Putting Jose Fernandez in Perspective

If you ever wanted a perfect ending to a historic season, Jose Fernandez’s performance Wednesday night was it. Fernandez sliced through the Braves lineup for seven dominant innings, allowing just one run on five hits. He fanned five batters, ending his night with a strikeout of Justin Upton on an unhittable Frisbee of a breaking ball. Still, the biggest moment came an inning earlier. At bat and sitting on a 1-0 count, Fernandez got an 84 mph spinner in the middle of the plate … and hammered it, the ball sailing over the left-center-field wall for his first career home run. For one of baseball’s most electrifying talents, this was a suitable capper to an electrifying year.

A lot of nonsense ensued after Fernandez’s blast, with the Braves complaining that a rookie pitcher making his final start of the season might get a little excited over his first major league home run, and might want to celebrate a bit after Evan Gattis stood and watched his own earlier home run, and Chris Johnson yapped at the Marlins pitcher, claiming he had a “weak-ass fastball.” All of which is just another case of baseball players taking themselves and their ridiculous unwritten rules way too seriously. (Fernandez offered a sincere apology after the game, which doesn’t change the whole thing being silly and pointless.)

The bigger takeaway was this: Fernandez just completed one of the best seasons ever for a pitcher his age, making his starts into can’t-miss baseball on an otherwise missable team.

We’ve already raved about Fernandez numerous times this year, drooling over his first big league start, doubling down in August. Grantland’s Jordan Conn explored Fernandez’s terrifying journey(s) to America, which included the harrowing and daring rescue of his mother from certain death in the middle of the thrashing Caribbean Sea. (But yeah, Brian McCann and other Braves players should lecture a guy who risked his life over and over and thrashed through gigantic waves at age 15 to save his mother from drowning on how to conduct himself. Definitely.)

Time to take a step back and see just what Fernandez has accomplished, now that the Marlins have shut him down to limit his workload.

• Fernandez ended his season with a 2.19 ERA over 172⅔ innings pitched. That made him the first rookie pitcher to post an ERA that low since Dave Righetti’s 2.05 mark in 1981, during a lower-offense era.

• This was Fernandez’s age-20 season (more on his age in a bit), and that 2.19 ERA at that age puts him in dizzying company for someone that young. The only other pitcher that young in the past century to be stingier with earned runs was Dwight Gooden, whose 1985 season was one of the best seasons by any pitcher of the modern era at any age, a masterpiece that featured 16 complete games, 276⅔ innings pitched, and an unfathomable 1.53 ERA.

• If Fernandez was tough to hit in general this year, he was young Dwight Gooden crossed with Walter Johnson, Sandy Koufax, Pedro Martinez, and Sidd Finch at home. From the informative Twitter account @funbaseballfact comes … a fun baseball fact. Forget WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) and try this — if you tally up Fernandez’s walks and all the total bases he allowed against batters during his 15 home starts this year, you get 105. He actually struck out more batters than that during those 15 starts, whiffing 108.

• Fernandez’s home run raised his batting average to .220. That was 40 points higher than his batting average allowed against all hitters, .180. Fernandez’s slugging percentage as a hitter this season was .340; opposing batters slugged .265 against him.

• Fernandez’s 1.19 home ERA was the sixth-lowest for any starting pitcher with as many innings pitched since World War II.

• Fernandez’s most tantalizing pitch has been described as either a slider or a curve by various outlets. It’s probably best described as a slurve, coming in harder than many other pitchers’ curveballs, with superhuman break on it. (There are instances in which he seems to be throwing two distinct breaking pitches, one with more downward action that more closely resembles a curve, the other with the biting action more typically found in a slider.) If we label the pitch as a curve, Brooks Baseball ranks it as one of the five hardest in the game. If we label the pitch as a slider, ESPN Stats & Info notes that only Yu Darvish’s slider showed more horizontal movement this season.

Whatever you want to call Fernandez’s breaking stuff, FanGraphs converted three of these pitches from a recent Rockies game into GIFs. We will now link to these three GIFs, but only before issuing a viewer advisory. These pitches are rated X, and contain scenes of graphic violence performed on hitters’ knees.

OK, here you go.

• Even if you take his pitching out of the equation, Fernandez just might be the most GIFable player in the game. He’s fought valiantly (and lost) against the demon that is the warm-up jacket. He’s lost his damn mind on a game-tying Giancarlo Stanton home run. Then there’s the seemingly effortless grab off a screaming line drive from Troy Tulowitzki, leaving Tulo with the best confused face we’ve seen on a baseball diamond in years.

You can poke holes in Fernandez’s growing legend if you try. There are whispers from people in the game that he might be older than his listed age (now 21, after celebrating a birthday on July 31). He plays in a ballpark that’s one of the league’s stingiest when it comes to allowing home runs. He has a .240 BABIP. (Though Fernandez induced weak contact more than nearly any other pitcher this year, a .240 batting average on balls in play seems unlikely to repeat itself.) He caught the NL East at just the right time, with only one division rival (the Braves) fielding a better-than-average offense, and the Phillies far off the strong numbers they put up during their stretch of five straight division titles.

None of that should diminish our appreciation one bit. If he were a Yankee or a Red Sox or a Dodger, there would be parades in his honor by now. Barring a Bondsian run over the season’s final two weeks by Yasiel Puig, Fernandez should be this year’s supremely deserving National League Rookie of the Year.

For Fernandez, bigger and better hardware could follow for years to come. For the rest of us, it’ll be smiles and head shakes, marveling at baseball’s biggest pitching phenom since the Doc.

Filed Under: MLB, Miami Marlins

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Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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