It isn’t often you can say this, but the best show in baseball Wednesday took place in Miami. Though it was a game between the going-nowhere hosts and the certainly-going-somewhere Braves, the hosts had Jose Fernandez on the mound, and before the Marlins equivalent of a full house, Fernandez did everything in what would be his final start of the season. There were twists, there were turns. There were big swings and big pitches. There were players yelling at one another, and there were fans yelling louder. Wednesday night, Miami and Fernandez had it all.
Fernandez was dominant, but Fernandez has often been dominant, and the game was so much more than that. He got involved not just on the mound, but also at the plate and on the basepaths. Everybody knew it would be his last turn, and it doesn’t seem like he left anything on the table.
It was in the sixth inning that Fernandez hit his first home run, a no-doubter against a low changeup that soared beyond the left-center power alley. That was one of the compelling events, and it led to another, as Fernandez took several moments to appreciate his dinger after the ball left the bat:
As Fernandez rounded third, he spit on the ground near Chris Johnson‘s feet. That seemed to be in response to previous jawing:
Johnson: /flies out
Johnson: weak-ass fastball
It wasn’t long before the benches cleared, before baseball players started milling around, with Fernandez in the middle and Johnson quite mad. It’s always entertaining when players get their dander up, and though Fernandez was certainly immature, Johnson wasn’t innocent, and one should remember that Fernandez is just 21 years old. The Marlins announcers noted that Fernandez acted like a 21-year-old. Because he is a 21-year-old, as of a month and a half ago.
Which is kind of the real story. Fernandez is young and entertaining and one hell of a pitcher, and he also pitched his ass off in his final start. Many will mostly remember the homer and the ensuing ugliness, but Fernandez faced a division leader and allowed a run in seven innings. Fernandez’s pitching provided the other compelling events. The first pitch of the game was a heater at 96, perfectly located in the low-away corner. Fernandez only built from there.
The game’s third batter was Freddie Freeman. Here’s what happened to him:
The fastball left Fernandez’s hand at 99.2 miles per hour. That’s tied for his fastest pitch of the season. It’s alone as his fastest strike of the season, and Freeman’s swing is a dead giveaway. Fernandez kept cruising into the top of the seventh, and here’s what would be his very last pitch:
Fernandez’s last toss of 2013 was a curve that whiffed Justin Upton and made him look helpless in the process. Fernandez walked off the mound to a standing ovation, a rousing standing ovation in Miami, Florida, and now Fernandez’s season is officially etched in stone. Now we can officially compare his season to other seasons in the past, without having to worry about more starts making the numbers different. Compared to history, Jose Fernandez shines.
Over the past century, 1,258 rookie starters have thrown at least 100 innings. Fernandez’s 2013 ranks tied for eighth in adjusted ERA. It ranks tied for 13th in adjusted FIP. Of those rookie pitchers who beat Fernandez’s adjusted ERA, all threw significantly fewer frames. And, of course, it’s not just that Fernandez was a rookie. It’s that he broke camp as a 20-year-old. This was, officially, Fernandez’s age-20 season, as baseball stats go.
Over the past century, there have been just 97 player seasons in which a starting pitcher no older than 20 reached or exceeded 100 innings. Among those, Fernandez ranks second in adjusted ERA, behind 1985 Dwight Gooden. He ranks fourth in adjusted FIP, behind 1985 Gooden, 1984 Gooden, and 1971 Bert Blyleven. We know that Fernandez just wrapped up one of the better rookie seasons ever. He has made zero career starts in Double- or Triple-A. Though you can argue about the timing of Fernandez’s promotion, for service-time reasons, clearly the Marlins were right in their belief that Fernandez was ready to go, despite his experience. What he didn’t have were reps against high-level hitters, but what he did have was stuff, consistent and repeatable stuff, and stuff trumps experience. At least, it makes up for a lack of it. It’s hitters who have to react to the guy on the hill, not the other way around.
Moreover, Fernandez didn’t even show signs of wearing down. His ERA was in the 3s into late June. The day he turned 21, his ERA stood at 2.71. As a 21-year-old, Fernandez started eight games, allowing seven runs, with one of them unearned. There were two dingers, and 63 strikeouts in 53 frames. Over the second half, Fernandez trimmed a fifth off of his first-half wOBA allowed. These are all complicated ways of saying that Fernandez got better, not worse, as there was no letdown and there was no sign of fatigue. Whenever a guy comes off a great season, you feel good about his odds of having another great season. With Fernandez, maybe next year he could be even better. The concern this year was experience. Now there are no concerns left, save for the concerns we reserve for all pitchers, left unspoken lest we all shiver and swear off rooting for pitchers completely.
Officially, Jose Fernandez is finished for 2013. Officially, he had one of the best young or rookie seasons ever, after skipping right past the advanced levels of the minors. There are plenty of brilliant scholars. There are fewer brilliant scholars who skipped a grade or two. It’ll be interesting to see how young pitchers are handled going forward. We have a good idea that velocity starts declining from a young age, and maybe there’ll be an industry-wide push to get younger guys up sooner, if the stuff looks like it’s there. Maybe pitchers don’t need that upper-level experience as much as hitters do. I don’t know if Fernandez will kickstart a trend or stand as an exception. What I know now, officially, is that Fernandez defied the ordinary course of things and established himself as an ace at a younger age than this year’s first overall pick. It was a historic campaign, and not all who draw comparisons to Dwight Gooden go the way of Dwight Gooden.
The last time Fernandez allowed more than two runs in a start, the Dodgers were five wins back of the Diamondbacks. Fernandez won’t be allowing more than two runs in a start the rest of this year. As for next year, let’s call it a coin flip.
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