The Miami Marlins made some improvements on their roster going into the 2014 regular season, and most of those improvements came from adding to their empty cupboard of position players. But the Fish will likely make their living with the pitching staff, which promises to be one of the most interesting young casts in the game. And that exciting young group starts with its best player, reigning Rookie of the Year Jose Fernandez.
Depth Chart: Starting Rotation
5. Brian Flynn
Minor League Depth: Tom Koehler, Kevin Slowey, Andrew Heaney, Adam Conley, Brad Hand
The Marlins' success in their starting rotation is predicated off of Jose Fernandez putting up another solid performance in the 2014 season. His 2013 rookie season was one for the ages, and following that up with another dominant performance would cement him as a premiere ace in baseball at just 21 years of age. Thanks to last year's performance in winning the Rookie of the Year and finishing third in the Cy Young award voting, his name is already in an elite class of pitchers. What will it take for he and the Marlins to continue going at that pace?
There was some discussion last month regarding the potential of a "sophomore slump" for Fernandez. Our friend Placido Estevez of Marlin Maniac pointed out that a pitcher of Fernandez's caliber may not be capable of a sophomore slump.
We already knew Jose Fernandez’s 2013 season was one for the ages, but this list just adds more fuel to that fire. Beyond 2014, this history tells us that Fernandez is likely on a path to be one of the best pitchers of his generation. As far as what the data tells us regarding a sophomore slump, let’s break it down this way – 20% chance to win the Cy Young, 40% chance to be an All Star, 20% chance to be just an average pitcher and 20% chance to get injured and tank. Sure a sohpmore slump is possible, but the Marlins have to feel pretty good about the chances of Jose staying in the top 2 categories with an All Star appearance being a worst case scenario.
Placido only looked at the most elite group of pitchers, guys who posted sub-3.00 ERAs in their age-20 seasons. In my study and follow-up, I looked at 15 of the best years since 1979 among pitchers in their age-20 campaigns and found that the average starter followed up their age-20 season with a three-year average of 3.4 WAR. If you wanted to make the comparison solely with the top five elite members of that group, the average goes up to 4.5 WAR. The difference between those two levels of performance is the difference between a player like C.J. Wilson or Justin Masterson (3.4 WAR) last season and a player like James Shields or Mat Latos (4.5 WAR) last year. If you think Fernandez should only be compared to the absolute elite, your expectation would be that of an All-Star caliber talent like Shields in 2014.
Of course, that is all going to be predicated not only in his performance on the field but how often he remains on it as well. Last season, the Marlins carefully managed his innings, not allowing him to go deep into games until the latter part of the campaign and holding him to strict 85-pitch limits for at least the first two months of the regular season. This year, it is very likely that the kid gloves will come off entirely and the Marlins will only monitor Fernandez like they watch their other starters. That means that the Fish will probably expect a 200-inning season out of their young ace, a mark the team failed to reach last season and one that was last reached by a Marlin in 2012 by Mark Buehrle. In terms of lasting deep into games, it does not seem as though Fernandez has a major concern. In his monster second-half run, Fernandez made ten starts and pitched 68 innings, averaging just under seven innings a start. He only had three outings during which he pitched fewer than seven innings and only one in which he threw less than six.
Endurance may not be a concern for Fernandez, but the Marlins will have to continue to watch him for injury problems. Last year, no minor or nagging injuries plagued him, but any pitcher could suffer a severe problem at a moment's notice. The Fish were careful to limit his innings last season in order to allow a reasonable progression of innings workload for him, but just how much will the team tolerate in terms of nagging minor problems next season? Will small tweaks cause Fernandez to miss more time than usual because the Fish are being careful? It will be worth keeping an eye on in 2014.
Each of the the major systems are predicting good things for Fernandez next season, but those good things are still more likely to be All-Star caliber rather than the elite status he seemed to have reached last season. Each system has Fernandez putting up at worst a 3.40 ERA and at best an ERA and FIP easily in the mid-2.00's. They also have him continuing his systematic mowing down of opposing hitters, as his projeted strkeout rates do not dip below 25 percent. ZiPS projects only seven starting pitchers to put up a higher strikeout rate than Fernandez in 2014; Oliver is projecitng only three starters to perform that feat, while Steamer sees only two able to accomplish that. Fernandez, at age 21, is already considered among the elite strikeout artists in baseball.
Last season, Fernandez gave up just 10 homers in his 172 innings, but most of the systems seem to think that will not continue to be a major concern. There is likely regression to the mean in that regard, as his 7.1 percent home run per fly ball (HR/FB) rate ranked as the ninth-lowest in baseball last season. But given his elite status and overpowering stuff, there is a decent chance that Fernandez simply allows fewer homers overall, like many strikeout pitchers tend to do on their fly balls. In addition, Marlins Park should help some in that regard as well.
Overall, Miami should be expecting a strong sophomore season from Fernandez. If he can reach the magical 200-inning mark, an average of the three systems suggest he could put up a 2.94 ERA and provide 4.3 WAR on the year. Unsurprisingly, this is almost exactly the projection that we would expect given our research on the most elite pitchers in the group of 20-year-old phenoms since 1979. Those five best pitchers, including names like Bert Blyeleven, Dwight Gooden, and Fernando Valenzuela, averaged 4.5 wins per year over the next three seasons, and Fernandez is expected to put up just that. Given how nicely the numbers fit, I think Marlins fans can bank on a solid All-Star season with less of the major hype of the Rookie of the Year season. And that, by no means, should be considered a disapointment.