The Miami Marlins had one of the worst offenses in recent baseball history, and the only thing that likely saved them from a disastrous season was that their pitching staff was acceptable. The team was decidedly average in many aspects of their staff, but one area that was not average for the team was the group's bona fide, brand new ace.
|Jose Fernandez||172 2/3||27.5||8.5||2.19||2.73||4.2||6.3|
Jose Fernandez had one of the best rookie years from a pitcher in league history in terms of performance this season, and a glance at his numbers shows why. Among pitchers with at least 150 innings thrown this season, Fernandez's ERA- of 58 (indicating that his ERA was 42 percent better than the league average) was second in baseball only to likely Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw. In terms of his performance versus all rookie starters since 1963 (the so-called "expansion" era), Fernandez's ERA- is the best in history. Better than Dwight Gooden's 1984 campaign. Better than Mark Fydrich's 1976 season. Better than Hideo Nomo in 1995. Better than Fernando Valuenzela in 1981. When compared in terms of FIP-, Fernandez's 72 mark (38 percent better than average) is sixth-best among rookies in that time frame.
How did he do it? Start with the electric stuff. Fernandez was one of 24 qualified Major League starters this season who got swings and misses on more than 10 percent of his pitches this year, and the names with him are among the best starters in baseball. He struck out batters at the second-best rate in the National League and the fourth-best rate overall, only behind fellow aces Yu Darvish, Max Scherzer, and Matt Harvey. His strikeout rate bested names like Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg, and Felix Hernandez. Fernandez's numbers stack up well against the very best pitchers in baseball in terms of strikeouts, and that is impressive given his youth.
The reasons for his success at striking out batters lie in just two pitches. He threw his 94-plus mph fastball and his 12-to-6 curveball in 93 percent of his total pitches, but those two pitches were more than enough to fool batters. His so-called four-seam fastball, which he threw 53 percent of the time according to Pitch F/X's raw classifications, was the 14th most valuable fastball in baseball this year. It was valued at almost a run better than average per 100 thrown. But the curveball was the most impressive weapon of the two, as his was the second-best curveball per 100 pitches. Fernandez's curve was worth 2.7 runs better than average per 100 thrown, second just slightly to Kershaw. That meant that, on an average 100-pitch start, Fernandez racked up 0.9 runs better than the league average on just his curveballs.
He still has some work in terms of controlling his walks, as he had the third-highest walk rate among the top 20 pitchers in Wins Above Replacement this year. He also benefited from a .240 BABIP that is highly unlikely to be repeated; since 2011, the pitcher with the lowest BABIP in baseball has been Jered Weaver at .252, followed by Matt Cain at .260. Those pitchers have shown some repeatable skill in preventing hits, but the majority of pitchers are not capable of holding that mark for an extended period of time. Fernandez does benefit in terms of home runs from the spacious Marlins Park, so he is unlikely to give up much in that respect, but the park should not help him on BABIP going forward.
But the fact that he cracked the top 20 in WAR in his 20-year-old season is already an impressive feat. Fernandez has clearly nasty stuff, as evident by the many, many GIFs and MLB Gameday Scout odes to his game. His performance was brilliant and it ended up being the one thing Marlins fans had to look forward to every five days. He is poised to have an amazing season in 2014, but let us celebrate once more his breathtaking 2013 year.