Oh, to be 20 years old againby Chad Dotson
September 13, 2013
Talk about going out in a blaze of glory.
Given that the Marlins had decided to limit Jose Fernandez to around 170 innings this season, everyone acknowledged that Wednesday’s start against Atlanta would be Fernandez’s final start of his rookie campaign. It’s difficult to imagine how the young right-hander could have created more of a stir in his last outing.
Fernandez was predictably great: seven innings, one run allowed on five hits, five strikeouts (but three walks). He got the win, which allowed him to finish the year at 12-6 with a 2.19 ERA, and he allowed just 22 runs over his final 18 starts. Even better, Fernandez hit the first homer of his career, off Mike Minor in the sixth inning. Of course, Fernandez stood at the plate and admired the homer, spit on third as he rounded the bases, and generally acted like a 21-year-old all game long, which caused the poor little Braves to get their feelings hurt and the benches emptied. An all-around fun evening.
Now that Fernandez’s rookie season is over, it isn’t too early to try to put that season in an historical context, is it?
Forget for a moment that Fernandez is a rookie. At this point, he is second in the majors in ERA (only Clayton Kershaw’s 1.92 is lower), third in strikeouts per nine innings (behind Yu Darvish and Max Scherzer), and seventh in FIP. As Dave Schoenfield noted, Fernandez also leads the big leagues in opponents' batting average (.182), slugging percentage (.265), and OPS (.522). That’s an outstanding season, no matter how you slice it.
Now consider that Fernandez has just completed his age-20 season. Yes, he actually turned 21 on July 31, but for the purposes of comparing players, this was considered his age-20 season. When you look at Fernandez within that context, all of a sudden, this is looking like a historically good year.
That 2.19 ERA, for example, is the fifth-lowest ERA of all-time, among 20-year-olds who qualified for the ERA title. Dwight Gooden’s 1.53 ERA in his brilliant 1985 season is the only recent performance that compares; the rest of the top five were in 1909 (Harry Krause, 1.39), 1908 (Walter Johnson, 1.65), and 1910 (Smoky Joe Wood, 1.69). There are some pretty good names in the top ten behind Fernandez, as well: Christy Mathewson (2.41, 1901), Babe Ruth (2.44, 1915), Fernando Valenzuela (2.48, 1981), Dennis Eckersley (2.60, 1975).
Okay, take a deep breath. I know, I’ve already shamelessly compared a rookie to no fewer than four Hall-of-Famers. I’m not saying Fernandez is going to be enshrined in Cooperstown. I'm not saying that yet, anyway. This season, however, keeps looking better the more we look at it.
Looking at pitcher’s WAR, Fernandez, with 6.3 wins above replacement, also ranks in the top five among pitchers in their age-20 season. Ahead of him on the list: Gooden (an astounding 12.1 bWAR), Bob Feller, Mathewson, and Bert Blyleven. Behind Fernandez, but also in the top ten, the names include Don Drysdale, Eckersley, and Johnson. Now we’re up to seven Hall-of-Famers I’ve mentioned in the same breath as a rookie pitcher for the Miami Marlins. Heresy, right?
It gets better. Adjusted ERA+? Fernandez is second only to Gooden. Opponents’ OPS allowed? Lowest since 1950 for a 20-year-old. Strikeout to walk ratio? Third, behind Gooden and Blyleven.
I think we’ve established that, while his season may not stack up to Gooden’s 1985, Fernandez compares very favorably to any other 20-year-old pitcher in baseball history. That’s high praise, indeed.
Let’s expand our examination, and see how Fernandez’s season compares to other rookie pitchers in baseball history. This is, perhaps, a bit unfair to Fernandez. After all, most starters don’t make their major league debuts until they have had more time to develop. Fernandez, on the other hand, had never pitched even one game above Single-A before making his major league debut back in April.
I’m going to say that again: Fernandez skipped Double-A and Triple-A entirely. Kudos to the Marlins for seeing that he was ready, and pushing him to the majors. I’m not sure very many organizations would have done that, even though, in retrospect, he was more than ready.
Fernandez’s 2.19 ERA ranks only 28th among rookie starters who qualified for the ERA title, but it’s the fourth-best since 1920 (the majority of those low ERAs were posted in the dead ball era, obviously). Only Dave Righetti (2.05, 1981), Stan Bahnsen (2.05, 1968), and Johnny Beazley (2.13, 1942) topped Fernandez.
In adjusted ERA+, Fernandez’s 177 is third all-time for a rookie, but the best since 1911. In WAR, he ranks in the top twenty; that seems low, given everything else I’ve spouted at you, but it’s largely a function of the fact that Fernandez pitched 60+ innings fewer than everyone ahead of him on the list. Of course, the Marlins made a concerted effort to limit Fernandez’s innings pitched, which is why we’re talking about his rookie season in the past tense, even though the season is ongoing.
I’m not going to tell you that I know what to expect from Fernandez next season. I know that he has serious velocity, breaking stuff that knows how and when to break, and a changeup that is often unhittable. I know he displays a joy when plying his craft that is often described as “disrespectful” by old-timers and cranky Atlanta Braves. And I know that he’s a boatload of fun to watch.
Permit me, if you will, to compare Fernandez to two fellow Cubans in the big leagues: Yasiel Puig and Aroldis Chapman. All three have been accused of not being respectful to the game, whatever that means. Chapman turns a somersault or two. Puig does...well, whatever Puig does. Fernandez admires his homer and smiles when he gives up a hit.
Are people serious with this nonsense criticism? I suggest that we sit back and enjoy the talent of these players, and if they want to have a little fun on the field, is that a crime? As I acknowledged above, I don’t know what’s next for Jose Fernandez. But I can’t wait to find out.
Chad Dotson is a contributor to ESPN’s SweetSpot blog and the founder of Redleg Nation. You can find him on Twitter as @dotsonc.