The excitement is palpable. Jose Fernandez is only 21 years old and only 33 starts into his Major League career, but he already has South Florida eagerly anticipating every fifth day like it's Christmas morning.
In his last start, he struck out a career high 14 Atlanta Braves en route to a thrilling 1-0 win. He struck out the side in the fourth and fifth innings. The Braves lineup, certainly no slouches, was reduced to guessing where the next pitch was going to wind up. Fernandez's lethal swooping curveball, the DefeKtor, had hitters mystified as it started well off the plate--seemingly bound for the front of the right handed batter's box--only to dive back over the plate at the last possible moment for a strike. When batters started getting wise to the curveball, Fernandez would mix in a high 90s fastball to keep them honest.
Fernandez is one of the rare athletes who passes the casual observer test. That is to say, even among other accomplished professionals who are among the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent of professional baseball players in the world, his talent stands out. Let's say you have a grandmother who has no interest in baseball. If you took her to a game when Fernandez is in his groove and ask her who she thinks is the best player on the field, she is going to choose Fernandez.
And if his on-field abilities weren't enough to earn a grandmother's love, he'd find a way to earn it anyway. So many of Fernandez's attributes make him one of baseball's most compelling players. From his daring escape from Cuba on his fourth attempt, to his humility and humor about getting acclimated to life in the United States, to his exuberance in the dugout, to his generosity with his fans, Fernandez seems destined to become one of the most beloved Marlins players ever.
The Marlins franchise has spent nearly its entire existence mired in deep valleys of mediocrity broken up by two very notable peaks. Those peak years featured some memorable seasons by some memorable starting pitchers, including Kevin Brown, Al Leiter, Livan Hernandez, Dontrelle Willis, Carl Pavano and Josh Beckett. In just 33 starts, many Marlins fans believe that Fernandez already belongs in the discussion of all-time great Marlins pitchers. This is particularly true at home, where he's only given up 14 earned runs in 117 2/3 innings while going unbeaten at 11-0.
In addition to those memorable seasons by Marlins pitchers, Marlins fans have also been spoiled by some memorable individual game pitching performances. In fact, no Major League franchise has seen its pitchers throw no-hitters with the frequency that the Marlins franchise has. Mets fans waited 50 years for their first no-no. Marlins fans, by contrast, have witnessed five of them in just twenty-one seasons.
Perhaps its the prospect of another historic pitching performance that adds to the allure of Jose Fernandez. In just over a season's worth of starts (remember, he was shut down with a handful of starts left in the tank in 2013), he's had two 14-strikeout games, a 13-strikeout game, and four other double-digit-strikeout games. And he's accomplished this while toiling under team-imposed pitch counts and innings limits. Once the training wheels finally come off, the sky, as they say, will be the limit.
Might we see Fernandez channel Roger Clemens and Kerry Wood and record 20 strikeouts in a nine-inning game? Could he surpass even that lofty mark? I wouldn't bet against it, and that's why I will be in attendance tonight as he faces the Braves again. That's also why there are 30,000+ fans packed into Marlins Park every time he takes the mound at home.
That's the kind of impact the excitable kid from Santa Clara, Cuba, is having. He's made every one of his starts must see TV.