MIAMI–Their fourth-to-last game of the season, the Miami Marlins found an outlet for Jose Fernandez’s inexhaustible verve. They green-lighted his participation for an inning on that evening’s television broadcast.
Told of Fernandez’s temp job, manager Mike Redmond was thrilled. After Sept. 11, when Fernandez pulled into the neighborhood of his preset innings limit, he wouldn’t think twice about using his manager as a sounding board for whatever was on his mind—even in the middle of games.
“He came down and he was talking to me and I told him, ‘Hey man, I’ve got to kind of pay attention here to what’s going on in case something comes up,’ ” said Redmond, recounting an episode from the previous day. “We were just talking about pitching or whatever. I don’t even remember exactly. He just wanted to talk. He’s great.”
That became apparent during an historic 28-start campaign that garnered Baseball America Rookie of the Year honors. The combination of a lethal four-pitch repertoire, infectious smile and vibrant personality gave even the most jaded Marlins fan reason to raise an eyebrow throughout an otherwise dreadful 100-loss season.
Fernandez, who did not turn 21 until July 31, was set to open 2013 in Double-A. He figured half a season of dominating Southern League opposition for Jacksonville would be enough to warrant a promotion.
“It came out a little better than that,” said Fernandez, the winning pitcher in 19.4 percent of the Marlins’ total victories.
One Of The Best
Over his final 18 starts from June 1-Sept. 11, Fernandez was the best pitcher in the majors. He logged a 1.50 ERA (120 innings). Second over that span was Clayton Kershaw (1.96). Fernandez also paced the circuit with a .161 opponents’ average during that stretch, well ahead of Stephen Strasburg (.194), second among qualifying pitchers those three and a half months.
All but two of Fernandez’s last 18 starts were quality. He capped his season with seven innings of five-hit, one-run ball to beat the Braves at Marlins Park. That lowered his ERA to 2.19. In the integration era (since 1947), that’s the second-best mark by a qualifying pitcher in his age 20 season, second to Dwight Gooden’s 1.53 in 1985.
Gooden (12.1) that season and Bert Blyleven (6.4) in 1971 are the only 20-year-old integration-era pitchers with a higher WAR than Fernandez (6.2), according to baseball-reference.com.
Fernandez finished the season with a .182 opponents’ average. Pedro Martinez (.167) in 2000 was the last qualifying pitcher to stymie major league hitters to that degree. Since 1969, Fernandez’s mark is tied for fifth with Hideo Nomo (1995), behind Martinez, Nolan Ryan (.171, 1972), Ryan again (.172, 1991) and Sid Fernandez (.181, 1985).
At pitcher-friendly Marlins Park, Fernandez was unblemished. He became the ninth pitcher in the integration era to go 9-0 or better at home (minimum 15 starts). He set a club record with 15 straight home starts without a loss, and his 1.19 home ERA is the lowest in Marlins history among pitchers with a minimum of 0.5 innings pitched per team game.
Redmond before season’s end reflected on Fernandez’s inauspicious first impression. During a simulated game in spring training, an amped-up Fernandez hit Giancarlo Stanton in the back of the head with a pitch.
“You’re thinking to yourself, ‘Wow, is spring training going to be too much? Is he going to be too nervous? Is he going to be able to get through? Should we pitch him in a game? How do we handle this? How’s he going to handle it?’ ” Redmond said. “From that to hopefully being the (NL) Rookie of the Year is just truly amazing. That’s a testament to how special a kid he really is.”
About five months after drilling Stanton, Fernandez was representing the Marlins in the All-Star Game at Citi Field. He retired the three batters he faced in order, striking out a former MVP in Dustin Pedroia and soon-to-be home run champion in Chris Davis. Miguel Cabrera, the reigning MVP, popped out.
That effort put Fernandez in the All-Star Game record book with Gooden and Bob Feller. They’re the only three ever to have a scoreless Midsummer Classic outing before turning 21.
