The Miami Marlins were expecting a full season from Jose Fernandez and a pretty dominant one at that. Fernandez had just won the National League Rookie of the Year award in convincing fashion, and he put up a runner-up Cy Young season as well. It seemed like the sky was the limit for Fernandez's season, and in the early part of the 2014 campaign, that appeared to be the case.
Fernandez made eight starts on the year for Miami, but one of them was clearly altered by his elbow injury. Take away that San Diego Padres start and you have seven starts that were extremely impressive. In those seven starts, Fernandez put up a 1.76 ERA, a 1.67 FIP, and a 35.7 percent strikeout rate to go along with a 6.5 percent walk rate. Those are the sort of video game numbers you expect out of 46 2/3 innings from a relief ace pitching the ninth inning every couple of days, not a starter tasked with going multiple innings an outing. In fact, observe:
|Jose Fernandez||46 2/3||35.7||6.5||1.74||1.67|
|Craig Kimbrel||61 2/3||38.9||10.7||1.61||1.83|
Fernandez put up similar numbers to Craig Kimbrel in similar playing time, and he may have continued that kind of performance for a long time throughout the 2014 season. Fernandez had hitters fooled at an extreme level this past season. They were swinging more often outside the strike zone and making less contact both in and out of the zone. Yet Fernandez was once again among the leaders in zone percentage. Had he pitched enough to qualify for the ERA title, he would have ranked 13th in the majors in percentages of pitches in the strike zone, right around where R.A. Dickey sat this year. That continues the trend that Marlins starters attack the strike zone. But unlike Nathan Eovaldi (fourth in zone rate) and Henderson Alvarez (fifth), who depend more on balls in play results, Fernandez has the goods to get hitters out via the strikeout even while attacking the zone. He has hitters taking strikes and whiffing on balls all too often.
A big reason for this was the performance of the curveball. Fernandez's curve was at the top of its game again in 2014, as he racked up 8.3 runs above average according to linear weights pitch values at FanGraphs. That came out to an average of 2.86 runs per 100 pitches thrown, which was right around where he stood last season. In 2013, no pitcher got more value out of the curve than Fernandez, and this season was a repeat of that situation. Had Fernandez qualified for the ERA title, his curve would rank only behind Cleveland Indians ace Corey Kluber among pitchers who regularly throw the curve often. The rate value of Fernandez's curve in his short stint this year beat out the likes of Adam Wainwrigh and Clayton Kershaw. In fact, the raw runs above average that Fernandez put up would have ranked sixth among qualified starters this year, behind only some of the best and most frequently used curves in the game.
Photo by Steve Mitchell, USA TODAY Sports
So what went wrong this season? Of course, the San Diego start was followed quickly by a terrible elbow injury that would lead to a season-ending injury that required Tommy John surgery. Fernandez may or may not have hid his level of health heading into that start, and pitching that night on regular rest may have strained a damaged UCL to the point that it ended up requiring surgery.
But I won't put blame on Fernandez for potentially ruining an excellent season. The beginning of the year yielded something between one to two wins to a young Marlins team that eventually got plenty of pitching production. The only problem in losing Fernandez is that he will likely miss time into the next regular season, making the elbow injury truly a disaster. But while we had him, he was indeed fantastic.