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Examining Jose Fernandez's return start for the Miami Marlins

Jose Fernandez finally made his return start, and while the raw runs allowed were not fantastic, it was a promising start to the 2015 season after Tommy John surgery.

It was all smiles for Jose Fernandez's first start back for the Marlins.
It was all smiles for Jose Fernandez's first start back for the Marlins.
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Jose Fernandez finally made his first start of the season, and the Miami Marlins won in taking the third and final game of a three-game series against the defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants. The Fish had to be happy that the crowd at Marlins Park was lively for an afternoon contest and that Fernandez pitched well enough to help the team win.

The "pitching well" portion is what is most important for Miami going forward. Like it or not, the raw run totals for Fernandez in his five rehab starts were mixed, but he did put up the sort of strikeout values that were expected of him. But the majors are a different ball game, and it was not necessarily easy to predict what might happen against a championship-caliber team like the Giants.

Fernandez still delivered in a big way.

Fernandez gave up three runs in six innings, but he also struck out six Giants with no walks to his name. More importantly, a few of the concerning things were reassured when watching him.

Bringing the Heat

You always have to wonder a little about the heater for a guy coming off of 13 months away from the field and with a serious elbow injury. Fernandez answered that question fairly quickly.

How does that answer it for you? According to Pitch F/X data from MLB Gameday, Fernandez had an average fastball velocity of 97.1 mph, which is an absurd number. It almost seems as though Fernandez was amped up in a major way for the start and was throwing as hard as he ever did before. Once Brooks Baseball filters those numbers to reflect velocity out of the hand (usually a little higher than the Pitch F/X velocity), that number is going to look even crazier.

The fastball was not exactly effective at inducing whiffs, as Fernandez only got three swings and misses. Perhaps once the hype dies down from the first start, he can better control the pitch. It was the only pitch that he threw that graded out better for the hitters during the start in terms of linear weights runs; Brooks Baseball calculates the fastball may have been worth 1.4 runs worse than average this start. Still, the velocity is promising.

The Defector

The Defector curveball, however, is a different story. Fernandez threw 27 of those pitches in his start, and they were as devastating as expected. Batters swung at 17 of those 27 pitches, and seven of those swings ended up with empty air. The Defector induced whiffs on a whopping 41 percent of swings, which is actually appropriate given his career 37 percent whiff rate on the pitch.

The curveball took care of almost all of the problems the fastball may have caused. While it was the fastball that yielded the seven hits the Giants had, the curve yielded almost nothing. The pitch was worth -1.5 runs compared to average according to linear weights runs. Only three of the 27 curves were taken for balls, while seven of Fernandez's curves were dropped in for called strikes. The pitch was impeccable once again.

It is amazing to me that this MLB Now Statcast piece was the first time I ever noticed how slider-like Fernandez's curveball is. It definitely has the sink more in line with curveball movement, as it dropped an average of three inches in terms of vertical break in his career. However, the pitch also features a substantial amount of slider-like break away from right-handers. Yesterday's Defectors were actually a lot closer to sliders in terms of even less sink compared to the average curveball; it only dipped 1.1 inches compared to the usual, while having its typical horizontal run. The MLB Now crew was talking about the sort of spin that it had, and I will admit that the grip made it look like it was spinning more horizontally rather than top-down like a typical curve like Clayton Kerhsaw's.

All of this is to say that the Defector is a unique pitch, and it is uniquely effective as well.

Home Run Swagger

As if we could not top the story of Fernandez's return any better. His abuela and his mother were there at field level. It was against the defending champs. Fernandez was touching 100 mph on the fastball early on. And of course, he returns to Marlins Park to deposit one in the seats as well.

I mean, how can you not fall in love with this story? Fernandez takes a mighty hack, all upper body, and takes Matt Cain, a former All-Star and no slouch of his own, deep before he is able to be pulled out of the game at 81 pitches. Fernandez loves hitting, and while I am a proponent of adding the DH to the National League, it is moments like these that are truly memorable when pitchers get a chance to hack it.

Fernandez's return to the big leagues was everything we could have expected and a little more with a touch of power. Sure, he could have shut the Giants down entirely, and the fastball is somewhere he needs to work on in terms of command, but the start felt like a great one. For a guy who is used to putting up dominant numbers, it was nice to see a strong set of K's with no walks and a hugely effective breaking pitch. The sweet pitcher swing is just icing on what was one hell of a cake for Marlins fans.