OF THE YEAR
|2012||Mike Trout, of, Angels|
|2011||Jeremy Hellickson, rhp, Rays|
|2010||Jason Heyward, of, Braves|
|2009||Andrew McCutchen, of, Pirates|
|2008||Geovany Soto, c, Cubs|
|2007||Ryan Braun, 3b, Brewers|
|2006||Justin Verlander, rhp, Tigers|
|2005||Huston Street, rhp, Athletics|
|2004||Khalil Greene, ss, Padres|
|2003||Brandon Webb, rhp, Diamondbacks|
|2002||Eric Hinske, 3b, Blue Jays|
|2001||Albert Pujols, of/3b/1b, Cardinals|
|2000||Rafael Furcal, ss/2b, Braves|
|1999||Carlos Beltran, of, Royals|
|1998||Kerry Wood, rhp, Cub|
|1997||Nomar Garciaparra, ss, Red Sox|
|1996||Derek Jeter, ss, Yankees|
|1995||Hideo Nomo, rhp, Dodgers|
|1994||Raul Mondesi, of, Dodgers|
|1993||Mike Piazza, c, Dodgers|
|1992||Pat Listach, ss, Brewers|
|1991||Jeff Bagwell, 1b, Astros|
|1990||Sandy Alomar, c, Indians|
|1989||Gregg Olson, rhp, Orioles|
“After the All-Star Game I think he was a different guy,” Redmond said following Fernandez’s seven shutout-inning effort in an Aug. 13 game at Kauffman Stadium. “That All-Star Game made him, if you can imagine, even more confident. He went up against the best. That was a huge inning for him, confidence-wise. Really, since the All-Star Game, I think he’s a different pitcher. He’s going out there going, ‘I want to be the best pitcher in the league.’”
Fernandez spent his rookie season dazzling scouts and sabermetricians alike. Per PITCHf/x, his 94.8-mph average fastball velocity trailed only Matt Harvey (95.4) and Strasburg (95.2) among 81 qualifying pitchers. Sportsvision’s pitch tracking system also identified Fernandez’s slider and curve as having the greatest lateral movement away from righthanded hitters. That explains his 5.2-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio against them and their .175/.227/.267 slash line off him.
Only three starters—Yu Darvish (32.9 percent), Max Scherzer (28.7 percent) and Harvey (27.7 percent)—had a better strikeout percentage than Fernandez (27.5). His 2.73 FIP (fielding independent pitching) ranked sixth in the majors.
In addition to the physical tools, Fernandez displayed composure beyond his years. Three of the 10 home runs he surrendered in 173 innings came in the first inning. Twice, after Adrian Gonzalez got him at Dodger Stadium on May 10 and Freddie Freeman hit one out on Aug. 30 in Atlanta, Fernandez went on to pitch five scoreless innings.
He blew up once, giving up six runs (three unearned) in the second inning of a hometown start in Tampa. The only other inning he surrendered as many as four was the fourth of an April 18 outing at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati.
“He doesn’t let the game get away from him, and that’s really something special from a young kid,” former major leaguer and South Florida product Warren Cromartie said. “You’ve got that, it means you have control, you have command on the mound and don’t get distracted.”
Perhaps the only time Fernandez let a game get away from him was his Sept. 11 season finale against the Braves, and it wasn’t even on the mound. Fernandez hit his first major league home run off Mike Minor and took time to admire his blast. When Fernandez finished his trot, Brian McCann advised him he could get himself or a teammate hurt showboating. Johnson darted in from third base and the benches cleared, but the situation never escalated.
Events earlier in the game likely contributed to Fernandez’s reaction. Evan Gattis stared him down after a homer and Chris Johnson made a derogatory comment about his fastball after lining out to deep left-center.
“(McCann) told me, ‘Buddy, you can’t do that,’ ” Fernandez said. “I was like, ‘I know, I’m sorry. The game got the best of me.’ I was walking away already. He was talking to me as a friend. I was would say as a dad teaching a kid. That’s how it felt. I don’t think it was fight kind of stuff.”
Fernandez after the game did not justify his actions or blame the Braves for provoking him. He personally apologized to both McCann and Minor.
“I feel like I don’t deserve to be here because this isn’t high school,” said Fernandez, known to pimp homers and yell at opponents after striking them out while starring at Tampa’s Alonso High. “I don’t think that should ever happen and I’m embarrassed. Hopefully it won’t happen again. I made a mistake and I’m going to learn from it.”
The Marlins learned plenty about Fernandez’s charisma. By season’s end, Fernandez had a bigger presence in the club’s promotional materials. His image graced the 2014 magnet schedule giveaway, but the club made sure Fernandez’s priority was honing his craft. The result was an epic rookie season.
“What we said when Jose made this team coming out of spring training is we were just going to let things develop organically,” team president David Samson said. “We were not going to do marketing, ticket packs around him. We weren’t going to do anything to make him feel we were counting on him to do anything for the franchise either on or off the field from a marketing standpoint. We wanted him to be successful as a pitcher and come into his own.
“Jose has the best personality of a player I’ve come across in a long, long time. Again, I want him to be true to himself and true to his talent. I want him to focus on being the best major leaguer he can be because I have news for you: There are scores of players who have been great rookies who had no career. The focus is on having him not be one of those.”