at the top of every pitching category.
Meanwhile, a look at Fernandez’s performance in historical context only strengthens his case for the best age-20 season of all time. Dating back to 1901, six pitchers have spent their entire age-20 season in the major leagues and went on to be elected to the Hall of Fame: Bob Feller, Don Drysdale, Bert Blyleven, Dennis Eckersley, Christy Mathewson and Jim Palmer.
Naturally, Feller and Mathewson stand out for their insane innings and bWAR totals—a product of their respective eras. Beyond that, though, Fernandez paces the group with a 158 ERA+, 9.6 K/9, .534 opponent OPS and 61.7 average game score.
Am I saying that Jose Fernandez will be a Hall of Fame pitcher? Of course not—it is impossible to make such a bold prediction based on only one season in the major leagues.
But after comparing him to many of baseball’s biggest stars, both past and present, in their respective age-20 seasons, I can't help but believe Fernandez is poised for a long, successful career in the major leagues. And considering the adjustments he’s made this year at the highest level, it’s scary to think about how much he’ll improve as he continues to develop.
For now, however, Fernandez will gladly start with the NL Rookie of the Year award and a top-five finish in the NL Cy Young voting.
*Click here for more information on the pitching statistics used in this article.
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