Miami Marlins' Jose Fernandez: Best NL pitcher?

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Marlins radio broadcast team brought up the question of whether Jose Fernandez was not just the best rookie of the season, but whether he was the best pitcher in the National League? How does Fernandez stack up against the competition?

The Miami Marlins are approaching the end of what should be the greatest rookie season in Marlins history. Jose Fernandez has one start left in his tank in this series against the Atlanta Braves, and with that start, he will be finished for the year as per the Marlins' instructions. The innings limit may get in the way of Fernandez's chances at the Rookie of the Year award, but Glenn Geffner of the team's radio broadcast took the Fernandez argument a step beyond that award: how does Fernandez stack up with the best pitchers in the National League?

Off-hand, fans of other teams who see Fernandez probably do not think much about this. They might see him dominate their team, but that is just a fleeting moment before Fernandez returns to being just a rookie competing with an equally impressive Yasiel Puig. But the truth is that the Marlins rookie is among the top performers in many pitching categories, and that might leave him in rare company among this season's National League pitchers.

So how does he stack up? Let's look at Fernandez's performance among the best qualified National League pitchers in various stats.

Strikeout Rate
Rank Pitcher, 2013 K%
1 Jose Fernandez 27.9
2 Matt Harvey 27.7
3 Stephen Strasburg 26.7
4 A.J. Burnett 25.5
5 Shelby Miller 25.2

It is amazing to see that not one, but two rookies are on this top five leaderboard in strikeout rate. Fernandez leads them all, however, though he is essentially tied with Matt Harvey. Come to think of it, this list is loaded with young National League pitching talent, with the immortal and rejuvenated A.J. Burnett as the elder statesman. If it comes to strikeouts, you look young with guys like Fernandez, Harvey, Stephen Strasburg, and Shelby Miller, all of whom figure to be at the top of pitching stat lists for years to come.

Still, Fernandez, as a 20-year-old rookie, is your National League strikeout rate leader. Wow.

Walk Rate
Rank Pitcher, 2013 BB%
1 Adam Wainwright 3.7
2 Bronson Arroyo 3.7
3 Cliff Lee 4.1
4 Dan Haren 4.2
5 Matt Harvey 4.5

And here lies the reason why Matt Harvey has been sensational all season. Before the elbow injury, he was racking up innings like all the other top starters, but he is the only guy to show up on both the strikeout and walk leaderboards. Adam Wainwright's entire presence among the best in the business this year is due to his absurdly low walk rate, though Bronson Arroyo shows that low walk rates can only get you as far as average in the league with out elite stuff.

Home Run / 9
Rank Pitcher, 2013 HR/9
1 Matt Harvey 0.35
2 Jhoulys Chacin 0.36
3 Clayton Kershaw 0.46
4 Jose Fernandez 0.49
5 A.J. Burnett 0.50

Suppressing home runs may be something of a lucky feat, but the best pitchers of this season have all done it. The big names of Harvey, Clayton Kershaw, and Fernandez are all there, to no one's surprise. What is surprising is the Colorado Rockies' Jhoulys Chacin, whom you will see later featured on another list of interest. The Rockies' de facto ace is doing his best work by avoiding homers in the scariest hitter's park in baseball.

ERA
Rank Pitcher, 2013 ERA
1 Clayton Kershaw 1.92
2 Jose Fernandez 2.23
3 Matt Harvey 2.27
4 Zack Greinke 2.79
5 Madison Bumgarner 2.82

Fernandez's best claim lies in his ERA alongside his strikeouts, but that happens to also be Kershaw's best claim. The 1.92 ERA is going to catch a lot of people's eyes when they evaluate for end-of-season pitching awards, but Fernandez's number is not that far behind with one start left to go. The lead over Fernandez and Harvey seems difficult for Kershaw to relent given the way he's pitching, but another brilliant shutout performance by Fernandez could pull him close at least.

FIP
Rank Pitcher, 2013 FIP
1 Matt Harvey 2.00
2 Adam Wainwright 2.52
3 Clayton Kershaw 2.53
4 Jose Fernandez 2.64
5 A.J. Burnett 2.82

Harvey's presence in all three "true outcomes" rate stats made his leading this list inevitable. It also puts into perspective just how good his season was before his injury; he seems more than deserving of the award even with the time off. Wainwright and Kershaw are essentially tied in this category, with Fernandez not far away. Again, it is an impressive feat to see such a young pitcher in Fernandez matching up with giants of the game and guys who have had college experience ahead of their major league time.

FanGraphs WAR
Rank Pitcher, 2013 fWAR
1 Matt Harvey 6.1
2 Adam Wainwright 5.6
3 Clayton Kershaw 5.6
4 Mat Latos 4.5
5 Jhoulys Chacin 4.4

You might be surprised not to see Fernandez in the top five (he ranks sixth) in this list, but that is because of the circumstances in which he is pitching. Fernandez throws in a relatively pitcher-friendly part which measures out close to league average. Latos and Chacin have excellent numbers in places that are very hitter-friendly; while neither player's ERA or FIP ranked high on those lists, both players rank in the top 10 in terms of ERA- and FIP-, which measure performance compared to average based on park factors. Combine that with the innings they have thrown and that is enough to push them just a bit ahead of Fernandez.

Baseball-Reference WAR
Rank Pitcher, 2013 rWAR
1 Clayton Kershaw 6.8
2 Jhoulys Chacin 6.0
3 Jose Fernandez 5.9
4 Matt Harvey 5.5
5 Adam Wainwright 5.4

This list more accurately reflects the pitchers who may see award recognition. Outside of Chacin, who is unlikely to see anything despite an excellent season, the remaining four starters figure to be the players who will get the majority of votes. Kershaw is at the top because rWAR is more closely tied to actual runs scored (it subtracts the defensive contribution of the team according to the balls in play the pitcher allowed), with Fernandez and Harvey in tow. Wainwright remains on the list thanks to a large innings count; the non-Kershaw, non-Wainwright starters each have between 160 and 180 innings right now.

Fernandez ranks at the top for strikeouts and near the top for ERA (second) and FIP (fourth). Despite the relatively favorable park, he has done comparably well with his peers and deserves recognition for the Cy Young. Given the publicity he has recently received and the jaw-dropping numbers, you have to expect he will get a few looks. The injury to Harvey even helps his cause by moving one competitor down to his innings level.

But ultimately, the Marlins phenom is likely to fall just short of a Cy Young bid, as he may still fall short of the Rookie of the Year bid. Kershaw's ERA and his known strikeouts (he ranks sixth in rate and leads in raw count) should make him the easy favorite. Harvey was well in competition before, but he may fall by the wayside thanks to missing the month. Wainwright's team is going to the playoffs, so he may receive votes. In the end, it is difficult to see Fernandez doing better than fourth, but that is still a nice start for one of the youngest pitchers in baseball.

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