Throughout the month of February we’re going to be examining some of the top young arms throughout the league and which direction their stock may be pointing heading into the 2014 season. Pitchers without big league experience need not apply.
I don’t need to tell you about Jose Fernandez. The 2013 National League Rookie of the Year made headlines across the baseball universe as he carved through the league’s hitters, leaving charred bats and broken dreams in his wake. So you probably know all about Jose Fernandez, but still; I’m going to tell you about Jose Fernandez. The twenty year old (20!) defected from Cuba in 2008 and went on to be drafted 14th overall by the Miami Marlins in the 2011 draft. Prior to 2013, MLB.com named him the 7th best prospect in baseball, and the second best pitching prospect behind Taijuan Walker, and he appeared poised to take his game to double-A. The Marlins, beset by injuries in the spring, changed the gameplan when they called him up to start the year in the Bigs instead. Having never pitched above A-ball, the baseball world was unsure whether he’d be able to capitalize on his enormous potential, and wondered aloud whether the Marlins were blowing up a young pitcher’s career for some publicity and seat-butts. Fernandez answered the questions about himself.. convincingly. He posted one of the best seasons of all time by a rookie pitcher. His 2.19 ERA was third best in the live-ball era (since 1920) amongst rookies with 150+ IP. Fernandez was Miami’s only All-Star (Giancarlo Stanton was hurt.) and in addition to his shiny RotY award, he also finished third in the Cy Young award voting. And on top of it all, he was good publicity for a club that sorely needed it. Jose Fernandez singlehandedly saved the the 2013 Miami Marlins news cycle.
Fernandez didn’t just post an empty ERA on smoke and mirrors, his 2.73 FIP and 3.08 xFIP mostly say that the skills he displayed backed up his performance. And man, did this kid display some skills. In his 172.1 innings* the right-hander averaged 94.8 mph on his fastball and had a 10.1% swinging strike rate, well above the league average of 8.5%. His 27.5% strikeout rate and 0.98 WHIP both ranked fourth amongst qualified starters and his .180 batting-average-against was the best amongst that group. Fernandez combines exemplary mechanics with a powerful arsenal that portends success for years to come. He can touch 98 with his heater and his curveball is a plus-plus offering. He backs these two up with a slider and change that are both above average. In addition to his dominant skills, every scouting report on Fernandez mentions his fearlessness on the mound. It stands to reason that after saving his mother from drowning during their fourth and final attempt to escape the Communist island** that, regardless of his numerical age, this kid is really far more of a man than any of us.
The sky is truly the limit for Miami’s young phenom. He’s poised to take the mantle of the Marlins’ ace that has been vacant since Josh Johnson was dominant and carry it into the next probably-surprisingly-great Marlins team. His skills are the ones that scouts dream on, and his youth means he’ll be a free agent going into his age-27 season. Projection systems across the board predict that he’ll be somewhere between great and elite next year, and he already received the hardware to acknowledge the greatness of his debut. He would be the least surprising Cy Young contender for Clayton Kershaw next year (now that Matt Harvey is sadly out of the picture) and personally, if you don’t like this kid; This Kid, then I’m not sure we like the same things about baseball.
I’d just like to congratulate myself on writing a whole article about a Florida Marlin and not making a Jeffery Loria joke. Thank you.
*The Fish shut him down, he didn’t miss a start and only went less than 5 innings three times, twice in his first month in the Bigs.
**The first three times he was caught by the Coast Guard and returned to Cuba, where he was imprisoned for attempting to defect.