Where Jose Fernandez's Remarkable Rookie Season Ranks All Time

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Where Jose Fernandez's Remarkable Rookie Season Ranks All Time

Jose Fernandez, the Miami Marlins' 21-year-old superstar, has concluded his first season in Major League Baseball in spectacular fashion with seven innings of one-run baseball and five strikeouts (including Justin Upton on his final pitch of the year). 

Oh, if that's not enough, Fernandez also hit his first career home run in the bottom of the sixth inning that actually caused the benches to clear because the rookie admired it a little too long for Atlanta's liking. 

Via MLB Advanced Media

Even though the Marlins still have 18 games to play, Joe Frisaro of MLB.com reported last week that the team was going to give Fernandez two more starts, one on Sept. 6 against Washington and Wednesday night's outing against Atlanta. 

As sad as it is to say goodbye to Fernandez in 2013, it gives us time to reflect on what we have just seen from this young man and a chance to ponder just how much better he is going to get. 

Now that we have seen the totality of what Fernandez had to offer, we wanted to put his rookie campaign up against the best debut seasons from pitchers in history. 

Our formula for calculation is not scientific. We looked at a variety of factors to arrive at our list, including age, wins above replacement, strikeout and walk rates, innings pitched, when a player pitched (it was much easier to pitch in the Deadball Era than today), fielding independent and expected fielding independent (FIP and xFIP).

(If you are wondering about wins and losses, I would encourage you to go have an hour-long conversation with Ken Harrelson about the "will to win.")

I will also disclose that, while I did go through the history of the game to determine the best rookie seasons, some of my opinions could be considered slightly biased because of what I call the eyeball test. 

Numbers are great and a critical part of what I wanted to do with this, but I feel that some of what makes a season special is being able to see it develop before your eyes. Therefore, a lot of my selections are modern-day pitchers. 

Best Rookie Seasons By Pitchers In MLB History
Player Season W-L IP ERA BB K HR FIP WHIP ERA+ fWAR
1) Dwight Gooden, N.Y. Mets 1984 17-9 218.0 2.60 73 276 7 1.69 1.073 137 8.3
2) Fernando Valenzuela, L.A. Dodgers 1981 13-7 192.1 2.48 61 180 11 2.44 1.045 135 4.9
3) Jose Fernandez, Miami Marlins 2013 12-6 172.2 2.19 58 187 10 2.73 0.981 174 4.2
4) Hideo Nomo, L.A. Dodgers 1995 13-6 191.1 2.54 78 236 14 2.89 1.056 149 4.8
T-5) Kerry Wood, Chicago Cubs 1998 13-6 166.2 3.40 85 233 14 3.16 1.212 129 4.2
T-5) Tom Seaver, N.Y. Mets 1967 16-13 251.0 2.76 78 170 19 3.16 1.203 122 3.9

Baseball Reference & Fangraphs

Think about how good Fernandez was this season. Then realize that, if you want to look at something like WAR, Dwight Gooden was worth twice as much in his rookie season. 

Gooden threw 45 more innings than Fernandez and struck out 1.5 more hitters per nine innings than the Marlins' young star. 

Using fWAR, looking at every rookie season in MLB history dating back to 1871, Gooden's 1984 season is tied for second all-time. The other three pitchers who had seasons with more than eight wins as rookies pitched in the 1880s. 

The fact that Gooden didn't win the NL Cy Young as a rookie is a travesty. I know Rick Sutcliffe was fantastic for the Cubs after being traded from Cleveland, though most of his votes likely came from people looking at that shiny 16-1 record. 

Sutcliffe had an ERA over 5.00 for Cleveland before the trade, so he would have been a non-factor in AL Cy Young voting. He threw 68 fewer innings and faced 277 less hitters than Gooden. Doc was the best pitcher in the NL as a rookie, and he should have been rewarded with more hardware than just the Rookie of the Year award. 

Besides, Gooden also did all that at the age of 19. 

Via MLB Advanced Media

The only thing I knew for sure when starting to think about this list is that Gooden was No. 1. 

After that, there was a lot of internal debate over No. 2. Ultimately, I landed on Fernando Valenzuela when it came time to put fingers to keyboard. Then, as more thought went into it, the struggle subsided and I felt more confident. 

Take these numbers into account: Valenzuela threw 11 complete games and eight shutouts in 25 starts. He was also the first player in history to win the Cy Young and Rookie of the Year awards in the same season. 

The tragedy of Valenzuela's season is that the players' strike from June 12 through July 31 wiped out seven or eight starts from his total. Imagine what he could have done with an extra 40-to-50 innings. 

It's entirely possible we could have been talking about Valenzuela in the same breath as Gooden when it comes to rookie seasons. 

Then we get to Fernandez's season at No. 3. What's incredible about the young Cuban's performance is that he wasn't supposed to make the team coming out of spring training, at least if you follow a normal development process. 

The Marlins drafted Fernandez in the first round of the 2011 draft, saw him debut last year and watched him pitch his way up to High-A by the end of 2012 with a 158-35 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 1.75 ERA in 134 innings. 

This was supposed to be the year Fernandez showed how advanced his stuff was in Double-A, with a chance to pitch in the majors by the end of 2013 before becoming a full-time big leaguer in 2014. 

Via MLB Advanced Media

Perhaps the Marlins felt some pressure to generate excitement by putting their top prospect on the 25-man roster after an offseason that left everyone in a fit of rage, but Fernandez has more than proved he belongs at this level and has as bright a future as any young player in the game. 

Even though he is by far the oldest player on this list, Hideo Nomo's accomplishments in his first season with the Los Angeles Dodgers deserve to be recognized. 

Nomo debuted in MLB at the age of 26 after spending five years with the Kintetsu Buffaloes of Nippon Professional Baseball in Japan.

Boasting one of the most unique deliveries in baseball at the time, Nomo looked like a superstar waiting to happen. He was never quite able to match the dominance of his 1995 performance again, though he did break the 200-inning barrier four times in his career and had two more seasons of at least 10 strikeouts per nine innings. 

Considering Nomo led the league in strikeouts per nine innings and hits per nine innings in his first season, and was able to do it during a time when offensive numbers were starting to explode, his rookie season certainly belongs on the list of all-time greats. 

Which pitcher had the best rookie season?

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For my final spot, it was incredibly difficult to separate Kerry Wood and Tom Seaver. We look back at Wood's career so often wondering what could have been, yet we don't actually take the time to notice what was. 

There wasn't a prolonged peak to Wood's career, but he came out of the gate firing on all cylinders as a 21-year-old in 1998. He had the lowest number of innings of anyone on this list, yet no one was more proficient with the strikeout. 

Wood punched out an astounding 12.6 batters per nine innings pitched in his rookie season. To put that in perspective, Clayton Kershaw has never had a strikeout rate higher than 9.74 in a season. 

Seaver, who I knew I wanted on this list but wasn't quite sure where, didn't exactly blow you away with big strikeout totals in his first season. He only struck out 6.1 per nine innings, easily the lowest rate on the list. 

Yet at the same time, there was something about the efficiency with which Seaver worked. I know it was a different era of baseball and bullpen usage wasn't as rampant as it is today, but he had 18 starts of at least eight innings in his rookie season with three consecutive complete games in late September. 

In the end, this night is about Fernandez and how great he has been right away. His 2013 season is over, but just think about seven months from now when we see him again and the kinds of heights he's capable of reaching. 

If the ceiling is anything close to the other pitchers I have put him alongside, we are in for a very rare treat. 

 

All stats courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Reference unless otherwise noted. If you want to talk baseball, feel free to hit me up on Twitter with questions or comments. 

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