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Jose Fernandez's historical Marlins rookie season (so far)

Jose Fernandez is already the second Miami Marlins rookie pitcher to make an All-Star team, but will he end the season with the best Marins rookie season of any pitcher?


Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez has exceeded all expectations this season and is putting up a marvelous campaign. He has already been named an All-Star, and he will head into the All-Star break with 18 starts under his belt after he finishes off his first half against the Washington Nationals on Saturday. By all accounts, his rookie season has been phenomenal so far.

But it turns out that the Marlins have gotten a lot of nice rookie seasons from starting pitchers before. There are at least two or three prominent, memorable rookie campaigns by Marlins pitchers in the past, and it brings to mind the question of just how good Fernandez's season has been so far as compared to these other great campaigns. Fernandez has been one of the few bright spots of 2013, but does he shine alongside other Marlins rookie great? Let's take a trip through history to find out.

The Top Five: Marlins Rookie Pitchers

Here are the top five rookie pitching seasons in Marlins history, in order of FanGraphs Wins Above Replacementh Alongside that value is the Baseball-Reference Wins Above Replacement as well.

Marlins pitcher (Year) IP fWAR rWAR
Chuck Smith (2000) 122 2/3 3.2 2.9
Dontrelle Willis (2003) 160 2/3 3.1 3.9
Josh Johnson (2006) 157 2.3 3.8
Scott Olsen (2006) 180 2/3 2.2 2.2
Jose Fernandez (2013) 98 2.3 1.8 2.3

For comparison, here is the list in order of rWAR.

Marlins pitcher (Year) IP fWAR rWAR
Anibal Sanchez (2006) 114 1/3 1.7 3.9
Dontrelle Willis (2003) 160 2/3 3.1 3.9
Josh Johnson (2006) 157 2.3 3.8
Chuck Smith (2000) 122 2/3 3.1 2.9
Chris Volstad (2008) 84 1/3 1.5 2.6

The lists here bring some memorable names, but also some quite forgettable ones. In the FanGraphs version, Fernandez has already cracked the top five rookie pitching seasons in team history, surpassing a slew of other memorable years and closing in on the pantheon years of Josh Johnson in 2006 (3.10 ERA, 3.99 FIP), Dontrelle Willis in 2003 (3.30 ERA, 3.45 FIP), and, uh, Chuck Smith.


Chuck Smith is such an interesting character in Marlins lore. He owns one of the best rookie seasons in Marlins history, as he put up a 3.23 ERA and 3.27 FIP in 122 2/3 innings at the height of the steroids era in baseball. The average run-scoring environments in those years were around 4.7 runs per game, and Smith's rookie year had him suppressing runs at almost 30 percent less than the league average.

Smith was also 30 years old at the time, and he returned next season to put up a 4.70 ERA and 4.31 FIP, and earned a demotion. He then was purchased from the Fish by the Colorado Rockies and began a multi-year trip through various minor league affiliates. He never made it back to the majors after 2001.

Smith's oddity of a rookie season is surrounded by names of pitchers who once held promise and some who still do. The Chris Volstad's and Scott Olsen's of the world have disappeared, and it turned out their rookie years were merely a mirage. Olsen was once a top prospect, then lost all of his velocity insidiously and his passable effectiveness evaporated. Volstad was given far more opportunities than Olsen and suffered the same fate, as he continued to be unable to stop giving up home runs.

But many of those players became positives, mostly for the Marlins. Josh Johnson and Anibal Sanchez became core members of the 2006 era staff, but both were also plagued by injuries. While Johnson appeared to be the most promising and earned himself the early contract extension, he also proved to be the most fragile. Sanchez, in the end, came out ahead, as he earned a huge contract and is now dominating for the Detroit Tigers.

Willis has a history of his own for this franchise, but he will always be best remembered for that rookie season in 2003. D-Train helped to bring a balanced pitching staff and starting lineup all the way to a World Series victory, and while we probably romanticize his impact over that of other players (he posted similar WAR numbers to other rotation members Carl Pavano and Brad Penny), that debut was unforgettable.

Where Does Fernandez Stand?

Fernandez is already among the top five seasons in terms of FanGraphs WAR, while he still has a little ways to go to crack the top five in the Baseball-Reference version. However, he has a little less than 70 innings to perform this, as he is on an innings limit of around 160 innings this season. Fernandez threw just 138 innings in his lone professional season last year.

Because of the innings limit, the rookie will have a tough breaking the best seasons in team history. Willis threw 160 innings, but he did so in a stricter run-scoring environment, and that made his ERA and FIP numbers better. Johnson had a similar thing that made his 3.10 ERA better. It is unlikely that Fernandez will catch either Willis or Johnson in this new, lower run-scoring environment, but it remains a possibility that he can reach both the FanGraphs WAR totals (very realistic) and the Baseball-Reference numbers.

However, Fernandez looks like he will easily blow away the other pitchers, including the venerable Chuck Smith. There is enough question about how valuable Anibal Sanchez's first year was, so Fernandez could compete with that season. He has already surpassed Chris Volstad's fluky first year as well. In the end, he may fall just shy of the pantheon of Marlins rookie pitching performances, but it is no shame to start the season directly out of High-A and match up with Willis and Johnson. Fernandez still looks poised to put on a historic Marlins rookie campaign.