Any other year and Jose Fernandez would be getting a lot more attention. The Marlins’ rookie starting pitcher recently turned 21 years old and he was promoted to the major straight from Single-A. It was, at least, advanced Single-A, but his experience there was all of 55 innings. Now he’s up to 24 big-league starts, and he has baseball’s third-lowest ERA. Worse than Matt Harvey and Clayton Kershaw but not worse than any others. Fernandez has averaged better than a strikeout an inning, and he’s seen the Marlins go 15-9 in his starts. In all other starts, they’ve gone 33-66.
Young and dominant, Fernandez regularly runs his fastball up to the plate in the mid-90 mph range; occasionally, he scrapes 98 mph and 99 mph. Off of that heat, he throws a breaking ball he’s in love with, and he also mixes in a changeup that’s generated strong results through its first several months. Fernandez was promoted with more or less a complete, big-league-caliber repertoire, so you wouldn’t think he’d need to add yet another weapon. But starting against the Dodgers in Miami Monday night, Fernandez threw a thing he hadn’t thrown before, to the surprise of many.
Also, it didn’t work.
Fernandez, usually, throws his curveball around 82 mph or 83 mph. What you’re seeing is a curveball with familiar movement, but clocking in at 57.7 mph. The curve moved like Fernandez’s curves usually do — but on Monday, it was 21 miles per hour slower than Fernandez’s second-slowest pitch, which was a curve to Juan Uribe. This was an attempt to take Andre Ethier by surprise, and it looked good right up until it hit Ethier in the knee and put him on base with a limp.
Courtesy of Texas Leaguers, we can see all of Fernandez’s pitches on the season:
I went looking for precedent. I wanted to know if this was something Fernandez had done before, and I identified that blue outlier point at around 68 mph. Now, 68 is a far cry from 58, but it’s also a far cry from 78 and above. I traced that point back to Fernandez’s previous start, against the Royals. I loaded the video, expecting to see Fernandez throw a slow curve early on to David Lough. As it turns out, that pitch never happened, so that blue point is a lie. Fernandez never threw a slow curve to Lough. He never threw a slow curve to anyone, until Monday night, when he lobbed one in to Andre Ethier at a hair under 58 ticks. Lobbed one in, or at, whatever.
A line from the Marlins’ broadcast:
There’s a pitch we have not seen.
Slow breaking ball that pops Ethier in the knee.
We have not seen him — I don’t recall — use that pitch, that real slow curveball that way.
Interestingly, while Ethier got hit, that part of it might have been intentional, on Ethier’s part. The curve was inside, but not dreadfully, hazardously so. And if you look at the .gifs, you can see the slightest hint of Ethier throwing his back knee in the way. A screenshot:
A comparison to Ethier’s body language facing a previous curve:
Nothing is conclusive, but everything is arguable, which might explain Fernandez’s response when Ethier got beaned and went down:
Fernandez might have figured Ethier threw his knee in on purpose so he could reach base. Alternatively, maybe he was just throwing the pitch for fun and didn’t think it was going to end up hitting a guy. On the off chance Ethier did do that deliberately, he paid the price by taking a baseball off the kneecap. The pitch left Fernandez’s hand at 58 mph, not, say, 98 mph, and that makes it sound almost pillow-like. But things hurt when they hit you on bones. If something’s going to hit your bone, the fact of the velocity is somewhat less important than the fact of the hitting of the bone.
As it happens, this was a hit-by-pitch in a major-league game, and when there’s a hit-by-pitch, one broadcast has to claim either (A) it was an accident, or (B) it was deserved, and the other broadcast has to question the pitcher, as if he’s being savage or reckless. From the Dodgers’ broadcast, as Ethier gradually made his way down to first:
I’m not one to say, but, ouch. When you throw as well as Fernandez does, you’ve had as much success as you’ve had so far in today’s game, why mess around with a 58 mile-an-hour pitch?
There’s no accusation that Fernandez hit Ethier on purpose, because, well, 58 mph. But there is the idea Fernandez acted in a way he shouldn’t have, like he was being immature or irresponsible. Hit-by-pitches generate emotion. Even the softest, most laughable hit-by-pitches the hitter might have caused on his own.
The curve before this one was 82 mph. The curve after this one was 80 mph. A little later on, Fernandez threw four intentional balls to Mark Ellis, each of which registered in the mid-60 mph range. Fernandez went to the slow-curve well only once, and he didn’t lose control of it; he just threw it a little too far inside. Odds are, Fernandez has been toying with this idea for a while, and he finally brought it into a game with one out and no one on. He threw the pitch well enough to try it again, and it’s not like hitters are ever going to be up at the plate looking for it. As something of a trick pitch — more of a slow curve than an eephus — Fernandez should be able to get away with one or two of these a game, if he wants. That’s just something we’ll have to monitor.
Yu Darvish sometimes throws a slow curve, and most of the time, hitters take it. The same also goes for guys like Zack Greinke and Vicente Padilla. The idea isn’t so much to get a swing and miss as it is to get a freebie strike. This pitch doesn’t mean we’re going to see a whole new version of Jose Fernandez. I don’t think anybody wants to see a new version of Jose Fernandez because the current one is outstanding. He might not ever throw this pitch again. Its OBP allowed, after all, is 1.000. But on Monday, Fernandez debuted a new pitch, a trick pitch, which resembled a slow curve. Trick pitches earn a guy likability points, and as it turns out, Jose Fernandez now is even more likable.
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