The best and the worst thing about baseball is that, during the season, it’s almost never not going on. Every single day brings a new slate of games, and if you actually step back and think about it, it’s kind of overwhelming. The Brewers are off to a hot start, at 15-6. All they have left is another 141 baseball games. The upside is that, if there’s a lousy baseball day, there could be a better baseball day right around the corner. The downside is that, if there’s an incredible baseball day, in a short amount of time it’s yesterday’s news. Baseball allows for only so much time to reflect.
Case in point: it’s Wednesday, and at this writing, on Wednesday, the Marlins and Braves have already finished a game. Because the Marlins and Braves have already played Wednesday, there’s less will to think about what the Marlins and Braves did Tuesday. But just Tuesday night — last night — the Marlins and Braves competed in a classic. As things turned out, Jose Fernandez and Alex Wood put together at least the pitchers’ duel of the season, and perhaps the pitchers’ duel of the last many seasons.
Here’s the simplest way to get right to the point. The Baseball-Reference Play Index allows us to search through games since 1914. Since 1914, there have been some thousands of games in which both starting pitchers allowed no more than one run. There have been 2,914 games in which both starting pitchers allowed no more than one run, while lasting at least eight innings. There have been 21 games in which both starting pitchers allowed no more than one run, while lasting at least eight innings, and recording double-digit strikeouts. There has been one game in which both starting pitchers allowed no more than one run, while lasting at least eight innings, and recording double-digit strikeouts, without a single walk. Alex Wood and Jose Fernandez combined to do that which had never been done.
To say nothing of the fact they both threw better than 70% strikes, which is unusual on its own. Fernandez went eight innings, with three hits and 14 strikeouts. Wood went eight innings, too, with four hits and a run and 11 strikeouts. There have been other pitchers’ duels in which the score has stayed low, but no other duel has involved so many strikes with such little reliance on the defense. It was the purest form of duel, where 25 encounters involved just the pitcher and the hitter.
The Marlins won the game 1-0, with Fernandez winning and Wood losing. How tough was Wood’s loss, given his extraordinary performance? Wood finished with a Game Score of 81. It’s a rough statistic, but it’ll serve a purpose here. In the recorded history of baseball, made available on Baseball-Reference, Game Scores of 81 have led to pitcher wins 1,841 times. They’ve led to pitcher losses 41 times, and they’ve led to no-decisions 20 times. So, in 2% of such games, the starting pitcher has lost. Alex Wood is the two percent.
Shortly, we’ll have little choice but to switch gears to Fernandez, given that he ultimately stole the show. But about that run Wood allowed — it wasn’t even the result of a blip of bad pitching. Giancarlo Stanton doubled on a low first-pitch changeup:
Casey McGehee then singled on a low first-pitch fastball, grounding one into the outfield against the shift:
“The changeup I threw [Stanton], it was early in the count,” Wood said. “Maybe the ball could have been down a little bit more, but it was still down. That ball is still two inches off the plate. For him to get that kind of wood on it and pull it down the line like that, you don’t get any better than that from a hitting standpoint. You can’t take it back, because it was a good pitch. He’s just a heck of a hitter.”
Wood wasn’t even frustrated after the game. None of the Braves were too frustrated. Based on the post-game quotes, everyone on both sides just felt privileged to have been involved in the contest. It wasn’t a matter of being upset about not hitting Wood or Fernandez; it was a matter of acknowledging that, if you do get a hit off Wood or Fernandez, you’re probably lucky. Sometimes a team runs into a buzzsaw, and sometimes the other team also runs into a buzzsaw, and sometimes one of those buzzsaws just saws a little better.
No matter what you think of ERA, FIP, or xFIP, you can’t really disagree that a number starting with 2 is really good. A number starting with 1 is virtually unheard of. If you add up Jose Fernandez’s ERA, FIP, and xFIP, you get a number that’s still smaller than CC Sabathia‘s ERA, and Stephen Strasburg‘s ERA. If you add up Alex Wood’s ERA, FIP, and xFIP, you get a number equal to Ubaldo Jimenez‘s ERA. Fernandez, right now, looks like the National League Cy Young winner. Wood just looks like a run-of-the-mill ace.
How did it all come together? These images should provide a simple enough overview:
Fernandez was getting a ton of misses out of the zone, but also a bunch of misses within the zone. His contact rate within the zone for the game was 60%. Overall, he set a new 2014 big-league high with 26 swinging strikes. Of those, ten were against the heater, and 16 were against the curveball. His heater, early on, touched 100 miles per hour. He threw his curveball half the time. As for Fernandez’s opponent:
Wood was able to do the most damage with his fastball, which accounted for ten of his 17 swinging strikes. When he wanted a whiff, he was able to keep his fastball elevated, but then he was also mostly able to stay down with his secondary stuff. The key point isn’t that Fernandez or Wood did anything really uncharacteristic. They pitched like they usually pitch. But they got unusually awesome results, because they pitched with unusually excellent precision. If you figure both Fernandez and Wood have certain true-talent levels, on Tuesday they were something like two standard deviations above.
Maybe my favorite stat for Fernandez from the game is this: he threw 25 curveballs in the zone, and Braves hitters swung at 12 of them, or 48%. He threw 29 curveballs out of the zone, and Braves hitters swung at 18 of them, or 62%. There is no better indication that a pitcher was able to execute; there is no better indication that a lineup was clueless, or helpless, whichever or whichevers you prefer.
Against no one else was Fernandez as good as he was against Justin Upton. In the second inning, an eight-pitch at-bat ended with a swinging strikeout at a curveball low and away.
They met again in the fourth. Earlier, Fernandez started Upton with a curve for a ball; this time, he started Upton with a curve for a strike.
Earlier, Fernandez had let his fastball get him to a two-strike count. This time, he came back with another curve:
At that point, the count was 0-and-2, and Upton would’ve remembered that Fernandez got him to chase in the second. This time, Fernandez threw a curve within the zone:
Once more, they met in the seventh. Once more, Fernandez started Upton with a first-pitch curve, again for a strike:
With the previous at-bat’s three curves fresh in his mind, Upton wound up watching an 0-and-1 fastball:
The count again 0-and-2, Upton would’ve been looking for a curve. He would’ve been expecting it low and away, but maybe on the border of the zone. Fernandez anticipated that expectation and blew Upton away with a fastball virtually down the middle:
A fastball down the middle is an awful pitch when the pitcher’s behind. When the hitter has a reason to be looking for a fastball down the middle, it’s the last thing you want to throw. But not all fastballs down the middle are created alike, and in this instance it worked for Fernandez as a change of pace. He would’ve known that Upton expected something breaking, and in a different location. So the middle was no longer the middle, and a fastball was no longer a fastball. An 0-and-2 fastball down the middle is a weapon when the hitter is afraid of your other kind of weapon.
Jose Fernandez is one of the very best starting pitchers in baseball. As evidence, Alex Wood was brilliant on Tuesday against the Marlins, and he still wound up with the loss. Wood played second fiddle to Fernandez in the game, and he’ll play second fiddle to Fernandez in the division, as Fernandez has his sights set on bringing home an award. Also, Jose Fernandez is a year younger than Mike Trout, and two years younger than Gerrit Cole. Say what you will about baseball’s so-called strikeout scourge, and about how statistical pitching brilliance is easier to come by than it has been in decades. Tuesday wasn’t about a developing problem with the game. Tuesday was about two starting pitchers pitching their asses off, and that wouldn’t have been any less of a duel in any other era.
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