How Good Can Jose Fernandez Be?
Jose Fernandez's 2013 season was a'ight, I guess. As a pitcher in his age 20 season, Fernandez lollygagged his way to a 2.19 ERA with a 9.75 K/9 and a 2.73 FIP. Again, he was a'ight.
If Fernandez was a'ight in 2013, then he has been the bomb/the bee's knees/the swag doctor flex/any other out-dated, hyperbolic term you can possibly think of in 2014. Through two starts, he's got me foaming at the mouth with his 17 strikeouts in 12.2 innings and 0.71 ERA.
Baseball Reference uses a statistic called "ERA+" that makes a pitcher's ERA relative to the league average. A score of 100 is average.
Clayton Kershaw, for example, destroyed worlds last year and finished with a 194 ERA+. Pretty snazzy if you ask me. Well, so far this year, Fernandez's ERA+ is 539. Yes, that first number is a five. That means he could quintuple his ERA in his next start and still be below the league average. I don't care if this includes two starts or 70 - that's ridiculous.
When you look at these numbers, it's difficult not to ask the question of just how good Fernandez could be. Could he be the next Pedro Martinez? Could he be better? Let's find out.
Rookie Season in Historical Context
Fernandez's rookie campaign last year wasn't just good. It was historically good. Between 1990 and 2013, there have been only 40 pitchers to record a WAR of 3.0 or higher prior to their age-23 season. At the ripe old age of 20, Fernandez sits 10th on that list.
With his 4.2 WAR, Fernandez became only the 13th pitcher since 1990 to post a WAR of 4.0 or higher prior to his age-23 season. The aforementioned Mr. Kershaw is the only person to make the list twice. Swoon. Here's the full list of players to accomplish the feat.
A couple of quick takeaways from that table. First, holy heck, Mark Prior! Get out of your mind, son! Of course, Prior's highest WAR after that season was only 2.8 due to injuries, but brudduh dealt.
The second takeaway is that Fernandez is the only 20 year old on that list. To find the last player to post a WAR higher than Fernandez in his age 20 season, you have to go all the way back to Dwight Gooden in 1985. That year, Gooden led the league in ERA, wins, innings, strikeouts and ERA+. He also led the league in complete games with 16. Sixteen!
Unfortunately, Gooden suffered a similar fate to Prior. While his career was certainly longer than Prior's, he only topped a WAR of 5.0 twice more over the course of his next 14 seasons.
It's not entirely ridiculous to try to knock the hype surrounding Fernandez's rookie season by saying that being the 10th best over a 14-year span isn't that impressive. Well, that's more my fault than his. I chose WAR because it's a fairly good measure of a pitcher's overall effectiveness. The big downside of WAR is that it is a composite stat that (you hope) increases as the volume of your work increases as opposed to a rate stat. Fernandez made only 28 starts last year. Gooden, for example, made 35 in his age-20 season. In the two years that Kershaw made the list, he started 30 and 32 games respectively. This isn't an unsolvable problem, though.
To try to give a rate-stat perspective to Fernandez's dominance, let's look back at the aforementioned ERA+. Fernandez's 176 is the 114th best season in the history of Major League Baseball. That's pretty good by itself. However, it's also the third best season ever recorded by a 20-year-old pitcher. Gooden's 1985 season clocked in at 229, putting him first among those in their age-20 season.
Who was second? None other than Silver King, who had a 195 ERA+. In 1888. For the St. Louis Browns. According to his Wikipedia page, King was one of the first side-armers and threw without a windup. He is the new overlord of awesome.
All of this should show that Fernandez's rookie season was, in fact, historically great. The list above, though, is brimming with players that struggled with injuries, among other things, and is missing many of the people we view as all-time greats. So, now, let's look at some of those players to see how Fernandez stacks up thus far in his young career.
In his rookie season, Martinez worked out of the bullpen for the Los Angeles Dodgers. In 107 innings, he recorded a 2.61 ERA, 10.01 K/9, and 4.79 BB/9. It didn't blow the doors off of anybody, but it was impressive none-the-less. That was in his age-21 season.
Then Pedro went nuts. He won his first Cy Young at the age of 25, finishing the 1997 season with a 219 ERA+. In the next seasons, Martinez led the league in that category four times with totals of 243, 291, 202 and 211.
Martinez didn't have a WAR of 4.0 or higher until his third season as a starter. Of course, part of that is because, in his first year as a starter, the baseball powers-that-be decided to give the Expos the middle finger and have the player strike when they were putting in work in 1994. There is no justice in this cruel, cruel world.
Through this, we can see that Fernandez had objectively better stats than Martinez. That, in no way, means that he will be the better pitcher than Martinez in the long run. Every player on the list of starters with a WAR of 4.0 or higher before his age-23 season had a better statistical start to his career than Martinez (even his brother, Ramon), yet the only person you could still argue might eventually be better than Martinez is Kershaw. Bumgarner has an outside chance if he goes bonkers, but Kershaw seems like the more likely candidate.
What about some of the greats of the last few decades? Randy Johnson recorded his first WAR greater than 4.0 in his fifth year as a starter. For Greg Maddux, it was his fourth year as a starter. Johan Santana had a 7.5 WAR in his first full year as a starter, but that was after floundering between the bullpen and the rotation for the past four years.
One guy that is close to being on par with Fernandez is Roger Clemens. Clemens was spectacular in each of his first two years as a starter, but never appeared in more than 21 games. In his third year, Clemens recorded 30 starts for the first time and finished with a 7.8 WAR. The minor caveat to this is that was Clemens's age-23 season, three years after Fernandez went off.
The top comparable for Fernandez's age-20 season was Fernando Valenzuela. Valenzuela won the Cy Young and the Rookie of the Year award in 1981 for the Dodgers after leading the league in innings, strikeouts, complete games and shutouts. This was another strike-shortened season, which is possibly what made Valenzuela and Fernandez more analogous. After that season, Valenzuela only recorded a WAR greater than 4.0 four more times, similar to a lot of the players that started their careers as well as Fernandez. Worrisome? Yeah, sure, you betcha.
All of this combines to show that Fernandez's first year was historically great, especially for a 20-year-old pitcher. At the same time, it provides a cautionary tale of many that have come before Fernandez and failed to live up to the potential they showed earlier in their careers. Moving forward, the biggest question surrounding Fernandez, like any phenom pitcher, is can he stay healthy? If not, you'll be able to find me weeping in the corner. If he can, though, watch out. Fernandez is a special talent whose start to his career is as good as and often better than those of the icons of the sport.