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Jose Fernandez is OK with this new approach

One Marlins superstar may be struggling right now, but Jose Fernandez seems to be adapting to this new gameplan.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Giancarlo Stanton may be struggling, but I think Fish Stripes has discussed him plenty for the time being. We will revisit his question towards the end of the month. The team's other superstar, however, has been doing just fine it seems. Jose Fernandez posted another strong start, striking out nine batters in six innings in his start on Saturday against the Washington Nationals. He gave up just one run in that outing and dropped his ERA down to 3.09 after an ugly start to the season. However, that strikeout-heavy approach has helped his defense-independent pitching value stay high, and Fernandez has looked great in each of the different Wins Above Replacement metrics. He is tied for eighth in all of baseball among starting pitchers in terms of FanGraphs WAR, third in Baseball Prospectus's WARP, and he is averaging 1.7 wins across the three major WAR metrics.

As we mentioned earlier last month, Fernandez's approach has been different in 2016. He is throwing a little more out of the strike zone, but his command has been slightly off compared to before. He was appearing to hit his spots on the borders of the zone a little less, and that led to fewer swings at bad pitches just a tad out of the zone. Those out-of-zone pitches were flying even further out on Fernandez, causing fewer swings out of the strike zone. That is still occurring to a degree; the 30 percent out-of-zone swing rate would still be the lowest career mark he has put up in some time.

However, that has at least improved since that article. At the time of that writing, Fernandez's out-of-zone swing rate was at 25 percent, and it only took him a few starts to bump it back up to 30 percent of the month of April. He has continued that trend in May as well.

It does seem, however, that he has settled into a new style in which he works a little more wildly out of the zone, leading to more walks and more strikeouts. The concern early in the year was that that would be less beneficial for him, and that may still be the case; there may still be a middle ground where Fernandez gets a still-high number of strikeouts and can cut down the walks to a more beneficial degree. But that is not to say that this current approach is by any means a negative, because Fernandez has been excellent in every defense-independent measure. We already mentioned that he ranks highly in Baseball Prospectus's and FanGraphs's wins metrics.

Why is this? So far, the strikeout increase has made up for the increase in walks. Fernandez leads the league in strikeout rate, whiffing a whopping 36 percent of batters faced so far this season. Generating that many guaranteed outs on pitcher results is fantastic. His overall strikeout-walk rate differential is also increased, as that 24.9 percent differential is the highest in his career. If we look at the runs above/below average that Fernandez has put up just on strikeouts and walks alone, we can see that this difference is among the best in his career.

Fernandez, Career K% BB% Runs/700 BF
2013 27.5 8.5 -32.7
2014 34.2 6.3 -49.3
2015 29.8 5.3 -43.5
2016 35.9 11.1 -43.0

The ratio is essentially as efficient as it was last season, when he walked just 5.3 percent of batters but struck out nearly 30 percent of them. Both approaches from 2015 and 2016 were better than what Fernandez did in 2013 in his rookie year, a season in which he finished (a distant) second in the Cy Young award voting. Needless to say, Fernandez is still pitching at a high level despite the increased walks.

The other concern, however, is the fact that this approach that gets more strikeouts and walks more batters does tend to extend pitch counts and thus decrease Fernandez's innings count. Noah Syndergaard is the second-ranked pitcher in baseball in terms of FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus wins metrics, and he has thrown a little more than six innings more than Fernandez in the same number of starts. If both guys pitched 30 starts, that would be worth 20 more innings from one pitcher to another.

Wins metrics do count innings as important, as playing time is compared to a similar amount of time played by a replacement-level player. How much value do those 20 innings hold? If we take Fernandez's projection of about a 2.70 ERA and compare that to a replacement-level starting pitcher, expected to have around a 5.10 ERA, we might see a different of around a quarter-run per inning. In 20 innings, that's worth about almost five runs, which is a little more than half a win.

Fernandez is averaging about six innings per start with this approach. However, oddly enough, last season with a different strikeout/walk distribution, he averaged about the same number of innings per start. That may, however, have been due to the Marlins working him up slowly in terms of pitch counts on a per-start basis. If he were to pitch the same number of innings per start as he did in the 2014 season, when he averaged just over 6 1/3 frames per start, he might 193 2/3 innings in 30 starts as opposed to the 180 innings he would currently reach. The added 13 2/3 innings would only be worth almost 3.5 runs over a Quad-A veteran starting pitcher.

If Fernandez continues to pitch at this particular pace, he would finish the season with almost 180 innings and about 5.6 wins. If he pitches closer to what FanGraphs is expecting of him, he might finish up with 5.1 wins. Either way, it would be an All-Star caliber season for a guy on an innings limit. At the same time, there is still something to be said for constant improvement, and there appears to be room for it here with Fernandez. But that improvement would be from going from a top-ten Major League starter to the elite tier we know Fernandez can reach.