Jose Fernandez returning with his pre-Tommy John repertoire intact is disheartening enough for major league hitters. This is a pitcher who, in his first 224 1/3 innings, at the ages of 20 and 21, compiled a 2.25 ERA, 2.60 FIP, 0.97 WHIP and 257 strikeouts, all while nearly winning the Cy Young as a rookie on a team that lost 100 games. The precocious Miami starter didn’t really need to add anything, other than a new elbow ligament, to continue his ascent among the ranks of elite pitchers.
It’s safe to say Fernandez worked his way back onto the mound with the stuff he had in 2013. In his three starts in 2015 since coming back from the elbow procedure, Fernandez’s electric fastball has checked in at its usual 96.4 mph average, and his devilish curveball has made hitters look foolish to the tune of a 25.7% whiff rate. That should confirm that, unless you’re in the box against Fernandez, his bread-and-butter pitches are still delicious.
Here’s the thing about the best of the best, though. They’re seemingly never satisfied. So while Fernandez was rehabbing his elbow over the last year, it appears he was also working on another pitch to give himself a third plus offering. Was he successful in his efforts? I don’t know, let’s ask Phillies batter Cody Asche:
Well, Asche would say yes. How about we check in with Cincinnati’s Jay Bruce?
Yep, Bruce would corroborate Asche’s story. Fernandez, who didn’t really need another 70-grade pitch, now has a nasty changeup. With that pitch at his disposal, there’s even less hitters can do against him now.
To be fair, Fernandez already had a changeup. It just wasn’t nearly this good. He threw the change 8.6% of the time in 2013 and upped that usage to 10.6% in 2014 in 51 2/3 innings before suffering his elbow injury. Fernandez was able to limit hitters to a .176 batting average and .297 slugging percentage while getting a 14.8% whiff rate with the change. Clearly, he was already working with a pretty-good-but-not-quite-dominant, changeup. Fernandez has made just three starts and thrown only 19 innings his year, but it seems the change has graduated.
It’s obviously too early to draw any definitive conclusions from Fernandez’ pitch mix this season. He could face a righty-heavy lineup his next time out, and his changeup usage rate could plummet. However, it’s worth noting that he has thrown the change 15% of the time in his first three starts this year. Opposing hitters have just one hit against it, a single, and have swung and missed 21.1% of the time. Fernandez’ weaponized changeup is here to stay.
The soon-to-be 23-year-old Fernandez (his birthday is July 31), has yet to face any real struggles as a major league pitcher. If you’re looking for somewhere to pick nits, however, lefties have hit a bit more success against him than righties. Now, “a bit more success” is relative, given that lefties are hitting .206/.287/.294 with a .265 wOBA against Fernandez. In other words, it’s not like Fernandez gets the shakes when he sees a lineup filled with lefties. Still, he has limited righties to a .164/.212/.258 slash with a .207 wOBA. Lefties have four more extra-base hits, 28 more walks, and 12 fewer strikeouts against Fernandez than their right-handed counterparts. Even an ace like Fernandez is better with the platoon advantage.
Of course, an elite changeup can help him shut down lefties the same way he does righties, and we’re seeing that in practice already this season. Fernandez has thrown all but one of his 38 changeups this year to lefties. While they’re hitting .421 against his fastball, they’ve managed just a .083 average with a .000 isolated slugging percentage when they see the change. There are, of course, other factors at play here. Fernandez typically throws the changeup in plus counts, meaning the hitter is often defensive when he deploys it. That frees him to make it a chase pitch, and, thanks to its movement, hitters are chasing, as we saw Asche and Bruce do earlier.
Fernandez’ change isn’t only effective when hitters are swinging over the top of it. When they do manage to make contact, they typically don’t do much. Seven of Fernandez’s 38 changeups this season have been put in play, six have been on the ground. In 2013, Fernandez’ ground-ball rate was 45.1%. We’re still a few starts away from Fernandez’ batted-ball rates stabilizing for the 2015 season, but his ground-ball rate this year is at a lofty 54%. He can thank his improved changeup for the increase.
Fernandez was already well on his way to being one of the best starters in the majors over the next 12 years, even with the Tommy John speed bump placed in his way. With the new changeup in his repertoire, he will almost certainly be a top-five fantasy starter heading into 2016.