The Miami Marlins have received yet another strong performance from Jose Fernandez, who has established himself firmly as the ace of this staff. His latest performance versus the Los Angeles Dodgers last night left his ERA at 2.41 and his FIP at 2.77. In just 145 2/3 innings pitched, he is ten strikeouts away from breaking Scott Olsen's 2006 Marlins rookie record of 166 strikeouts in a rookie year. His season had been worth between 3.3 and 4.5 Wins Above Replacement, depending on what version of WAR you like to use for your pitchers. Fernandez was the Fish's lone All-Star, and in his All-Star appearances, he dominated three of the better hitters in baseball.
All of this is fantastic, but it is soon coming to an end in 2013. Fernandez is now around 24 innings away from the team's innings limit for this season for him.
"We set that deadline for a reason," Miami manager Mike Redmond said. "It's to take care of him and protect him. We realize this is a special kid who we want to keep healthy and have pitch for a long time."
The innings limit was set before the season began, when the team decided to place Fernandez in the Opening Day rotation. Last season, in Fernandez's only full professional year, he split 134 innings between Low-A Greensboro and High-A Jupiter, so the team is asking him to stretch out 40 or so more innings than he has pitched before. The purpose of this, of course, is to avoid or limit what is commonly called the "Verducci effect," which is a supposed effect on the health of pitchers under the age of 25 who have innings jumps of greater than 30 innings from one season to the next.
The Marlins here are asking for an innings jump of 40, which according to Verducci puts Fernandez at a higher injury risk. But what is this so-called effect's true, well, effect? Russell Carleton of Baseball Prospectus (subscription required) tested the hypothesis in various ways and came up with conclusions that essentially said that while pitchers with these innings increases are more likely to suffer injuries, the evidence suggests that they are less likely to miss time with injury (fewer days on the DL) and that performance was not affected. So perhaps babying Fernandez would provide only minimal benefit at best to the Marlins.
But then again, not babying him does not give the Fish much of an edge either. According to the article, Fernandez's workload is expected to end in the first week of September. If that is the case, he may miss four or so starts along the way. How good could Fernandez be in four starts, and more importantly, would any of those starts matter to Miami? The Fish are looking to perhaps avoid being the worst team in baseball, but they will be piled in a heap of losses by September. What does it matter if Miami wins three or four more games, especially with a questionable risk to Fernandez's health?
Much like the Stephen Strasburg debate from last year, no one knows the true effect of resting pitchers at the end of the year, whether they were previously healthy or coming off of injury. But the Marlins have nothing to gain and a lot to lose by playing their best future asset in meaningless starts, so it is reasonable for the team to shut him down in September. Cherish your Jose Fernandez starts while you still can, because the 2013 end is nigh.