Jose Fernandez will take the mound tonight for the final time this year in what has been a historically good rookie season.
After breezing through both Class-A levels in 2012, his full-season debut, 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 boldly 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 New York Mets in his major league 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.
Among qualified starters, the right-hander ranks second in ERA (2.23), third in K/9 (9.89), sixth in FIP (2.59) and 11th with a 4.2 fWAR. And in terms of rookies, each of those statistics has him ranked firmly as the best in the game.
However, with Fernandez’s stellar season coming to an end in a matter of hours as he approaches a team-imposed cap of roughly 170 innings, it’s time to reflect on what has made him so successful this season and, more importantly, what should be expected moving forward.
Why He's So Good
There’s actually a multitude of reasons why Fernandez has been so successful. Normally, when people ask me why Fernandez is so good, I respond with, “Dude, have you ever watched him pitch?” However, for the sake of this article, I thought I’d lay things out a bit more clearly.
As you can glean from the above chart, Fernandez has improved across the board in every month this season. Since the beginning of June, the right-hander has consistently lowered his FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching), which is in turn reflected by the declining wOBA (Weighted On-Base Percentage) of opposing hitters.
Similarly, Fernandez’s ongoing success also stems from his ability to miss bats regularly over the second half of the season. While his K/9 rate (strikeouts per nine innings) hovered around nine in the early going this season, the 21-year-old has been among the best in baseball at missing bats over the last several months, as evidenced by his double-digit K/9 rate since the beginning of July.
As expected from a pitcher that pounds the strike zone and induces whiffs as easily as Fernandez, his walk rate has steadily declined over the course of the season. Early in the year, the argument can be made that Fernandez was trying to be too fine with his approach against opposing hitters, trying to hit every spot rather than trusting the effectiveness of his pure stuff.
But as the season has progressed, the right-hander noticeably made the realization that the combination of his electric arsenal and confidence was all that was needed in order to achieve success at the highest level.
Additionally, Fernandez has done a significantly better job at stranding base runners as the season has unfolded. Though he’s always been stingy in terms of allowing base runners in a given outing, the 21-year-old was plagued early in the year by allowing too many run-scoring hits. That being said, his improvement in leaving runners on base during the second half of the season is yet another reason why he’s emerged one of the game’s top pitchers.
Fernandez has been successful this season as a result of his consistent approach against both right- and left-handed hitters.
Against right-handed hitters, Fernandez strives to pile up strikeouts using a his fastball and curveball. Due to most big league hitters being right-handed, his higher K/9 rate against same-side hitters makes sense.
When facing a left-handed hitter, Fernandez’s goal is still to get ahead in the count and vie for the strikeout. However, he also employs a more efficient approach against them, pounding the lower portion of the strike zone (especially with his fastball and curveball) with the goal of generating weak contact on the ground.
So, basically, the near-20 percent difference in ground-ball rates between right- and left-handed hitters is a testament to Fernandez’s overall maturity and ability to execute a consistent approach.
How He Can Still Improve
In his first season in the major leagues, Fernandez has proven that he owns one of the best fastballs and curveballs in the game.
With a fastball that averages 94.9 MPH, according to FanGraphs, the right-hander has attacked opposing hitters with the pitch 57.1 percent of the time this year. So, given his usage of the pitch, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that opposing hitters posted the highest batting average (.228) against it compared to rest of his arsenal, per Brooks Baseball. Therefore, Fernandez seemingly has room for improvement in terms of his command of the pitch.
While the 21-year-old’s fastball represents his most frequently used weapon, Fernandez threw his changeup only nine percent of the time this season, according to FanGraphs, or 222 times, according to Brooks Baseball. Regardless, Fernandez’s changeup helped hold opposing hitters to a paltry .182 batting average this year, and has served as an increasingly effective weapon against left-handed hitters.
Against right-handed hitters, Fernandez threw the pitch only 11 times, according to Brooks Baseball. There will come a point in his career—it could be next year or five years from now—when hitters will develop a better approach and look for a fastball or curveball in the zone to drive. So the fact that Fernandez possesses an underutilized changeup, though not traditionally viewed as a viable weapon against same-side hitters, at least gives him something different to fall back on in the coming years.
How Good Can He Be in 2014?
After turning in one of the best age-20 and rookie seasons for a pitcher in baseball history, the expectations for Fernandez in 2014 inevitably will be both lofty and unrealistic.
In his first season in the major leagues, the right-hander has emerged as one of the top pitchers in the game and the Marlins’ undisputed ace. That being said, opposing hitters will undoubtedly have a better idea of what to expect from Fernandez moving forward, meaning his success will be predicated on his ability to make adjustments.
Referring back to the above table, the 21-year-old clearly has an idea of how to make adjustments on the fly at the highest level, which is an amazing quality in itself. More importantly, he’s already among the best in the game at putting away hitters when ahead in the count.
When he has a hitter in a 0-1 count, Fernandez owns an 11.81 K/9 and .131 opponent batting average. When 1-2, his K/9 jumps to 15.91 while opposing hitters’ average drops to .116. And when he has a hitter 0-2, well, the right-hander is virtually untouchable with a 16.92 K/9 and .073 batting average against.
As long as he retains the same aggressive approach in 2014 and continues to improve the overall command of his arsenal, there’s reason to believe that Fernandez will be just as effective as he’s been this season in his rookie campaign.
What is His MLB Ceiling?
Fernandez’s ultimate ceiling is obvious: He’s the definition of an ace.
From his durable build to his repeatable mechanics to his overpowering arsenal and general fearlessness on the mound, Fernandez has the makings of a front-line starting pitcher for years to come.
But what makes the 21-year-old truly special and a potential generational arm is his competitiveness and desire to continually improve. Without those components, the right-hander is just another young kid with plus stuff. However, as an overall product, there isn’t another pitcher I’d rather have headline a rotation for the foreseeable future.