When Giancarlo Stanton steps into the box, there is a chance. There is a chance that with any given swing, the ball is going to fly out of the ballpark. All eyes turn to him when he gets announced. It’s can’t miss, appointment-viewing baseball.
That’s not to say that no one else on the team has above-average power potential; Justin Bour and Marcell Ozuna are both hitting home runs at unprecedented rates. But I’m never so certain that a home run could be hit when Bour or Ozuna are up as I am when Stanton digs in. It’s hard to say what it is; there’s just some intangible, unquantifiable aura that surrounds Stanton when he steps up to the plate — even when he’s in the deepest of slumps — that makes people anticipate a seemingly imminent home run. There’s always a chance.
In 2016, the Marlins had a different kind of chance. They had a lot of chances. Not chances for something as specific as home runs, but for wins. The Marlins had a chance to win every fifth day. The man responsible for giving the Marlins those chances was José Fernández.
They called it #JoséDay. As the sun would rise, and the person behind the Marlins twitter account woke up, he/she would immediately go to their phone, and tweet out: It’s #JoséDay. It meant that for that day’s game, José Fernández was slated to start for the Marlins.
That’s when it began; people on their way to work, kids at school, and Marlins fans everywhere would look forward to the Marlins taking the field. I know I certainly did; whenever I read that tweet, I knew the Marlins had a chance to win the game that day. It didn’t matter who they were playing; I knew that José Fernández was going to give the Fish a fighting chance to win the game. It made the Marlins into appointment-viewing baseball. “Sorry Mom, I can’t watch Jeopardy with the family tonight, José is on the mound.” It was an amazing feeling. It made the day easier, and it made being in front of the TV or at Marlins park at 7:05 that much more exciting.
Since we lost José, I have yet to feel that same feeling. That #JoséDay feeling. I’ve already said my peace on our pitching staff. We have a talented staff of pitchers, some with great upside and potential. But this season, when the starter takes the mound, I am usually at a loss for expectations. You just never know anymore. Is [insert pitcher here] going to go out and let up six runs by the fourth? Or is he going to go eight scoreless? Every game is a crap shoot. That wasn’t how it was when José Fernández was pitching.
Where do I start with José’s numbers? Out of four seasons, he only pitched a full workload in 2013 and 2016. José held a FIP and ERA under three in every season except 2013, when he had a 3.08 FIP. His park adjusted ERA- numbers were an absurd 60, 68, 77, and 71. His FIP-’s were an equally impressive at 75, 61, 60, and 58. His downward trend of FIP shows how increasingly dominant José Fernández became. In his final season, José pumped his K/9 up to a pretty ridiculous 12.49, while averaging just 2.71 BB/9. To put things in perspective, Chris Sale’s K/9 this season is 12.90.
Fernández’ K/9 and K% ranks second — behind Yu Darvish — among all qualified starters from 2013 to 2016 with 11.25 and 31.2 percent, respectively. From 2013 to 2016, his FIP and ERA also ranked second among all qualified starters, trailing only Clayton Kershaw. His .59 HR/9 ranks sixth amongst the same group.
No one in their right mind would attempt to refute the conclusion that in his day, José Fernández was one of the most dominant pitchers in the game. All sabermetrically-inclined stats illustrate that there was little to no flaws in Fernández’s game. If you played on a team with a name on the jersey other than “Marlins,” and you were matched up against José on his name-day, you were going to have your work cut out for you.
WPA Leaders among Qualified Starters 2013-2016
The table shows the MLB leaders in Win Probability Added among qualified starting pitchers from the years 2013 to 2016. Win Probability is calculated according to a team’s win expectancy. Based on information accumulated on run expectancy and other metrics, a team’s chances of winning a single baseball game can be calculated with any in-game event. At the beginning of a game, each team’s win expectancy begins at 50 percent, from which it progressively increases or decreases with every play in the game.
Win Probability Added for a game reflects how much a player increased or decreased his team’s chances of winning. Over the season, the game totals are added into a season-long WPA. For a batter, the cumulative impact of his at-bats, fielding, and baserunning is added up to discern his WPA. For a pitcher, although NL pitchers’ limited play as batters/baserunners is also included, the bulk of their performance on the mound is what constitutes their WPA. Although one can ultimately get to the number by adding and subtracting from WPA with every independent play on a per game basis, statistical databases can divide WPA up into Win Advancement (WPA+) — made of all of a player’s positive contributions to win percentage — and subtract from that number a player’s negative contributions, his Loss Advancement (WPA-).
This adds a quantifiable nature to the assertion that José being on the mound always “gave the Marlins a chance to win.” The first noticeable takeaway is that José had pitched far fewer innings than many of the players on the list — almost half as much as most players. Yet despite the lack of innings, José ultimately improved the Marlins’ probability of winning more than all but eight pitchers.
