A couple of weeks ago, we discussed whether Jose Fernandez was being wild or effectively wild in pitching for the Miami Marlins this season. He was throwing fewer pitches around the edges of the strike zone and more of them were missing with enough width that hitters were not offering at the pitch. At the same time, however, Fernandez was also getting whiffs at a rate similar to last season overall, and when hitters were swinging at pitches this year, they have been missing more often than usual.
After last night's 11-strikeout performance in a shutout effort over seven innings, it is fair to wonder if this is an appropriate evolution for Fernandez. His walk rate is higher, but so is his strikeout rate, and the overall numbers are pointing in a decent direction.
Fernandez is depending a little more on preventing home runs, but his rate is not entirely worse than it was last season. The big difference still remains in the strikeout and walk rates, but as you can see, the performance is still at a high level. So is this going to be an good new norm for Fernandez?
It is perhaps still early to tell. Part of the reason why Fernandez's is boasting a 3.54 ERA to go with his better defense-independent ERA predictors is that he has a .360 BABIP. Given that pitchers rarely host values that high, it seems unlikely to continue and a better sign that Fernandez's production is still good. After all, the lowest defense-independent win metric has Fernandez at 0.7 wins this season in seven starts, a 3.1-win pace. Baseball Prospectus, which uses its own DRA metric that accounts for "hits allowed" in its metric as compared to an average team with similar defense, and FanGraphs, which uses FIP that does not account for hits allowed, both have Fernandez at around 1.2-1.4 wins. That is a pace of 5.7 wins in 180 innings. Things seem to be looking appropriate.
At the same time, Fernandez has allowed harder-hit balls than previously expected of him. In 2015, the average batted ball off of Fernandez traveled at 88.8 mph. However, this season that number is up to 91.5 mph. That number should be a reasonably appropriate estimate of Fernandez's skill level over this period of time, according to analysis by Russell Carleton of Baseball Prospectus. If that is the case, Fernandez is allowing harder-hit balls than before, and that change is real. That cannot be good, right?
You can see immediately why he is allowing those harder-hit balls. Take a look at the heat maps from 2015 and 2016 in terms of batted balls.
Fernandez is at about half of the batted balls that he recorded last season, but a huge difference is obvious on the charts. Most of the contact against Fernandez this season has been in a batter sweet spot, right at the center of the strike zone. There is barely any fair contact higher in the strike zone, and the heatmap shows that a lot less contact is being made at the edges of the zone compared to last year. And it is not as though hitters are also fouling the ball off more, as his overall foul ball rate has dropped from 18 percent last year to 16 percent.
No, hitters simply are laying off more pitches than they did last season, much like discussed before. A quick look at his swing and contact numbers shows why Fernandez has done well despite that this year.
The lack of swings is difficult, but the overall whiffs are still high. The reason for that is that when hitters are swinging at outside pitches, they are missing at an enormous rate. However, that appears to be relatively unsustainable for starting pitchers. When you look at starters from 2013 to 2016, the lowest contact rate on pitches outside the strike zone was 49.5 percent. Even the very best pitchers were recording rates around 50 percent, like Clayton Kershaw, Yu Darvish, Corey Kluber, and, well, Jose Fernandez. Fernandez's current rates match the kinds you see with elite relievers, guys who are throwing an inning or so guaranteed and all-out. Andrew Miller posted the lowest rate among qualified relievers at 40 percent.
The likelihood that Fernandez will continue to miss bats at this rate is highly unlikely. Combined with the harder-hit exit velocities, it is still a little concerning that Fernandez is posting these sorts of numbers. He is succeeding thus far, but this may be an unsustainable model. It may be best if Fernandez can get back to the gameplan closer to the 2014 campaign. The good news is that pitchers adapt quickly and may be able to make changes to this approach fairly quickly.