The 2013 season has been every bit as miserable as anyone would have expected for the Miami Marlins -- as most would have expected after the massive fire sale that followed up their miserable 2012 campaign. However, the last couple of months have provided one reason to actually tune into the worst team in the National League.
As the season has worn on, rookie Jose Fernandez has gone from solid rookie to dominant starter. For a pitcher that made the jump from Single-A last year straight to the major leagues at the beginning of this year, his numbers are astounding. He's boasting a 2.54 ERA for the year, along with a 2.80 FIP. Both of those figures are among the best in the league among starters.
In addition to those figures, he's striking out nearly 10 hitters per nine innings, while walking only three per nine. That makes for a 3.21 K/BB ratio, and while it isn't up there with the league's elite, it's still an impressive figure, especially given his limited professional experience.
Jeff Sullivan over at FanGraphs took a look at what has made Jose Fernandez so successful in 2013. While Sullivan isn't a fan of the Marlins burning a year of team control in having Fernandez up this high so quickly, there's no doubt the results have been enough to validate his place on the big club. In analyzing the success of Fernandez this season, there are some pretty clear trends.
A completely obvious statement first: Fernandez has gotten better as the season has worn on. Sullivan notes that his FIP has gone down as the months have worn on. It was up near four at the beginning of the year, but as the season has transpired, and Fernandez has adjusted to major league hitters, that figure has dipped considerably, leading to that 2.80 FIP for the year.
From FanGraphs (in images from Texas Leaguers), this is the called strike zone for Fernandez against righties in 2013:
And this is his called strikezone against lefties:
The purpose of these two graphs that Sullivan provides are to show that in addition to having to make the adjustment from Single-A hitters to major league hitters, Fernandez also has to deal with a smaller strike zone. He's getting a higher percentage of balls called that are in the strike zone than the league average, while getting less out of zone strikes called than the league average.
Nonetheless, Fernandez has managed to figure it out by approaching righties and lefties in very different ways. And this is reflected in his statistics for the year. In terms of his approach against righties:
Fernandez is behind only a teammate, a teammate long known for his ability to stay inside the strike zone, and unlike said teammate, Fernandez also throws wicked stuff that's hard to hit. Against righties, Fernandez is basically a two-pitch pitcher, but he has good command of both and he's able to keep hitters on the defensive by not letting them settle into hitter-friendly counts.
Fernandez's strike rate against righties is at 71.5 percent, behind only Kevin Slowey. He ranks above names like Cliff Lee and Bartolo Colon in that regard. Against lefties, he's not peppering the zone in a similar fashion. Instead, he's getting lefties to drive the ball into the ground, going for a 22 percent higher GB rate against lefties than against right-handed hitters.
Some of the time, Fernandez is a pretty extreme fly-baller. Some of the time, he's kept the infield busy, and as a consequence, his xFIP platoon split is just 48 points. His wOBA platoon split is just 12 points. Righties have put his fastball and curveball into the air. Lefties have slammed them into the ground. It's not an unusual technique, to get opposite-handed hitters to keep the ball down, but Fernandez has done it to an extreme degree, and it's obviously worked well for him.
There are some fantastic points to be made here by Sullivan. By initially pointing out the disadvantage that Fernandez starts out with -- dealing with a smaller strike zone -- he makes what Fernandez has done this year all the more impressive. And it's pretty clear how he's managed to do it: pounding the zone against righties and getting lefties to put the ball on the ground.
However, there's still the question of what the Marlins have in Fernandez. He's shown incredible growth over the year, but at only 20 years of age, is this what they should expect moving forward? That remains to be seen, but in a season that has been incredibly tantalizing to watch for the Marlins and their fans, he's been a gigantic breath of fresh air in South Beach.
All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.
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