Before the 2016 season began, the Miami Marlins talked a lot about their concerns with Jose Fernandez. The young pitcher would be on an innings limit and a strict plan to avoid a ton of work. They wanted to be careful with such a tenuous and valuable asset coming off of Tommy John surgery. However, the Marlins also wanted Fernandez to work smarter this season and not go high-velocity, all-out effort all the time. Articles like this one about this new approach were abound before the season.
"We want to see him continue to pitch and continue to develop his weapons, where he’s not having to have the mentality that I’ve got to strike everybody out," [manager Don Mattingly] said. "There’s nothing wrong with having guy hit a ground ball early in the count. That’s what I’ve talked to him about. Hey, you don’t have to go full out, recoil [after every pitch]."
There was much discussion about Fernandez following the Marlins’ desired approach about pitching to contact and avoiding deep counts. There was an emphasis on not throwing at his absolute velocity all the time and trying to get strikeouts and instead focusing on staying low in the zone and perhaps inducing more groundouts for faster counts and fewer pitches.
This is a similar change to the one Chris Sale has undergone in Chicago.
[White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper] and Sale had a conversation about it in late November, with the idea that it would help Sale be more efficient and pitcher deeper in games. Sale has pitched at least seven innings in every start, with one eight-inning outing and one complete game. And he still has 32 strikeouts.
"Last year, he was throwing well, getting an awful lot of strikeouts, but sometimes that would add up to six innings, and another job of a starter is to take the bulk of a game," Cooper said. "This approach is wonderful because he's adding and subtracting (velocity). He's getting them to hit the first or second pitch, and if not, he's ahead in the count.
For Sale, the results are obvious. His strikeout rate is way down from even last season and his career before that. He is allowing a lot more contact, up to an 80 percent rate on pitches swung at. And yet while Sale is pitching well, it almost seems he is not pitching as well as he could be. Baseball Prospectus has him ranked third among starters in WARP, while FanGraphs has him ranked 12th.
Meanwhile, Fernandez’s go-around with this supposedly new approach has certainly not yielded the intended results. Batters are making hard contact on Fernandez’s pitches, in large part because they are only making contact in the middle of the strike zone. Meanwhile, despite this emphasis on contact, batters are making a lot less contact; Fernandez is in rarefied air in terms of contact in and out of the zone. Indeed, the "new approach" seems to almost be the polar opposite of what the Marlins intended; instead of inducing more contact, Fernandez seems to be getting less of it.
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The Marlins may have the reliever who gets put into play the least, but they also happen to have the starter who gets the least balls in play as well. Fernandez’s 54.6 percent rate of balls in play is the lowest in baseball and is one of three pitchers with a rate less than 60 percent.
Somehow, despite the fact that the Marlins emphasized an approach to get Fernandez to throw in the zone more and get ground ball outs, he has accomplished the polar opposite of that. He is throwing more strikeouts, more walks, and batters are making less contact. As for when hitters do make contact, the ground balls are actually down as compared to his career norms; Fernandez owns just a 39 percent ground ball rate as of right now. Again, this may be due to the fact that balls that may traditionally garner grounders for other pitchers are instead picking up whiffs or foul balls from an elite bat-misser like Fernandez.
This is all a good thing, by the way. This appears to be the next evolution of Jose Fernandez, as he moves from being a great strikeout hitter to a truly elite talent. It may have required more working out of the zone and a few more walks to get to that point. He may have also struggled with command early in the year, and that could have been in part due to trying to work a foreign contact-based approach. In the last month, Fernandez has certainly seemed more like himself. He struck 49 batters versus just two walks in his last five starts. He also still is posting a 57 percent rate of balls in play, maintaining that contact-free approach.
Marlins fans should be happy, as it seems Fernandez has found himself after some early troubles to start the year. Things are beginning to regularize for the Marlins ace, and he is enjoying some elite production en route to a sure-fire All-Star bid.