Has Tommy John Surgery Actually Made Jose Fernandez Better?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterAugust 4, 2015

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Jose Fernandez went into his Tommy John operation last May as one of baseball's elite pitchers. Coming out of the operation, however, it wasn't fair to expect him to pick up where he left off right away.

Instead, here we are a month into Fernandez's return in 2015, and the only thing to say is this: Whoa.

You wouldn't know that the Miami Marlins ace is a year removed from reconstructive elbow surgery. Fernandez has returned with a vengeance, following up the 2.25 ERA he posted across 2013 and 2014 with a 2.13 ERA in his first six starts of 2015. Rather than a pitcher struggling to get back on track, he looks better than ever.

And you don't just have to look at his ERA to think as much.

Among the peripherals next to the 23-year-old right-hander's sparkling ERA is a 1.75 FIP—that's fielding independent pitching—that puts his 2.60 mark from 2013-2014 to shame. Feeding into this is an 11.1 K/9 rate, a career-low 2.1 BB/9 rate and a career-low 0.2 HR/9 rate.

And feeding into these, meanwhile, are career-best strike, swinging-strike and soft-contact and hard-contact rates:

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Granted, we're only looking at six starts. That's a small sample size. 

But with Fernandez looking even more unhittable after his Tommy John surgery than he did before, you can't help but wonder: Did the surgery somehow make him an even better pitcher?

This is generally not the best thought to have with a pitcher coming back from Tommy John. For while there is a train of thought that the surgery can be a performance enhancer, among the topics Will Carroll covered in his Tommy John series for B/R back in 2013 is the reality that this is not the case.

And there's no need to tell the man himself. He knows.

"You'd be surprised how many times I've heard that from kids," Fernandez told Anthony Castrovince of Sports on Earth in April. "They say, 'Oh, I want to get Tommy John, because then I'm going to throw harder.' Let me tell you something, kid. It's not magic. Otherwise, everybody would do it. It's really complicated and really tough and you have to be really disciplined."

Knowing this, it's best if we don't wonder whether the surgery itself has changed Fernandez for the better. What we can wonder, however, is whether the experience of having gone through the surgery has done the trick.

What's changed for Fernandez in 2015? Well, admittedly nothing stands out as much as his fastball velocity.

Through his six starts, Fernandez's fastball has been sitting at a career-high 95.7 miles per hour. Per Brooks Baseball, that helps explain why he's getting whiffs on a career-best 11.9 percent of his heaters and would seem to confirm the notion that Tommy John surgery can result in a velocity uptick.

But while this may be easy to notice, this is also where it's dangerous to make assumptions.

Carroll noted in his piece that research has concluded that "there does not appear to be a lasting change in velocity for someone who has come back" from Tommy John. Given that he's only made six starts, it's very possible that Fernandez's fastball velocity will prove the point by shifting downward as he throws more pitches and piles up more innings.

How Fernandez has been commanding his fastball, however, seems to point toward a lesson that his Tommy John operation taught him.

Fernandez's Fastball Command
YearFB Zone%

We saw how Fernandez has been throwing strikes at a higher rate, and part of the reason for that has to do with how often he's finding the strike zone with his fastball. Per the PitchF/X data at FanGraphs, his four-seamer is hitting the zone a career-best 59.3 percent of the time.

Mind you, Fernandez had good fastball command to begin with. More than anything, that's a result of his having mechanics that Doug Thorburn of Baseball Prospectus has graded as plus across the board.

But Brooks Baseball can show that there's a slight difference this year. After Fernandez's release point dropped from 2013 to 2014, it's back up in 2015 to where it was in 2013. It thus may not be a coincidence that his fastball's zone percentage is his best since 2013, not 2014.

That Fernandez's release point has gone up at all looks like another non-coincidence. As he was going through his rehab earlier this summer, Fernandez told Christina De Nicola of Fox Sports Florida that he wanted to make sure his arm angle didn't drop because doing so "obviously [puts] a lot of pressure to my elbow, and that's the main reason I got hurt in my opinion."

So, we can put two and two together. Fernandez's injury warned him of the dangers of a low arm angle. He's responded by raising his arm angle in 2015 to where it was in 2013. We shouldn't be surprised that one of the results of that is a return of the fastball command he had that season.

