As spring training gave way to the regular season, the Marlins turned some heads when they announced that Jose Fernandez had made the team. No, not just made the team, but that he wasn’t even an injury replacement for Henderson Alvarez or Nathan Eovaldi — he was here to stay. Yesterday, he made his debut, and he made quite an impact. The debut was arguably one of the best for a pitcher of his age in baseball history.
Just 20 years old, Fernandez won’t turn 21 until the non-waiver trading deadline. Drafted by the Marlins with the 14th overall pick in the 2011 first-year player draft, Fernandez becomes the fourth player chosen in that draft’s first two rounds to debut in the majors after Trevor Bauer, Dylan Bundy and Jackie Bradley Jr. He signed early enough in ’11 to get into two games, one with the Gulf Coast League Marlins and one with the short-season Jamestown Jammers. It was just 4.1 innings though, and as such expectations were tempered nationally heading into 2012. Fernandez placed third on the Marlins’ top prospects list at Baseball America, and both our Marc Hulet and ESPN’s Keith Law had him second behind Christian Yelich on theirs, but neither BA, Hulet nor Law ranked Fernandez as a top-100 prospect.
That would change heading into this season, and with good reason. The Marlins challenged the 19-year-old with a spot in the South Atlantic League, and he was one of just 13 teenage pitchers to rack up 70 innings in the SAL last season. There were a few big names among those 13 pitchers, but Fernandez’s 1.78 FIP and 1.59 ERA were the best of the group. In fact, they were the best marks of all 94 pitchers to toss at least 70 innings in the league period, with his ERA being nearly a full run better than second-place finisher Tyler Anderson. Fernandez then moved to High-A Jupiter, where he kept on dominating. He would toss just 55 innings in the Florida State League, and was the only teenage pitcher to do so. There, his 2.15 FIP was second among those who tossed at least 50 innings in the FSL, and his 1.96 ERA placed fourth, though the pitcher who bettered him in FIP was 24, and the pitchers who bettered him in ERA were ages 22, 25 and 22, respectively.
Simply put, Fernandez was on fire. Heading into this season, he placed fifth on BA’s top 100 prospect list, eighth on Hulet’s and 16th on Law’s, giving him one of the most meteoric rises from ’12 to ’13. And now he’s in the majors. Since 1983, only 40 players aged 20 or younger have made their major league debut as a starting pitcher, and it’s not hyperbole to say that Fernandez’s start yesterday was one of the very few that can be considered the best of that group.
In his outing yesterday, Fernandez tossed five innings and 80 pitches — the Marlins will keep him on a loose innings count of 150-175 this season, so low innings totals per start are nothing to be alarmed about — and according to Brooks Baseball, featured a fairly balanced four-pitch mix. He featured his four-seamer and curve most frequently, but mixed in enough changeups and sinkers to keep hitters honest. He worked mostly off of his fastball when behind in the count, and exclusively off of his fastball and curve once he got to two strikes on a hitter. Both pitches were incredibly impressive. He touched 97 on the four-seamer, and averaged 94.8 mph with the pitch according to Pitchf/x and 95.6 according to Brooks. Either way, his velocity puts him in league with Stephen Strasburg, Jeff Samardzija and Brandon Morrow for fastest fastball velocity by a starter a week into the season. Perhaps most impressive is the fact that he was able to freeze both left-handed and right-handed hitters with his curveball — Lucas Duda, Ike Davis and David Wright all walked back to the dugout with the bat on their shoulders after watching Fernandez’s curve drop into the zone for strike three.
In all, Fernandez allowed just one run on three hits and a walk. That alone would have put Fernandez on the short list for best debut start for a 20-year-old in the past 30 years. Of the 40 pitchers on the list, only six worked five innings and allowed three hits or less — Jeff D’Amico, Matt Cain, Dwight Gooden, Felix Hernandez, CC Sabathia and Jacob Turner. But Fernandez upped the ante by striking out eight of the 19 hitters he faced, for a silly 42% K%. No one else on our debut list struck out eight, and only three — Clayton Kershaw, Oliver Perez and Kerry Wood — struck out seven. From a holistic perspective, we find that Fernandez’s 64 game score ties him with Edwin Jackson for fifth-place on this list all-time:
You’ll recognize a lot of the names on this list, in which I included the top 20, and then the players on this list that is currently pitching or just recently stopped pitching. Fernandez is in some pretty good company here.
One start is one start is one start, and since Fernandez had never pitched above Single-A ball before and didn’t face the Mets during Grapefruit League play this spring, there’s a pretty good chance that they were going in blind yesterday. Yes, the Mets had been raking, but if you’ve never seen a pitcher before that is generally considered a big advantage for said pitcher. As video builds up on him, the league is likely to catch up to him. But a guy with a 97-mph fastball, a knee-buckling curve and no fear (unless it’s roller coasters or snakes, that is) is a dangerous pitcher. Yes, 20-years-old is young for a pitcher, but the Marlins are hardly setting precedent here. If the Cuban native can keep pitching even in the neighborhood of how he pitched yesterday, we will be enjoying his starts for quite some time.