The Miami Marlins are turning to their ace Jose Fernandez for another strong performance in 2016 after having spent more than a year off the field recovering from Tommy John surgery. That surgery was done in late May of 2014 and kept Fernandez out until June of 2015, but when he returned, he appeared to be firing on all cylinders.
The question of maintaining Fernandez's health will be critical, and that is why Miami is working on an innings limit for the righty. But will the stuff post-injury play up at ace level in 2016? Here we take a look at the 2015 data post-Tommy John surgery and create a Pitch F/X scouting report.
Pitch F/X: The Basics
The essential repertoire has not changed from 2013 to now, which is a positive sign for Fernandez and the Marlins. One would be concerned for the Fish if Fernandez had suffered a decrease in velocity or break on his Defector curveball, but it appears that Fernandez lost nothing after recovery. His fastball's exit velocity was recorded at 96.1 mph in 2013, and last year it was listed at 96.7 mph. If anything, he gained velocity, although this could be a consequence of the timing of his pitches (pitches are naturally faster midseason).
The Defector breaking ball does appear a tad different mechanically, but not in a necessarily detrimental fashion. His 2013 curve had more sink and dropped further down, with a three-inch negative vertical break. The Defector last season had only a one-inch negative vertical break, making it look and behave a little more like a hard-riding slider moving away from righties. In fact, there is not any pitch in baseball quite like it, which is why MLB's studio team called it a slider (and rightfully so given its heavy break) even though it has been classically referred to as a curve (given its heavy sink). The pitch is unique, and it remains apparently dominant.
The changeup is an added specialty for Fernandez. With his heavy breaking ball, one might think it was OK to just go with two pitches with great command all around or out of the zone, but Fernandez threw a wrinkle in against lefties, and he has been using it more and more often versus righties as well. It has heavy arm-side movement towards righties but also fantastic sink, and his arm movement makes it appear very similar to the fastball. The velocity difference is at eight mph, which is ideal for a changeup.
The "sinker" that is listed there is also an intriguing pitch. It appears to clearly be a different pitch than his fastball; when you look at the breakdown of its use versus lefties and righties, you can see that he almost exclusively uses it versus left-handed hitters. This is not typical of a sinker, which is usually a pitch that gets thrown versus same-handed hitters. It also boasts very similar arm side movement and little less sink than the changeup. It is almost as though he is throwing a "fast changeup" with more break away from lefties. Perhaps this is some sort of change of pace fastball that he has.
Pitch F/X: Performance Metrics
|Curve / Defector||1.5||53.7||42.3||52||42.3||.340||.423|
There are few if any pitches in baseball that may be better than Fernandez's Defector. The curve or slider or whatever you want to call was completely dominant last season, much like it was in 2013 and 2014. Fernandez posted a 42.3 percent whiff rate on the pitch, and it induced lots of swings. Batters were enticed to hack at it 54 percent of the time, which was a career high for Fernandez. When they swung, they rarely made contact; the Defector was on par with Clayton Kershaw's slider and curveball and better than Chris Sale's slider in terms of whiff rate in 2015. That is elite pitch company, the kind of rarefied air that inspires articles full of GIFs just like this one.
But movement is one thing, and a guy can throw a pitch down and away on another player all day if that was the only function of the pitch. What makes the Defector so dangerous is that not only is it a nasty out pitch in terms of movement, but it has that curveball facet of being able to be placed in the zone for strikes. Fernandez will throw the Defector at any time in the count; he threw it 34 percent of the time versus righties on the first pitch, but 31 percent when he fell behind in the count. He had good reason for it; somehow, with all of this movement, Fernandez's ratio of balls to called strikes with the Defector was very close to his fastball's. That is absurd for a player who is throwing a heavy breaker of a pitch with such sweeping motion. He is dropping it in the strike zone with ease and making batters flinch.
That was from 2014, but the point still stands; Fernandez has full command of the Defector in every form.
It is almost silly that we even have to talk about a second pitch beyond the ridiculous Defector, but Fernandez's fastball makes his entire game tick. He threw it about 50 percent of the time last season, which was his normal ratio in the years before as well. It maintained its fantastic velocity, and hitters had a hard time knowing what to do with it. They hacked at it about half the time, but they whiffed on 23 percent of those chances. That is similar to the whiff rate from 2014, when Fernandez upped his strikeout rate above and beyond elite starter levels. That is also when the velocity of the pitch ticked up to 96.6 mph. It may be a simple correlation; Fernandez started throwing the fastball harder, so hitters naturally could not make contact. Of course, Fernandez also worked the zone expertly, leading to one of the higher zone percentage rates among baseball's elite starters.
The remaining pitches need work, but the changeup is already a plus pitch at this stage and looks bad only compared to one of the best fastballs and one of the best pitches in the game. It too was getting whiffs, and Fernandez has decent control over it. The slower "two-seam" fastball needs definitive work, but it was a small sample of pitches.
As always with these reports, I will offer grades for each pitch using the traditional 20-80 scouting scale. The scale is normalized to have 50 be average and every 10 points above or below that represents one standard deviation.
Four-seam fastball (70): This is perhaps one of the better fastballs in baseball. It is one of the top velocity weapons in the game among starters, it induces a significant number of swings and misses, and it shows off elite control of the zone and command. Fernandez can throw the fastball anywhere and hitters will have a hard time catching up.
Two-seam fastball (40): Too little information to count. It's an intriguing idea, but we need more data.
Changeup (55): The changeup is definitely plus. If this were any other pitcher, we would probably be pretty happy with what it does, but because Fernandez has two elite pitches, it is harder to make that fair assessment.
Defector (80): One of probably five to seven starting pitcher true 80-pitches, and perhaps the best one. It is unique in movement only to Fernandez, with a breaking profile that baffles the mind. It works equally versus lefties and righties. It can be thrown for strikes anywhere and to any side with deadly accuracy. Also, no one can hit it.
Jose Fernandez, when he is healthy and throwing those elite pitches, is truly one of the best starters in baseball. I cannot wait to watch him work this season.