Yesterday, Jose Fernandez struck out 12 batters in a Miami Marlins win over the Tampa Bay Rays. The Fish took the Citrus Series over the Rays with three wins in four games and won that final contest 9-1 with Jose Fernandez on the mound. Fernandez's 12 strikeouts put him at 90 strikeouts for the season, which is second in all of baseball behind only Clayton Kershaw. Fernandez's 2.82 ERA and 2.31 FIP put him right back in familiar grounds in terms of performance over his career.
Interestingly, Fernandez and Kershaw, the runner-up and winner of the Cy Young award in 2013 respectively, are closer to each other than even those strikeout numbers make them seem. Both are whiffing batters at huge rates, but take a look at the split of their contact rates in and out of the strike zone.
You can see while the other top whiffers are doing well, Fernandez and Kershaw are at a different level in 2016. Both players are at the top of the leadeborads in contact rate both in and out of the strike zone. Specifically, when you look at out-of-zone rates, Kershaw and Fernandez are the only ones around 40 percent; the next best rate for starting pitchers in the league is at 49 percent.
Strikeouts are at a higher rate in our era now than they were at before, so it is hard to compare just how well Fernandez and Kershaw are doing in terms of their whiffing performance. But just how often has this kind of season come up recently? Taking a look at all seasons within the Pitch F/X era since 2008, there are only three full seasons (qualified for the ERA title) in which a starter posted a contact rate below 70 percent. Among the top ten seasons include strikeout artists like Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, and Chris Archer.
However, when you look at the season with the lowest out-of-zone contact rates, the border becomes 46 percent. Only seven pitcher-seasons in this era have ever posted a contact rate on out-of-zone pitches below 50 percent. That includes a Cy Young-winning season from Corey Kluber, Kershaw's most recent 2015 campaign, and Yu Darvish's successful sophomore campaign. Needless to say, for a starter going all-out for long periods of time over the grueling course of a season, missing this many bats is hard to do.
If we include Fernandez with the top ten strikeout artists since 2014, only Kershaw and Fernandez have contact rates on out of zone pitches below 50 percent. Kluber and teammate Carlos Carrasco are at 52 percent, and the next best pitcher is at 57 percent.
The zone contact rates are more evenly matched between these elite strikeout talents, but Kershaw and Fernandez are both the highest level for this as well. Both pitchers are essentially tied with Chris Sale and David Price at around 81 to 82 percent contact rate in the zone. Scherzer has the best mark at 80 percent. Scherzer seems to be the guy who best maximizes this aspect of whiffs, as he owns three of the ten best seasons in lowest in-zone contact rate since 2008.
However, when you look at the combination of both high levels of in and out-of-zone contact, Kershaw and Fernandez stand above the rest. No pitcher owns a season with both an out-of-zone contact rate below 50 percent and an in-zone rate below 70 percent. Beyond that, no one owns a rate even close to the ones Kershaw and Fernandez are throwing up now, which are closer to 40 percent than 50 percent on outside pitches. And they are both doing this at previously-unheard of rates. These kinds of contact rates are more commonly seen with relievers who have to face an inning's worth of hitters at a time, and even then, there have only been 14 seasons with a contact rate on out-of-zone pitches below 40 percent since 2008. These two aces have done in two months what only 14 pitchers have done in several years, spanning a similar amount of innings pitched!
What is the difference between Fernandez and Kershaw right now? Kershaw is getting about average swing rates at 51 percent, but he is inducing more out-of-zone swings than Fernandez. Hitters have laid off of Fernandez's pitches more often, leading to a 28 percent swing rate on those out of the zone. To combat that, Fernandez's pitches have been so confusing with his new approach that hitters are not offering in the zone either; he has a 59 percent in-zone swing rate. While the confusion on when to swing is not as bad for hitters as it has been for guys like Aaron Nola or Felix Hernandez, this is encouraging as well. Not swinging at a pitch in the strike zone is always a strike.
Fernandez still has some improvement to go as an overall pitcher, but this new approach has not hurt him this year. He has looked dominant in this latest stretch, and the strikeouts are pouring in at an astonishing rate. If he and Kershaw keep this up, the race for the Cy Young award might get really crowded this year.