Jose Fernandez made the Miami Marlins watchable last season. Given that the team won just 62 games, and was without Giancarlo Stanton for some time, that’s quite a task. At age-20, Fernandez somewhat quietly turned in one of the most impressive pitching performances we’ve seen in years. On a team full of questionable talent, Fernandez emerged as a symbol of hope for the franchise. Now comes the hard part. Fernandez will have to prove that he’s capable of doing it again. While there’s always a significant risk involved in putting too much stock in young pitchers, Fernandez has already put himself on an excellent path.
What stands out the most about Fernandez’s performance is his age. In the past few years, we’ve seen 19 and 20-year-old offensive rookies take over the game almost immediately after they were called up. It’s even more rare to see a pitcher of the same age come up and dominate like Fernandez. The last pitcher to take the league by storm at age-20 was Felix Hernandez. In their first full seasons in the majors, Fernandez was actually the better pitcher.
In fact, you aren’t going to find many 20-year-old who were better than Fernandez in the past 44 years.
The above chart shows the list of pitchers who posted at least a 2.0 WAR season at age-20. The entire list of pitchers who received at least 100 innings in the majors was a bit longer, and can be see here.
A few things stand out about Fernandez’s performance. First off, only three players have posted a better WAR at the same age. Two of those pitcher, Dwight Gooden and Bert Blyleven, threw significantly more innings as rookies. Fernando Valenzuela turned in a similar performance, but was a bit better. The second thing that stands out is Fernandez’s excellent strikeout rate. Only Rick Ankiel and Terry Forster struck out more batters per nine innings than Fernandez. Forster shouldn’t technically count, as he did it all out of the bullpen. That leaves Ankiel as the only player with a higher strikeout rate than Fernandez.
Any talk of Ankiel unfortunately leads to talk of young pitchers who failed to live up to their initial promise. There are plenty of players like that on this list. Gooden played at a high level through age-28, but a combination of drugs and injuries slowed his career. Valenzuela performed well through age-26, and then never put up a two win season after. Ed Correa suffered an arm injury in 1987 that forced him to retire. Rozema was just as good during his sophomore season, but was limited after. The list goes on. Of course, there are plenty of players on the list who had long, successful careers. Bret Blyleven was recently inducted into the hall of fame, Felix Hernandez and Zack Greinke continue to put him great numbers each year, CC Sabathia had a hell of a run during the 2000s and Frank Tanana pitched 20 seasons in the majors.
The point is, all pitchers are risky. If you sat around and dwelled on that all day, you wouldn’t draft any pitchers to your fantasy team. Fernandez exploded onto the scene with one of the finest seasons we’ve ever seen from a 20-year-old. While stuff happens, and careers don’t always go the way they should, there’s just no reason to pass up on talent like this anytime soon.