Right-hander Jose Fernandez conquered the Washington Nationals on Friday night with seven marvelous shutout innings. He even maintained a no-hitter for most of the start, pushing him oh-so-slightly ahead of fellow Cuban phenom Yasiel Puig in a hotly contested National League Rookie of the Year race.
The Miami Marlins stunned the baseball world by recalling Fernandez from their minor league system at age 20 despite zero experience against Double-A and Triple-A competition.
A few months later, we're all looking foolish for doubting them.
His 2.23 ERA through 165.2 innings pitched ranks second only to Clayton Kershaw among qualified starters. Moreover, Fernandez leads the entire Senior Circuit in strikeout rate, and he continues to gradually improve in that department.
Keep in mind, Fernandez is working his miracles with an inexperienced—and quite frankly, inadequate—supporting cast. The Fish have averaged an MLB-worst 3.27 runs per game in 2013, and a .301 BABIP against their pitching staff indicates below-average fielding.
It's not a perfect comparison, but last season, voting for the NL's best first-year player also came down to an outfielder and starting pitcher. Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals eked past Arizona Diamondbacks difference-maker Wade Miley. It's clear that combining excellent September production with team success tempted numerous voters to choose Harper.
Puig may wind up with those same two advantages.
His Los Angeles Dodgers have virtually locked up the NL West title. They were on the verge of collapse only three months ago, and it's no coincidence that their fortunes began to change when Puig received his call-up in June.
Playing the game with unparalleled ferocity has resulted in a few injuries, but his remarkable physique undoubtedly helped minimize the damage from those collisions.
Through 82 games, the 22-year-old is batting .348/.408/.558 with 14 home runs and 56 runs scored. Given a full summer and the opportunity to sustain that production over a sample twice the size would at least put him on the fringe of NL MVP award contention.
One disadvantage Puig probably won't overcome is his turbulent relationship with tenured baseball writers, a few of whom directly decide the major award winners. More than a few national columns have been committed to overstating his immaturity and nitpicking his outstanding overall performance. Shouting expletives at them tops his list of regrettable actions/responses.
If Joe Frisaro of MLB.com has trustworthy sources, then we can expect Fernandez to conclude his ultra-successful debut after five innings against the Atlanta Braves on Sept. 11. That would give Puig an extra two-and-a-half weeks of meaningful matchups to distinguish himself.
As things currently stand, however, there's overwhelming statistical evidence stating that the former has made the greater impact.
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