Fernandez Mania

Back in 1981, the Dodgers had a young pitcher named Fernando Valenzuela. He began the season as part of the team’s rotation despite being just 20 years old, and he proceeded to take the sport by storm. Despite being an untested rookie, he led the majors in innings pitched, complete games, shutouts, and strikeouts. He was an All-Star, won Rookie of the Year and the Cy Young Award while finishing 5th in the MVP race. The hysteria around him grew so large that it earned the nickname Fernandomania.

Well, 32 years later, it’s happening again, only because of the anonymity of the 2013 Marlins, this time it’s happening in relative obscurity. Their young ace, Jose Fernandez, deserves a bright spotlight, because he’s having a better age-20 season than Fernando Valenzuela did in 1981. In fact, when we look at age-20 pitchers over the last 50 years, Fernandez’s 2013 season is near the very top.

Here is a table of all starting pitchers in the last 50 years who threw at least 120 innings in their age-20 season, along with their ERA- and FIP-. These numbers are just their respective ERA or FIP relative to the league average in that season, allowing us to better compare pitchers from different offensive eras. Like with ERA, lower is better, so an ERA- or FIP- of 50 would mean that their ERA or FIP was exactly half of the league average that year.

Year, Pitcher, ERA-, FIP-
1985, Dwight Gooden, 44, 59
2013, Jose Fernandez, 69, 75
1981, Fernando Valenzuela, 73, 74
1977, Dave Rozema, 74, 94
1975, Dennis Eckersley, 75, 97

By ERA-, Fernandez has been better than every 20-year-old pitcher since 1964 not named Dwight Gooden. Gooden, of course, had one of the great pitching seasons of all time, and set a standard that is unlikely to ever be matched. Coming in second to Gooden’s 1985 season is nothing to be ashamed of, and and the fact that Fernandez is keeping company with the likes of Gooden and Valenzuela is a testament to how good he has been this year.

And he’s getting better as the year goes on. Fernandez was fantastic in the first half, but since the All-Star break, he’s been on another level. In four starts, he’s allowed a grand total of six runs over 28 innings — a sparkly 1.92 ERA — and it hasn’t come through spectacular defensive support from his teammates. Over those same four starts, Fernandez has racked up 40 strikeouts against just seven walks and a single home run.

In fact, if we reset the list of best age-20 pitching seasons to focus on the three things a pitcher is most in control of — their walks, strikeouts, and home runs — we can see how much better Fernandez has been this year compared to other recent phenoms.

Fernandez has a FIP- of 75, meaning that he’s been 25 percent better than the league average based on his walk rate, strikeout rate, and home run rate. In 2000, Rick Ankiel caught the world by storm with an amazing debut, but his FIP- that year was 88, nowhere near Fernandez’s 2013 mark. The next year, CC Sabathia came up on the scene with a 95 FIP-. In 2004, Zack Greinke put up a 99 FIP-. In 2006, Felix Hernandez posted a FIP- of 90.

Since Fernandomania back in 1981, only Valenzula, Gooden, and now Fernandez have posted a FIP- below Ankiel’s 88, and like the other two, Fernandez is blowing that out of the water. The best pitchers in the game today weren’t anywhere near as good as Fernandez has been in his age-20 season. For reference, Fernandez’s FIP- of 75 is almost a near match for the 73 FIP- that Justin Verlander posted in 2011, the year he won both the AL Cy Young and MVP awards.

Need more evidence of just how incredible Fernandez’s accomplishments at this age are? Okay, how about this one. Matt Harvey has been perhaps the best non-Clayton Kershaw pitcher in baseball this year, and has rightfully garnered significant attention for his breakout season. When Matt Harvey was 20 years old, he posted a 5.40 ERA for the University of North Carolina. Fernandez is destroying major league hitters at the same point where Harvey was struggling against college amateurs.

Put Fernandez on virtually any other team in baseball — okay, maybe not the Astros — and Fernandez is the talk of the sport. However, the Marlins organization isn’t held in the highest esteem after yet another off-season of dumping salary, and so most of the talk about Fernandez’s team centers around when they’ll trade Giancarlo Stanton. However, if we’d put down the trade rumors long enough to watch the Marlins play, we’d find that perhaps their star attraction is no longer the right fielder who hits the ball 500 feet. The Marlins still have Giancarlo Stanton, but this might just be Jose Fernandez’s team now.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.
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Terrible Ted
Terrible Ted
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