The Miami Marlins knew how good Jose Fernandez could be when they made him the 14th overall pick in the 2011 MLB draft. But even they would be lying if they told you the 21-year-old would be this good right out of the gate.
Fernandez concluded his rookie season Wednesday night against the Atlanta Braves in dramatic fashion, allowing one earned run on five hits, three walks and five strikeouts in seven innings. He also hit a home run and caused a stir admiring it.
All told, Fernandez finished 2013 with a 12-6 record in 172.2 innings, 111 hits allowed, 187 strikeouts, 58 walks, 0.979 WHIP and a 177 ERA+. Unless Yasiel Puig has an amazing stretch of games in the next two-and-a-half weeks, Fernandez will win NL Rookie of the Year.
Yet there is a bigger discussion going on. One that puts Fernandez in a league with some of the best pitchers in baseball. Is it possible, at age 21 and after just one year, that the Marlins have the best right-handed pitcher in baseball?
Jay Jaffe of Sports Illustrated broke down where Fernandez's season ranks among the best rookie and age-20 seasons—even though Fernandez is 21, his birthday wasn't until July 31, more than halfway through the MLB season, so this is classified as his age-20 season—in history.
Even without considering the remarkable back story of Fernandez’s defection from Cuba at age 15 or his jump from A-ball directly to the majors this year in order to generate positive publicity for a team desperately in need of some good buzz, his season ranks among the most impressive showings for a rookie pitcher or one in his age 20 season.
Jaffe's piece also included a list from Baseball-Reference.com with Fernandez posting the seventh-highest rWAR in history for pitchers age 20 or younger.
Even more impressive about Fernandez's season is the way he adjusted to get better. He had an ERA of 3.78 with a 52-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 52.1 innings at the end of May. After that, the rookie threw 120.1 innings with a 1.50 ERA, 135 strikeouts and 67 hits allowed.
We have seen the pitching renaissance in baseball the last few years, with some fantastic and electric arms putting up brilliant performances every single night.
At first glance, putting Fernandez above the rest of the pack seems foolish. He's only pitched one season and has yet to break 200 innings. But take a look at this list of highest fWAR totals for right-handed pitchers in 2013.
Fernandez ranks eighth on the list despite having the second-lowest innings total on the list. Detroit's Anibal Sanchez missed time due to injury and has only been able to accrue 165.2 innings in 26 starts.
But that is just one small piece of the pie. Strikeouts and strikeout rate can tell us a lot about how effective a pitcher is, especially since it's one of the few things that they have direct control over.
Here are the MLB leaders in strikeouts per nine innings this season:
Yu Darvish is a freak with five pitches (at least) that move up, down, in, out, side to side, every way imaginable. All of the pitchers on this list have incredible stuff and belong in any discussion of top pitchers. Yes, even A.J. Burnett, though he is way down the list.
One more major stat that I look at when evaluating a pitcher's success/failure is ERA+, which measures ERA against the league, with 100 being average.
All of this paints a terrific picture for Fernandez. He is already among the very best pitchers in the game, which looks all the more impressive when you consider his age relative to the competition around him.
However, as much as I want to put Fernandez at the top of the list, there are two other factors that have to be taken into consideration.
First, track record. One thing that bothers me about prospect evaluation with pitchers is when we put the ace label on someone in the minors. An ace means that you are one of the absolute best pitchers in the game, capable of going out and throwing a two-hit shutout in the deciding game of the World Series.
It also means that you are a workhorse, throwing 200-plus innings every year. Fernandez could have hit that total this season, but the Marlins kept the reins in on him all season to (hopefully) protect him in the future.
Second, have you seen the pitching talent in Major League Baseball right now? If we had posed the question about best right-handers five months ago, Justin Verlander would have been at the top of every list.
Now, even though his struggles this season have been slightly exaggerated, Verlander probably wouldn't be in the top five.
I can also say that, if he were still healthy, I would rank Matt Harvey ever so slightly ahead of Fernandez. We will see how Harvey's elbow progresses and if he can avoid Tommy John surgery.
And I say that fully aware that Harvey's track record isn't much longer than Fernandez's, but his numbers were superior to Miami's young star because he was walking nearly half as many hitters per nine innings.
But there is more than just Harvey that Fernandez has to deal with. Max Scherzer and Felix Hernandez have superior track records, virtually spotless injury histories and are in a dead heat for the AL Cy Young award.
Darvish has the best pure stuff and deepest arsenal in baseball. If he can reel in his control to keep his walk rate below 3.00 and fix the home-run problem this season, I have no doubt he would be the most dominant pitcher in baseball.
Even Stephen Strasburg, who we tend to forget because there are new flavors of the month floating around and he hasn't been as dominant as we would like given the hype surrounding him coming out of San Diego State, has a 2.96 ERA and 181-52 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
All of this is to say that Fernandez does belong in the conversation for best right-handed pitchers in baseball, but he isn't quite at the top of the list yet. I would be lying if I said I didn't think he could end 2014 as the No. 2 pitcher in baseball, behind Clayton Kershaw.
For my money, Hernandez is still the best right-handed pitcher in baseball. His incredible track record, quality of stuff, adjustments made even after losing some velocity and caliber of competition in the AL West (Texas, Oakland and Los Angeles, specifically) gives him the edge over everyone else.
But even with all the greatness Fernandez provided this season, he still has more room to grow. That's a scary thought for the rest of baseball.