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The case for Jose Fernandez

Just 21, Jose Fernandez is carving up major league lineups like a young Doc Gooden. Is the Marlins hurler the best pitcher in baseball?

Marc Serota

Like so many of the post topics I come up, this one started with a conversation. Unlike most of these conversations, this one was not with myself. Rather it was the product of a conversation with Jake Mintz, who composes one half of the Cespedes Family BBQ, a completely serious baseball analysis web log which has given the baseball community gems such as Pablo: The Documentary.

Enough backstory, let's get to the real thing. Here's a look at Jose Fernandez' vitals, and where they rank among pitchers who have thrown at least 160 innings since last season.

2013-14 185.1 56 70 79 28.0 8.2 4.6 6.4
Rank 66th 2nd 7th 9th 3rd 21st 15th 6th

Amazingly, Fernandez ranks 6th in RA-9 WAR despite the fact that only 20 of the 86 pitchers have thrown fewer innings. On a per inning basis, only Clayton Kershaw has been better.

While that array of numbers demonstrates that Fernandez certainly belongs in the conversation (especially with Kershaw's injury), it only tells part of the story. In order to get a better look of Fernandez' primacy, let's delve into the Pitch f/x data.

Fernandez' heater averages 95 miles per hour, and he runs it up to 97-98. Only Stephen Strasburg, at 95.2 miles per hour, has a harder average fastball. Of course, that pitch is devastating, but it's his curveball which is truly awe-inspiring. Nicknamed the Defector, it has garnered a whiff rate of 16 percent, and when hitters swing, they make contact less than two-thirds of the time. His curve has nine inches of horizontal movement, which is the most in the majors.

Because pitches exist in the context of a repertoire, citing the slash line against a specific pitch usually isn't worthwhile. However, in Fernandez' case, the .111/.174/.159 line (2 wRC+) which hitters have managed gives a pretty accurate portrayal of how good his curveball is. Hopefully this GIF makes you feel things.

Fernandez Tulo 1

(H/T to Carson Cistulli)

While he only throws it five times per game, Fernandez has an excellent changeup as well. At 87-89, it comes out of his hand harder than some pitcher's fastballs. When he's decided to utilize the pitch, it has a 58 percent ground ball rate and a 11.9 percent swinging strike rate. The reason that number isn't any higher is that hitters tend to freeze up when they see it. Hitters have whiffed on 35 percent of their swings against Fernandez' change, which is only a slightly lower rate than what King Felix usually posts.

In aesthetic terms, there aren't any pitchers that provide more viewing pleasure than Fernandez. Mr. Cistulli's NERD scores, which attempt to quantify how watchable each pitcher is, rates Fernandez a perfect 10. Sure a handful of other pitchers get perfect scores, but they are older, don't throw as hard, and don't work as quickly.

If I haven't managed to convince you yet, here's what Fernandez has done since June of last year. Mind you, he was two months shy of his 21st birthday when this stretch began.

20 133 1.42 30.0 7.7 5

Sure, Kershaw is still alive, Felix Hernandez is as good as ever, and Yu Darvish is still striking everybody out. Max Scherzer won the CY Young last year, and that .220 BABIP isn't going to stick around forever. However, since June of last season the best pitcher in baseball has been a guy that couldn't celebrate any of his first 12 wins or his selection to the All-Star game with an adult beverage.

. . .

Stats courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball and Baseball-Reference

Chris Moran is a former college baseball player and current law student at Washington University in St. Louis. He's also an assistant baseball coach at Wash U. In addition to Beyond The Box Score, he contributes at Prospect Insider and Gammons Daily. He went to his first baseball game at age two. Follow him on Twitter @hangingslurves