Let's flash back one year. After only 11 starts in Double-A, the Marlins announce that a 20-year-old named Jose Fernandez will break camp with the big league squad. Most had predicted perhaps a late-season call-up for Fernandez as the extent of his time spent in Miami for the 2013 campaign.
Now to the current day, where Fernandez is just two-and-a-half-weeks away from taking the ball on Opening Day as the reigning NL Rookie of the Year as part of a sensational season for which he placed third in Cy Young voting. He is, simply, one of the top pitchers in the sport.
No one can question what the Cuban defect pulled off last year, but what does that mean in terms of fantasy value in 2014? Where should he be picked? Is regression inevitable? Can he somehow improve in his sophomore year? Here's the answer: If you're looking to make a splash in your league, don't be afraid to reach for Fernandez as he could definitely wind up being a bona fide steal.
Fernandez is 53rd in ESPN.com's fantasy rankings and 33rd in Yahoo's preseason projections, while his ADP (average draft position) is slightly lower than that at 37. The only real knock on Fernandez is that most are predicting somewhat of a sophomore slump after a rookie year that included a 2.19 ERA, a 0.98 WHIP and a 9.75 K/9 rate. After all, how many 21-year-olds can realistically be expected to improve upon those figures?
However, there is reason to suggest that Fernandez can do just that. He was significantly better in the season's second half than its first. Based on the below charts from Fangraphs, Fernandez improved in almost every respect compared to the league average as the season progressed. This means that even though teams were acquiring more and more film on Fernandez, he was bucking the trend of rookies struggling to adjust as the league gets a second and third look at them.
ESPN's Buster Olney (subscription required) also suggests not to assume Fernandez is bound to slip. His early success has not gone to his head, and Fernandez's home division is not one known for its offensive dominance.
I get that Fernandez is young and you might expect some regression. Or, he could be like the young Dwight Gooden, who quickly jumped from great to the most dominant pitcher in baseball, throwing fastballs and curveballs. Word from the Marlins is that they love his work ethic, and while he is known to have favored-nation status from owner Jeffrey Loria, the staff hasn’t seen a diva developing.
One more thing: Fernandez pitches in arguably the most offensively challenged division in the majors, and four of the five home parks—those of the Mets, Nationals, Braves and Marlins—are viewed as places that generally foster good pitching. Not that he needs help.
Beyond his pure statistical dominance, Fernandez also would appear to have a ton of value in fantasy amongst the top starting pitchers. The starting hurlers who ESPN has ranked above Fernandez are as follows: Clayton Kershaw, Yu Darvish, Cliff Lee, Adam Wainwright, Felix Hernandez, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, David Price, Chris Sale and Madison Bumgarner.
To rank 10 different pitchers above Fernandez seems like a high total. One could make the case that of the group listed above, only three (Kershaw, Darvish and Scherzer) had a better 2013 than Fernandez. In the second half of the year (where we've already established the righty really emerged as a monster), none of those three had a lower WHIP, ERA, Opponents' Batting Average Against or Opponents' On-Base Plus Slugging than Fernandez.
For those that fancy sabermetrics, Fernandez stacks up quite nicely there as well. Of that group, only Kershaw, Hernandez and Wainwright had a higher DIPS, or Defense Independent ERA. Only Kershaw and Matt Harvey finished with a lower component ERA, which predicts ERA based on walks and hits allowed rather than actual runs allowed. Confusing, I know, but basically Fernandez was as good as any pitcher last year, including Kershaw.
It's also hard to argue with Fernandez's impressive array of pitches. Few, if any, hurlers have three extremely strong options in their repertoire as does Fernandez. His fastball, curveball and slider are all plus-pitches that he can dominate with. See here for visuals.
Fernandez might very well be on his way to being labeled a top-five pitcher in the league by the end of the year. Reach for him. You'll thank me later.