Jose Fernandez of the Miami Marlins is more than halfway done with one of the best rookie pitcher seasons in Marlins history. He is leading his pitching staff in all major categories. He leads all rookie starters in ERA and is in second place in FIP. He made his first All-Star Game and was dominant in his outing. He is doing this all at the tender age of 20.
These accomplishments, combined with his fantastic story of his travels to the United States, have made Fernandez something of a savior of this franchise. Certainly, Fernandez has deserved every bit of credit that he got, but there was a caveat that Dakota Schmidt used in his article regarding Fernandez.
The jury is still out on his future in the MLB because his sudden rise to power is eerily reminiscent of former Marlin Dontrelle Willis in the early to mid 2000's.
Dontrelle Willis is an impossible comparison for any pitcher, as his career path was so unique, but the broader point Dakota makes is interesting as well. As everyone knows, TINSTAAP (there is no such thing as a pitching prospect), or rather, pitching prospects are a volatile bunch, and having one does not guarantee elite status. There are no pitching prospects who are can't-miss talents who will never falter.
Interestingly, Fernandez is not just any pitching prospect, though. Unlike Dontrelle Willis and many other Malrins pitching prospects before him, Fernandez may very well be the best pitching prospect in team history.
Minor League Performance
Few Marlins pitchers have ever put up the kind of dominant numbers Fernandez posted in his first full professional season in 2012. Over two levels, Fernandez threw 134 innings and struck out 158 batters, posting a 30.8 percent strikeout rate for the season. He did this as a 19-year-old playing against older competition in Low- and High-A. He walked just 35 batters in those innings, posting a 6.8 percent walk rate. His 2012 season was truly fantastic.
Was it the best season that any Marlin put up in the minors? A look back in time at other top Marlins prospects and you will find that a few pitchers have had dominant seasons like that before. Before Fernandez was even promoted, I made the comparison to Josh Beckett, and it was an apt comparison. Beckett was a former second pick in the 1999 MLB draft, and his first year in Low-A in the Midwest League was spectacular. Indeed, it was almost as good as Fernandez's season in the South Atlantic League. But Fernandez pitched in both the Sally League and the pitcher-friendly (and higher competition level) Florida State League, meaning that his first professional season included better competition than Beckett's.
Of course, Beckett made his first full professional year in 2001 (he was injured for parts of 2000 in Low-A) and was dominant that season, prompting a Double-A promotion and eventually a cup of coffee in the majors before a full-time start in 2002. For Fernandez, he essentially sped up that process by going to two levels in his first professional campaign and skipping past Double-A straight to the big leagues. In fact, he did that while he was a year younger than Beckett at the time of promotion. While Beckett made his full-time debut in 2002 as a 22-year-old, Fernandez jumped to the bigs as a 20-year-old who will turn 21 in another week or two.
If Fernandez's minor-league success tops that of Beckett's, it would certainly top that of other top Marlins prospects. I took a look at three prominent Marlins pitching prospects and compared them to Fernandez when considering a potential Major League promotion. It seemed none of Josh Johnson, Scott Olsen, and Chris Volstad were rushed as quickly as Fernandez was, and neither were any of them as good as Fernandez was in the minors. Olsen had the best case, and he too was older than Fernandez at each level. Essentially, no Marlins pitching prospect ever had the minor league season that Fernandez did in 2012.
As part of having dominated in 2012, Fernandez received an extremely high prospect ranking. Before 2013, Baseball America had him ranked fifth among all prospects. He was the second-highest ranking pitcher, behind only Dylan Bundy. This was one of the highest rankings of any Marlins prospect in team history.
However, it was not the highest ranking the team has ever achieved. Josh Beckett, following his first professional year in 2000, was ranked third going into the 2001 season. That came before his dominant season splitting time between High-A and Double-A, meaning that on just 59 1/3 innings, Baseball America thought he was a spectacular prospect. Indeed, Beckett dominated while he was on the field, so it is no surprise.
The difference between the third and fifth prospect ranking is tough to determine across multiple years, so it is likely that this category is simply a wash between the two players. Fernandez and Beckett were both considered future stars going into the following season.
Major League Performance
However, this is where Fernandez has the edge; however, the edge is not as large as one would think. Beckett had an average season in 2002 before getting injured and missing time (not the first time that this would eventually happen). He made only 21 starts (23 total appearances) that season. Fernandez has already had a full healthy half-season and, while he will receive an innings limit, he should be able to reach at least 160 innings and 26 starts. He already has essentially matched Beckett's innings total from 2002.
Beyond that, however, is the fact that their performances were eerily similar, but ultimately in Fernandez's slight favor. Both pitchers struck out a ton of batters; 24.9 percent for Beckett and 24.3 percent for Fernandez. Both walked an equal amount, with Beckett's 9.7 percent similar to Fernandez's 9.4. Their difference was in home runs, which can be fickle for a half-season. Their ERA, however, are very disparate, as Beckett put up a below-average 4.10 mark. In terms of FIP, both pitchers were similarly good compared to the league average at around 90 percent of the average.
Where is Fernandez's advantage? The fact that he is likely to pitch past Beckett's innings at a younger age and perform close to his standard makes Fernandez's play thus far superior to Beckett's rookie year.
Fernandez and Beckett were head-to-head in terms of best pitching prospects in team history. Unlike players like Dontrelle Willis, Fernandez had a minor league start for the ages, comparable only to an elite prospect like Beckett. But Fernandez's start was even better than Beckett's, and it went without the difficult injury problems. Then, when you tack on a performance and ranking at least equal to that of Beckett's, you are left with the conclusion that, when you include their rookie performances, Jose Fernandez stands alone as clearly the best pitching prospect in Marlins history.
Jose Fernandez is not just any pitching prospect. He is the best the franchise has ever seen, and the hope is that that means his bust potential is a little lower than the others'.