A statistical caveat to this assertion is that because José’s sample size is smaller than other pitchers’, there is less time for his consistency to waiver. This may be true, but the point still holds true: there is statistical proof to support the fact that Fernández improved the Marlins’ odds of winning more than almost any other pitcher. If we divide José’s WPA by the 76 games that he started, we find that he averaged a WPA of .12 per game; this means that over his career, just by taking the bump, José generally moved the needle by 12 percent for the Marlins by the time he was removed from a game.
Perhaps the hallmark of José Fernández’s career, however, was his performance at Marlins Park. During his time, José Fernández shared the title of “Mr. 305” because of his record at home: 29-2.
The “win” statistic for the pitcher is currently one of the most maligned statistics around, and for good reason. Its dictation by arbitrary rules that involve too many factors outside of the control of a pitcher progressively detracts from its predictive value. A starter needs to pitch at least five innings and leave the game with his team in the lead in order to earn a win.
With that said, if the pitcher does leave the game after five innings with the lead intact, but the bullpen blows the lead after his departure, he will not be credited with the win. Furthermore, a pitcher can throw a complete game without allowing a run, but if a pitcher’s offense also fails to score a run, and the opposing team scores after the starter’s departure, the starter will again fail to be credited with a win. There are many situations in which starters can make a “quality” start, without garnering a “win.” For predictive purposes, I agree with all of these sentiments; for the purpose of evaluating a pitcher’s worth, there are better statistics to be used.
Nevertheless, I believe José’s 29-2 home record is incredibly illustrative of his significance in his time with us. Overall, José started 42 games at home over his four years with the Marlins; that means that he did not receive a decision in 11 other games at Marlins Park. In those 11 no-decisions, the Marlins went 6-5, bringing the Marlins’ overall record to 35-7 in games at home where José Fernández started. While the five extra losses makes the W-L less glamorous than 29-2, the fact remains that the Marlins won 83% of their games at home that José Fernández started.
This is what having a starter like José Fernández is all about. This is what having a chance is all about. José Fernández brought so many different assets out to the mound with him every fifth day. At the most basic level, he had all of the tools to dominate a lineup: an upper-90s heater and a curveball so good it received its own nickname, “The Defector.”
But again, there is something more than just being a good pitcher that made José appointment-viewing baseball. There was something beyond the numbers — something about José’s demeanor that made people feel certain that they were going leave Marlins Park with a smile on #JoséDay. He wasn’t going to come out and paint corners, try and work ahead, maybe force some soft contact, etc. When he took the mound, he had full intentions of coming out and dominating, pounding the zone with some spicy cheddar, and then buckling hitters at the knees with the curveball.
The best part about José is that no one in the game has, or had, a better time trying to do so. There just isn’t a pitcher today so intent on dominating, and that has as much fun in a game as José did. Often times, players aren’t even allowed to talk to such a pitcher in the dugout. José Fernández dominated, and he made it look easy and fun to do so. That’s what made his games so special.
Over the next couple of days, there will be more articles about José, given the one-year anniversary of his untimely passing. I decided to take this angle, because much will already be said about more meaningful topics, like his legacy and his character. I wanted to write about the baseball effect José had on the Marlins, shedding some light on the effect his death has had on the team. Overall, José ultimately was valued at an fWAR of 13.9 wins over his four years; an average fWAR of 3.475 wins per season.
Fernández’ spot in the rotation has largely been occupied by a revolving door of replacement-level starters. The WAR theory has been applied in practice this season, and it’s not outlandish to posit that just by taking José out of the equation, and replacing him with a replacement level player, the Marlins have lost at least 3.475 wins this season. So I think it’s fair for Marlins fans to feel like they got a raw deal. Accounting for a player’s death is something that no team or fanbase is prepared to do. It’s apparent that the Marlins have had a hard time compensating for losing José’s performance on the field.
But on a more personal level, I miss the feeling of #JoséDay. I miss it badly. I miss that every-fifth-day feeling that the Marlins had as good a chance as anyone to tack another W to their record. I’m sure the players do too. That’s why I think José’s win-loss record bears weight here; although there’s no way to statistically account for something as intangible as the players’ morale when José was on the mound, it is possible that the hitters fed off of José’s energy and potential, and rose to the occasion to help him secure the win. That’s the effect that José had. As far as he could help it, in his 42 home games, José could only take credit for the loss twice. That’s a remarkable statistic.
José Fernández was more than a baseball player. The numbers illuminated in this article don’t and shouldn’t define his memory. He occupied so many other roles more important than pitcher: father, boyfriend, symbol of freedom for Cuban refugees, role model to young ballplayers everywhere, and more.
Still, every fifth day, José Fernández poured his heart and soul into his craft on the mound. That’s why #JoséDay meant so much to me. Every fifth day, José was going to put Miami on his back, and take the city out to the mound with him. And he never crumbled under the pressure; much the opposite, he lived up to expectations. Every fifth day, the Marlins had a chance — José Fernández gave us that chance.
José — we miss you more than you know. You left a mark on me, Marlins Nation, and baseball fans everywhere. You made every fifth day bigger than baseball, and for that, we thank you.