21-Year-Old Jose Fernandez's Case as MLB's Best Pitcher

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21-Year-Old Jose Fernandez's Case as MLB's Best Pitcher
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Despite being all of 21 years old with just 35 career starts in the big leagues, Jose Fernandez has a pretty good case for being considered the best pitcher in Major League Baseball right now.

Fittingly, that claim can be backed up by some brand-new hardware, as the announcement came down Monday that the Miami Marlins right-hander had captured National League Pitcher of the Month honors for April, as Joe Frisaro of MLB.com reports.

"What could you really say about that month that he had?" manager Mike Redmond said via Frisaro of Fernandez, who's fresh off winning last year's NL Rookie of the Year Award by going 12-6 with a 2.19 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and 9.7 K/9. "That was really unbelievable. Everybody at the beginning of the year was wondering how this guy was going to do in his second season. He pretty much answered that."

Not a bad start to a career for a kid who made only 27 starts in the minor leagues—none above A-ball—before surprisingly securing a spot in the Marlins rotation at the outset of 2013, just his second pro season after going 14th overall in the 2011 draft.

Rob Foldy/Getty Images
With the NL Pitcher of the Month Award for April in his pocket, the focus is on 21-year-old Jose Fernandez.

Slapping a hard-to-earn label such as "best pitcher in MLB" on anyone, much less the player described in the preceding paragraph, might seem like just another instance of immediacy and instantaneity that's oh-so-rampant these days. However, in Fernandez's case, if the label isn't already firmly stuck on his forehead, it's at the very least being printed out by one of those fancy label-makers.

That's especially true right now, barely a month into the 2014 season, with the pitcher widely considered to be the best on the planet entering the year—Clayton Kershaw, who is set to return Tuesday for the Los Angeles Dodgers—having been out of action due to injury for all but one start so far.

Ralph Freso/Associated Press/Associated Press
On the DL since his first start in late March, Clayton Kershaw hasn't been able to defend his title of MLB's best pitcher.

In case you've been missing out on the must-see TV that is a Jose Fernandez start, as fellow MLB Lead Writer Zachary D. Rymer wrote last week, here's a quick peek at his statistics so far in 2014: 4-1, 1.74 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 12.5 K/9 and 2.3 BB/9. All the numbers are better than they were in his incredible rookie campaign.

That speaks to Fernandez's drive to improve—to be the best—which is evident in things such as, say, adopting a changeup to his already unfair repertoire that is centered around a mid- to high-90s heater and an absolutely devastating breaking ball that comes in the low- to mid-80s and acts and looks like both a curveball and slider.

And while his youth and inexperience might make one think otherwise, Fernandez, who made a harrowing escape from his native Cuba, pitches and plays with the guile and know-how of a veteran who will fight for every single strike, every single out, whether that comes in the batter's box or on the basepaths.

Fernandez has done what he's done this season, by the way, against some mighty tough teams, including the Colorado Rockies, Washington Nationals, Dodgers and Atlanta Braves (twice). So, no, he hasn't exactly been spending his time dominating the Chicago Cubs and Arizona Diamondbacks.

Even in what wound up being Fernandez's lone non-elite start of 2014—he proved he's human after all by allowing six runs on eight hits over four frames against the Philadelphia Phillies on April 11—the right-hander showed his moxie by striking out six straight hitters at one point, including the first three with the bases loaded:

Two turns later, on April 22, Fernandez had the best game of his still-young career to date, firing eight shutout innings while giving up just three hits and getting 14 Braves to walk back to their dugout without making contact, 11 of whom struck out on Fernandez's practically non-contactable breaking ball:

Fernandez followed that up by pitching only slightly worse while shutting out those very same Braves over eight more innings his next time out, on April 29, an outing he capped off by striking out the side in his final frame:

In Fernandez's most recent start, Sunday against the Dodgers, he wasn't at his sharpest, surrendering three runs (two earned) on five hits and four walks over seven innings. Even still, he whiffed 10 for his third double-digit strikeout outing on the year and seventh in his career:

Speaking of Fernandez's career, since the start of 2014, his rookie season, here's where he ranks in a number of the most pertinent and significant pitching categories among all starters:

Jose Fernandez's MLB Ranks in...
STATISTIC FERNANDEZ MLB RANK
IP 219.1 45
BAA .179 1
SwStr% 10.9% 13
K% 29.2% 4
BB% 8.1% 57
K/BB 3.60 23
HR/FB 6.9% 6
FIP 2.50 4
xFIP 2.87 6
ERA 2.09 2
WAR 6.0 12

FanGraphs

As you can see by the highlighted rows, Fernandez is in or on the very short fringes of the top 10 in eight of those 11 statistics, and he's actually been the hardest pitcher in baseball to get a hit off of, as his insane .179 batting average against proves.

All three of the other categories in which Fernandez comes up short by comparison—innings pitched, walk percentage and strikeout-to-walk ratio—can be attributed in part to his age.

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Young pitchers, of course, tend to be brought along rather conservatively at the start of their careers, which is why Fernandez's innings total doesn't rank better. Young arms also tend not to hit their control-and-command peak until they're further along in their careers, which could be why Fernandez's walk and strikeout-to-walk rates aren't quite as spiffy.

Remember, though, this is a 21-year-old we're talking about.

This is also a 21-year-old who's acutely aware of what and how he needs to improve. As he told Manny Navarro of The Miami Herald, upon being asked what he would be working on in May after his award-winning April: "Maybe walks. That's my personal thing. I walked [eight] people the first month in [39 2/3 innings] and I'm not really happy about it."

C'mon, you know that line made you smile. But it's not just lip service from Fernandez, who is walking both fewer per nine innings (2.3 BB/9) and per batter (6.6 percent) so far in 2014 compared to last year's numbers (3.0 BB/9 and 8.5 percent).

In addition to honing his control and command, Fernandez also is pitching deeper into his starts in year two. To that end, he's reached the seventh inning in five of his eight outings this year (63 percent) versus just 13 times in his 28 turns in 2013 (46 percent).

In other words, Fernandez is, in fact, getting better in the primary areas where he actually has room for improvement.

If you're not yet comfortable calling Fernandez the top pitcher around—maybe you want to see him do this for a little longer, a la Kershaw—perhaps you would consider compromising and labeling him the best right-hander in the game?

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press
Among right-hander pitchers, would you rather have Jose Fernandez or Adam Wainwright?

In that regard, Fernandez's primary competition at the moment comes from Adam Wainwright, Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander, Yu Darvish and Max Scherzer, the reigning AL Cy Young winner. Each has his own case and claim to being the best.

But while some may think it's crazy to declare a 21-year-old kid with all of 35 big league starts on his resume the best pitcher in Major League Baseball, that's what Fernandez is right now, especially since Kershaw is only just making it back to the mound after missing the past six weeks.

Or at least, that's what Fernandez is working toward. Because what's really amazing about Fernandez isn't even necessarily how great he's been at such a young age so far. It's how much better he still could become.

 

Statistics come from Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs, except where otherwise noted.

To talk baseball or fantasy baseball, check in with me on Twitter: @JayCat11

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