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Jose Fernandez having one of the best Marlins pitching seasons ever

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Jose Fernandez is closing in on finishing one of the best Marlins pitching seasons in team history. With whom does he stack up?

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at Miami Marlins Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Jose Fernandez takes the mound tonight to face the Atlanta Braves in the finale of a three-game set. It figures to be his 28th start of the season, which would match his rookie season total. Barring a bad start, he looks to surpass his season innings total from that 2013 campaign, thus putting behind the struggle to return to the bigs full time after Tommy John surgery. If he pitches well, he would also continue a not-surprising run of one of the best seasons for a starting pitcher in Miami Marlins team history.

We already know that Fernandez is the Marlins’ seasonal strikeout king. His 238 strikeouts this season is the most a Marlins pitcher has ever thrown in one year, and he likely has at least one more start under his belt before the Marlins decide to shut him down. Strikeouts are not the be-all, end-all of great seasons, but having a whole bunch of them helps out.

Player, Season IP Strikeouts K%
Jose Fernandez, 2016 167 1/3 238 34.2
Ryan Dempster, 2000 226 1/3 209 21.5
Kevin Brown, 1997 237 1/3 205 21.0
Anibal Sanchez, 2011 196 1/3 202 24.3
Al Leiter, 1996 215 1/3 200 22.3

You can see that this season is already historic in a strikeout sense, as no player has ever reached the sort of strikeouts achievement that Fernandez has in a Marlins uniform. The remaining 200-strikeout seasons in team history were achieved with good high innings counts and consistent strike-throwing prowess; guys with nasty stuff and great command like Kevin Brown will reach that kind of plateau simply by throwing a large number of innings. Fernandez’s 34.2 percent rate, however, is first in Marlins history by a country mile. No other pitcher has posted a rate higher than 27.5 percent in a season with over 100 innings, and the guy who comes up next on the list is 2013 Jose.

Again, strikeouts alone do not a season make, which is why the list of the best seasons in Marlins history are not just the best K-campaigns. However, it is the way Fernandez has made his way into that discussion.

Player, Season IP K% BB% ERA FIP Avg WAR
Kevin Brown, 1996 233 17.6 3.8 1.89 2.88 7.2
Kevin Brown, 1997 237 1/3 21.0 6.8 2.69 2.94 7.2
Josh Johnson, 2010 183 2/3 25.0 6.5 2.30 2.41 6.6
Josh Johnson, 2009 209 22.3 6.8 3.23 3.06 6.4
Dontrelle Willis, 2005 236 1/3 17.7 5.7 2.63 2.99 6.1
Jose Fernandez, 2016 167 1/3 34.9 7.8 2.90 2.27 5.3
Jose Fernandez, 2013 172 2/3 27.5 8.5 2.19 2.73 5.2

I imagine that if Jose Fernandez pitched a full campaign instead of losing out on several innings and skipping a few starts this year, his season may have turned out close to as well as one of Kevin Brown’s two dominant campaigns with the Miami Marlins. It is easy to forget all so long ago that Brown had a sustained stretch in the late 1990’s as one of the best pitchers in baseball, topped off by a record-breaking free agent contract at the time for a pitcher. Not only did Brown go toe-to-toe and deserved a Cy Young award victory in 1996, but he also helped carry the 1997 Marlins to the franchise’s first World Series. One year later, he almost single-handedly dragged the 1998 San Diego Padres to the World Series with an all-time pitching season performance. His 1998 campaign was the sixth-ranked season since 1993 by FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement. In those two years with the Marlins, Brown’s ERA was a monstrous 44 percent better than the league average.

Seriously, Kevin Brown deserved a lot more credit than he received from the Hall of Fame voters of the BBWAA. He deserved more recognition.

Brown did all of those amazing things without a ton of strikeouts and in one of the hitter-friendliest environments in baseball history. Josh Johnson did his work against a pretty big challenge of his own, one with which Fernandez is quite familiar. Johnson started nine games in 2008 after recovering from Tommy John surgery, much like Fernandez did in 2015 coming off the injury in 2014 (he started 11 games). The following season Johnson threw a career-high 209 innings in one of two fantastic Cy Young-caliber seasons. That year, Johnson racked up the innings but was a balanced weapon with plenty of strikeouts and a paucity of walks. Still, his more impressive year was in 2010, when he led all National League starters in ERA but missed the tail end of the year with a shoulder ailment. Despite a six-win season for the Fish, Johnson was just fifth in the Cy Young award voting.

The last great season of a Marlins starter on this list was Dontrelle Willis’s Cy Young runner-up campaign in 2005, one in which he lost to St. Louis Cardinals starter Chris Carpenter in a deserving season. Willis racked up 22 pitcher wins that year, which led the National League but was not enough to entice the voters.

This list excludes some four- to five-win campaigns that are worth noting, including seasons by Carl Pavano (2004), A.J. Burnett (2002, 2005), and Josh Beckett (2005). However, these are the gold standard seasons of great play for Marlins starters, and Fernandez is not terribly far away from them. He has been better than he was in 2013, when he was runner-up in the Cy Young award and won Rookie of the Year with a revelation of a season. This year, he has upped the ante in terms of strikeouts and is mowing down batters at an all-time rate, as he owns the third-highest strikeout rate in a single season by a starter since 1993. Fernandez’s 2016 season is currently flanked in strikeouts by only seasons by Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson! That is quite the company to keep.

However, what ultimately will hold Fernandez back is durability. Johnson held a better ERA, which helped in the Baseball-Reference formulation of WAR included in our above average, than Fernandez does this season, especially when you consider the still-decently high scoring environment. Pitching has gotten harder now with the increase in the home run again in baseball, but Fernandez’s runs allowed are still a little high to make for an all-time Marlins season. Just as importantly if not more so, however, was the fact that Fernandez will probably not reach beyond 180 innings this year, leaving him at a disadvantage versus workhorses like Brown and Willis. Still, with another good start or two, it is possible he approaches a six-win campaign, and that would put his 2016 season amid the pantheon of great Marlins pitcher years.