And it looks like improved fastball command isn't the only result of Fernandez's release point going retro. His command of his breaking ball has also improved.

We don't say this because Fernandez is throwing more curveballs—yes, calling it a slider also works—in the strike zone. Far from it, in fact, as his curveball's zone rate of 41.3 percent is a career low.

Rather, we say it because, as Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs was first to observe, Fernandez is putting his curveballs in the best possible location. Instead of pounding the zone with his hook, Fernandez's heat map (via Brooks Baseball) shows that he's putting his curveballs just below the strike zone:

Image courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net.

All that red shows that Fernandez has been bunching his curveballs below the knees off the corner of the zone on his glove side. Rather than more curves in the zone, this means he's throwing more curves that sweep across the zone only to end up in a spot where they can't be hit. They're bait that hitters can't resist, and also can't catch.

No need to use your imagination. Via Pitcher List, here's San Francisco's Justin Maxwell illustrating the point in Fernandez's 2015 debut back on July 2:

Fernandez has gotten a lot of swings like that on his curveball, as it's drawing cuts outside the zone an absurd 55.2 percent of the time. On a related note, Brooks Baseball puts the whiff rate on Fernandez's curveball at a career-high 26.3 percent.

Like his improved fastball command, this traces back to Fernandez's raised arm slot. When he told De Nicola about wanting to keep his release point elevated, he noted that it was particularly important for him to stay on top of his curveball. And as Sullivan correctly observed: "Dropping down would cause the pitch to flatten out. Staying on top would aid him in spotting the pitch somewhere low."

So while nothing should be taken for granted with Fernandez's fastball velocity, it does look like his learning the hard way through Tommy John has had its benefits. By raising his arm angle, he's achieved better-than-ever command of both his electric fastball and his electric curveball.

But there's another adjustment at play in Fernandez's successful return, and this one involves his changeup.

Aug 2, 2015; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Marlins starting pitcher Jose Fernandez (16) throws against the San Diego Padres during the first inning at Marlins Park. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Fernandez has always had a changeup, but he treated it as more of a show-me pitch in throwing it just 9.2 percent of the time across 2013 and 2014. This year, however, he's throwing it in 14.3 percent of his offerings. For the first time, it's a legit third pitch.

Not surprisingly, left-handed batters have been on the receiving end of Fernandez's increased changeup usage. Brooks Baseball says over 25 percent of Fernandez's pitches to lefty batters have been changeups, and that's been bad news for them. They're swinging and missing 18.2 percent of the time at the changeup and hitting it at just a .167 clip.

This isn't surprising. Though it's not as impressive as his curveball, Michael Beller of SI.com rated Fernandez's changeup as another plus-plus pitch. And he has the GIFs to prove it, too.

Why is Fernandez throwing more changeups? Maybe it's as simple as his wanting to be a more complete pitcher by expanding his arsenal from two pitches to three. But we can also theorize that this is another lifestyle change inspired by his Tommy John operation.

Though it's uncertain whether breaking balls are dangerous for a pitcher's elbow, a 2012 article by Jon Roegele at Beyond the Box Score indicates that high-velocity breaking balls (sliders more so than curves) may be dangerous.

Since Fernandez's curveball comes in at over 83 miles per hour, it definitely qualifies as a high-velocity breaking ball. It may, therefore, be a risky pitch to begin with. And if so, he upped the risk by throwing it nearly 40 percent of the time in 2014.

So far in 2015, Fernandez is throwing his hook just about 32 percent of the time. His increased changeup usage has thus come at the expense of his curveball usage. In addition to keeping his arm slot high, that could be another change dedicated to preserving his elbow.

If so, Fernandez has learned all the right lessons from undergoing Tommy John surgery. We can't say that the surgery itself has made him better, but it does look like he's turned himself into a better pitcher by avoiding the things that landed him on the operating table in the first place.

This is bad news for all the poor hitters who have to go up against Fernandez. When his elbow quit on him last year, goodness knows how many of them were hoping that would put a permanent end to his reign of terror.

Instead, it doesn't look like Tommy John surgery stopped it. It looks like it merely postponed it.

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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