The day is finally here. Jose Fernandez is back on the field in a Miami Marlins uniform.
The Fish will have their ace back after 13 months and change of missed time due to a torn ulnar collateral ligament and subsequent Tommy John surgery. The road back for Fernandez has been tough, but he is coming back relatively early for this type of injury, and the Marlins could use his play to improve the roster. Everyone is excited to finally get a chance to catch the electric righty on the field, but the question that we now face is what can be expected of Fernandez and the Marlins now that he is back. What should fans be on the lookout for in Fernandez's return today against the San Francisco Giants? Here are some thoughts and observations.
The first thing that will be readily apparent in Fernandez's return will not be any measurement of statistical effectiveness. Whether he shuts down the Giants or struggles is not going to mean a whole lot about his future. But as we discussed in great detail with Mat Latos recently, velocity is king at determining the effectiveness of pitchers, especially as compared to their baseline from before injuries. Latos was suffering from lost velocity for months before he succumbed to a leg injury last year, but now he appears to have regained some of that fastball speed back.
For Fernandez, this is obviously critical to his success. Before he got hurt, he had one of the best fastballs in the game. Fernandez's heater was ranked third among qualified starters in baseball in 2013, behind only Matt Harvey and Stephen Strasburg. By Brooks Baseball, his fastball averaged about 96 mph coming out of the hand from the start of 2013 to his penultimate start against the Los Angeles Dodgers last season. That velocity dipped dramatically after the elbow injury in the San Diego start, so that was excluded from this sample.
What can we expect of Fernandez's velocity? Stephen Strasburg still had the best velocity in the game despite having missed a year after Tommy John surgery. Matt Harvey returned this year after a long layoff for Tommy John surgery (he missed all of 2014) and still retained a top-10 velocity among qualified starters this year. Harvey did not see a dip in his speed, while Strasburg lost perhaps 0.3 to 0.5 mph depending on the source. However, those are just two optimistic examples, and Fernandez could be different, though the smart money right now is that he retains his hard-throwing talent. The early reports were at least positive, as he was touching 97-99 mph on the heater in his first rehab start this year.
The opponent Fernandez faces rarely matters, but in the first game back after a year-long layoff, at least considering the quality of the opponent may clue us in on Fernandez's likely performance. The Giants are no slouches at the plate; non-pitchers on their team are hitting .277/.338/.418, good for a 116 wRC+ which is tied for second in all of baseball behind only the Dodgers. The Giants indeed have a good lineup, so Fernandez will be tested early on.
Of course, the Giants' lineup may not be complete as expected. They will almost certainly be missing their most important piece, Buster Posey, as Posey not only caught last night's game but also took a foul ball to the catcher's mask earlier on in the contest. Given that today's start is a quick turnover, it is reasonable to expect Andrew Susac instead of Posey today, so at least one big weapon will be down against Fernandez to help ease his return.
The Fish are expected to temper Fernandez upon his initial return. Recall that in 2013, the team kept him to a pitch count of about 85 pitches for most of his first five to ten starts before slowly ramping up. The team will try a similar approach this year, limiting Fernandez for now to 90 pitches. That likely means you have to get there early to catch Fernandez pitching for your Fish!
It is hard to tell what Miami plans to do after this start, but expect a similar number of pitches in each of the next five starts. If Fernandez remains comfortable, Miami might bump that up, but it would not be surprising if a limitation was kept on for the rest of the year just to avoid straining Fernandez's arm in a lost campaign.
It is a shame that the Marlins will be playing this game without Giancarlo Stanton, as Fernandez's reactions to Stanton home runs are among the best things in the world. Provided things go well, however, we can expect that Fernandez will bring the same kind of unfiltered, unbridled joy that he always does to the field. Fernandez's smile and demeanor on the field are unmatched in terms of childlike enjoyment, and given how poorly the Marlins have played all year, they could probably use that sort of fire and excitement on their side.
No matter what Fernandez eventually does after his injury, the trajectory of the 2015 Marlins is going nowhere. Fernandez may still be one of the best pitchers in all of baseball, but one of the best at only 100 innings and change may only add three wins to the Marlins' overall tally. If you buy that the Fish have been playing close to .500 baseball, you might expect them to lean ever so closer to that number with Fernandez on board. However, it is highly unlikely that the Fish will go on some magical run with Fernandez throwing every fifth day, no matter how dominant he is.
And that is OK. The Marlins do not need to dominate with Fernandez around this season. The 2015 campaign is, once again, about evaluating for the future, and as long as the Marlins do not run down their young ace, it should be one of the few important and fun things to watch this year.