Jose Fernandez dazzled in his last start against the Washington Nationals, leading the Miami Marlins to a 6-1 win with a six-inning outing in which he gave up one run but also struck out nine batters. However, he did have one bad inning in the second, when he loaded the bases without a single hit allowed. All the way, he threw two wild pitches, hit a batter, and walked one man unintentionally. In total, three guys reached, two advanced further for free, and it required a nice strikeout of Michael Taylor to squeeze out of the inning without damage.
This has seemingly been a new problem for Fernandez this season. He has had a harder time apparently controlling his pitches than in previous years. The first place you see it in his walk rate, as he is posting a career-high 11.6 percent walk rate. You can also see that Fernandez is working himself into jams earlier in games, thus running up his pitch count. Miami is likely to keep Fernandez on a count of around 100 pitches, and through three starts, he has hit that total at just around six innings pitched. He has also run into fifth / sixth inning troubles during his starts that necessitated a quicker-than-expected pull.
At the same time, however, Fernandez's strikeout rate has been fantastic. Since whiffing 13 batters in his first outing, Fernandez has gone on to post an absurd 39.1 percent strikeout rate. Early on in the season, through just 16 innings, we are talking elite reliever-level strikeout rates; since 2013, only three relievers have posted a higher percentage of punchouts in baseball than Fernandez has. He is putting up Aroldis Chapman-like numbers but doing so pitching five to six innings at a spell!
The question has come up whether control and, perhaps more importantly, command of his pitches has been more of an issue. The easiest place for me to look at that immediately is in his zone percentages. If you figure that Fernandez has been wilder and throwing way out of the zone more often, it would show in his percentage of pitches in-zone versus out-of-zone. However, that is surprisingly not the case.
The zone rate is actually pretty similar to what it was last year, when Fernandez impressed in his return from Tommy John surgery. The differences that I am seeing are more in the bolded segments. After inducing a lot of swings on pitches outside the strike zone last year, Fernandez has had a much harder time getting those same errant swings. Batters have had a better eye for Fernandez's offerings, laying off of a lot more pitches overall. It should be noted that on pitches in the zone, his percentages are mildly increased from his career rate.
At the same time, the contact rate on his pitches is significantly lower. Batters are only making contact on 67 percent of pitches swung at, meaning that when Fernandez is inducing those swings, those pitches have been far out there and more difficult to hit. Ironically, the increase this season has been mostly on his fastball, which interestingly has been a little slower overall than it was last season. The fastball is getting whiffs on 33 percent of swings versus 24 percent from last year.
What does this all mean? The fact that Fernandez is getting fewer swings at pitches outside the zone points not to a control problem necessarily, but a command problem. You can see that in his fastball when you look at the location distributions from last year to this season.
It is obviously early, and he did face one matchup in which the overall handedness of the lineup influence where he threw the fastball more often, but the bottom line is that Fernandez has missed more often high in the strike zone. You can see that he has aimed there in 2016, but instead of hitting that upper inside corner to right-handed hitters (or up and away from lefties) he has let more fastball sail on him to unappealing areas for hitters. That shows that he is not hitting the corners like we would expect an expert starting pitcher to do. If those pitches are way out of the strike zone, they are unlikely to be swung at, even if the overall number of pitches in and out of the zone are about the same. Missing the corners is the difference between getting a tough swing from an unbalanced hitter and moving the count against your favor.
At the same time, is this what is helping him get less contact, being so out of the zone and unpredictable? Perhaps so. Fernandez has induced less contact on pitches in and out of the strike zone, so being further out of the zone has potentially helped his pitches. However, two things point against this. For one thing, there is at least a subjective claim that his Defector curveball has been having more difficulty in its movement. There seems to be about an inch less vertical "sink" on the pitch than there was last season, meaning its dipping less and thus hanging up more. More importantly, however, is the fact that the overall swinging strike rate for Fernandez is still the same. While he is getting more whiffs per swing, the decrease in swing rate has left the overall effectiveness of those pitches at what they were last season. In 2015, his overall swinging strike rate was at 13.3 percent; it is at 13.7 percent in 2016. Who cares if Fernandez is getting more swings to whiff when batters are laying off more pitches?
One could claim that this is a different, more radical approach for Fernandez. However, with the knowledge that his command seems to be off subjectively and decently objectively on his pitches so far, Miami fans have to be a little less enthused with the results. While Fernandez could be a fantastic pitcher even with this approach and relative lack of command, he would be far better off working as he did in his previous years, even if it at the expense of a slight decrease in whiff rate.