Clayton Kershaw, justifiably so, was the talk of most of the first half prior to his injury. But after posting an astronomical K/BB ratio, he was taken from us without a return date. That has left a void for other pitchers to try and claim the mantle of "best pitcher in the National League." After he went down, the struggle for that title has jostled between a few pitchers. Johnny Cueto received a good share of attention as he started the All-Star game. His teammate Madison Bumgarner got his looks, but a lot of the attention was centered around him trying to invade the Home Run Derby. Then there’s Noah Syndergaard and all the really hard, nasty stuff he throws — plus the hair. Finally, you have the two Washington arms in Strasburg, who was just recently tagged with his first loss of the season, and Scherzer, who put up the first 20-strikeout game in the majors since Kerry Wood in 1998.
All of these pitchers are deserving of the accolade that they’ve received. They’re all having fantastic seasons. But, Jose Fernandez has arguably been most deserving to fill the void left by Kershaw. The odd thing is, he’s done so relatively quietly. Some slight changes have pushed him to another level and he, in my opinion, has been the best of the bunch this season.
In 2014, Fernandez went under the knife. This cut short a highly anticipated sophomore campaign after his stellar rookie season that led to Cy Young consideration. Unfortunately, he lost a year where he was posting a fantastic strikeout rate of 34.2 percent and a DRA of 1.85. Granted, this was in only 51.2 innings, but you can see how much of an impact Fernandez was making in just a short time.
As he returned in 2015, the worry that he may have a bit of rust and the general Tommy John hangover to shake off was quickly dispelled. Fernandez was quickly back to form and pitching like the ace that the Marlins expect him to be each season. He improved on his first full season’s walk and strikeout rates by a few percentage points each, despite posting a career-high DRA of only 3.03. Fernandez’s top tier stuff and general pitching ability helped him place himself right back into the thick of baseball’s best on the mound rather quickly.
Now, Fernandez is posting a low for starting pitchers with a 1.90 DRA, thus generating an MLB-high 4.9 WARP. On the FanGraphs end, Fernandez sits 2nd in both FIP, 2.07, and fWAR, 4.5, behind only Kershaw (remember how great he was? Sigh...). Fernandez, on a macro level, has positioned himself incredibly well to be the NL’s top arm.
A great portion of his success has been his higher propensity to miss bats, which was already really high. Fernandez has been leaving hitters behind and has been missing bats at a much higher rate than he had in his last full season. Fernandez’s strikeout rate has to be the most gripping number that he’s posted so far. Currently sitting at 36.8 percent, his K rate puts him at near four percentage points above the next closest starting pitcher, Kershaw. To contextualize this a bit more, Fangraphs defines an "Excellent" strikeout rate to be around 27 percent. The gap between Kershaw and him is also the largest gap between any two consecutive starters on this list.
Going further, Fernandez has almost across the board increased his whiff percentages by large margins.
|Both - Pitch Type||13-15 Count||13-15 Whiff %||16 Count||16 Whiff %||∆|
|LHH - Pitch Type||13-15 Count||13-15 Whiff %||16 Count||16 Whiff %||∆|
|RHH - Pitch Type||12-15 Count||12-15 Whiff %||16 Count||16 Whiff %||∆|
Fernandez is putting up higher whiff percentages with his fastball and curveball, which are the only two pitches he uses consistently to both right- and left-handed hitters. Even with a smaller sample, the sinker has seen increased effectiveness with a 7.84% increase in whiff percentage against lefties. I’d say I’m surprised, but when you have stuff like this, it’s hard to be shocked when hitters don’t put the bat on it.
Beyond the increased whiff percentages, you’ll see that this data illuminates Fernandez’s different approach to hitters based on handedness. Fernandez is essentially a two-pitch pitcher to right-handed hitters, and he expands his repertoire to include a changeup and an occasional sinker against left-handers. Eno Sarris notes that Fernandez also throws a different breaking ball based on which side of the plate the hitter is on. He’s pretty much always been this way. But we are seeing a change in Fernandez’ likelihood of attacking with a fastball against left-handed hitters, particularly on the first pitch and when he’s ahead, where he’s throwing it at 10 percent and nine percent higher rates, respectively. To right-handers, there are some specific count changes, but they’re generally more marginal.
However, Fernandez’s breaking ball has always been his out pitch and continues to be. Fernandez’s increased effectiveness with his fastball and the general nature of his approach to right-handers has helped to spur that 14.8% increase in whiffs on his curve this season. So, pitching more off his fastball and just generally being more effective with it allows Fernandez to change speeds more and rely on the natural talent in his wrist that generates the great pull down and rotation with the curveball.
It wasn’t any secret that Jose Fernandez was really good before this season — especially during all the hubbub where he was maybe, kinda, sorta getting traded in the offseason because he was unhappy with the direction of the team. During that stint, everyone on the internet was throwing their best prospects on the table in their hypothetical Fernandez trades. Well, now the Marlins are in playoff position, Ozuna and Yelich have bounced back, Stanton has progressively gotten better after a rough start, and Jose is doing what Jose is doing.
Apparently though, Miami wants to keep Fernandez at around 180 innings for the season. It will be very interesting, given their current playoff standing, if they stick to that come October and September. That said, the Marlins — if they do advance to the one game playoff — might enter it with the Cy Young award winner and one of the best outfields in all of baseball. Bless you, whoever would have to play them.
Anthony Rescan is a Contributing Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @AnthonyRescan.