Cuba's Jose Fernandez has a future just as bright as Yasiel Puig's
His story is so epic, it should be an HBO miniseries. His story is so big, he never knows where to begin. With the sharks in the water? The time he was in the boat headed for America in the dead of night, and the officers began shooting? That moment he jumped into the water to save his mother's life? How about those grim weeks he spent in the Cuban prison?
He hasn't captivated a city like Yasiel Puig in Los Angeles. He doesn't pitch for a contender like Shelby Miller or Tony Cingrani. He doesn't hit jaw-dropping home runs like Evan Gattis, and he was never as ballyhooed as Gerritt Cole or Zack Wheeler. But Jose Fernandez -- the Marlins' righthanded phenom from Cuba -- is having a season that's as impressive and noteworthy as any rookie in baseball. He is 20 years old, the youngest pitcher in the game, and already he's one of the best in the National League. Opposing managers, from Don Mattingly to Joe Maddon, are comparing him to Felix Hernandez. He's the great hope of a franchise lost at sea, and he deserves a spot in next month's All-Star Game in New York.
But baseball is only part of the Jose Fernandez Story.
In April, a few weeks into the baseball season, Fernandez was sitting at his locker at Marlins Park, and a teammate asked him about his story. "You want to know?" Fernandez said, and he began the story at the beginning, with his first memory of holding a baseball, given to him by his grandmother Olga. He talked more about life as a young boy growing up in Castro's Cuba, playing baseball with loose rocks and sticks, and "living with nothing." He talked about how his father escaped to Florida in 2005, and how over two years, he and his mother risked their lives by trying to flee four different times before their successful attempt in April 2008. He was 15.
That afternoon in Miami he shared his story to his teammates for the first time -- at one point he looked up from his locker, "and pretty much the whole team was around, listening," he recalls. "It's amazing. The things I've gone through in my life, it's crazy. Sometimes I just can't believe I'm here."
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On Tuesday morning, Orlando Chinea's phone rang. "Jefe," the voice on the other line said. "What do you have for me?"
Jose Fernandez has a secret weapon. His name is Orlando Chinea. The coach and the pitcher are from the same hometown in Cuba, and they have been working together since the day they met in Tampa five years ago, when one of Jose's relatives came to Chinea and said, You have to see this kid pitch. "So I took one look at this skinny 15-year-old kid, 130 pounds," recalls Chinea, laughing, "and I said, 'Really? I'm not a magician!'"
What comes next is straight out of the Karate Kid. "I don't like pitchers spending all that time in the gym -- I like the natural environment," says Chinea, so he had Fernandez build up his strength by throwing two-pound medicine balls at 120 feet, running hills, chopping trees, and pushing cars. "We'd go to a parking lot, twice a week, he'd push cars, pickup trucks, 100 feet," says Chinea.
Chinea -- who has coached Cuban pitchers including Rolando Arroyo, Orlando Hernandez, Livan Hernandez, and Jose Contreras -- spent five years in Japan as a trainer for the Yomuiri Giants, and become a believer in the Japanese way. "Pitching there, it's an art," he says. "In America, the power comes from the gym, from the body frame. In Japan, it's about maximizing the pitching motion."
Chinea describes Fernandez's pitching style as "a mix of Cuban, and a mix of Japanese." He compares Fernanez's delivery to Yu Darvish's -- "fluid, smooth, almost artistic." The workouts Chinea taught Fernandez were "based on core conditioning, plyometrics, increasing structural rotation," says Chinea. Each day began with an hour and a half of stretching. "He never wanted to take a rest," says the coach. "He worked Monday to Monday."
Now, on days Fernandez pitches, the pitcher and the coach talk for 30 minutes over the phone. "What do you have for me?" the conversation beings. Chinea spends two days watching video on opposing teams leading up to each of Fernandez's starts. After Fernandez's talk with Chinea, Fernandez hits the team video room, then studies the Marlins' scouting reports drawn up by pitching coach Chuck Hernandez. "He takes all the information," says Chinea. "This kid listens to everything."
The morning of his start against Minnesota on Tuesday, Fernandez called up Chinea, as he always does. "Jefe," he said, "I'm going to kill these guys." With all four of his pitches working, Fernandez held the Twins to one run in five innings and lowered his ERA to 2.98. The Marlins have Fernandez on an innings limit -- they plan to cap him at 150-170 innings -- and he was out of Tuesday's game before reaching 100 pitches for the 13th time in 15 starts. "This kid is strong, durable," says Chinea. "His shoulder and arm -- it's perfect, loose."
Over the last 43 years just three pitchers made the jump from Single-A to the majors and pitched at least 100 innings as a rookie: Dwight Gooden, Jeremy Bonderman and Rick Porcello. Fernandez, who made the team out of camp, is on his way to becoming the fourth, having already logged 84 2/3 innings on the year -- he has 84 strikeouts and a 4-4 record for the lowest-scoring team in the majors.
Pitching in Miami, baseball's equivalent of the witness protection program, he's still a relative unknown, even among the players in his own league. Last month, before a game against the Phillies, Fernandez asked his teammate Juan Pierre (a former Phillie) to introduce him to Cliff Lee, "a guy I look up to," says Fernandez. "I love how he goes out every time and competes, he doesn't care about anything else. He throws his pitches at any count. He's a bulldog."
Lee shook Fernandez's hand and listened and nodded as Fernandez tried to explain the similarities between the two of them, a young right-hander from Cuba and a 34-year-old lefthander from Arkansas. "He kind of looked at me like, 'Who is this guy?'" says Fernandez, laughing. "Most people don't know who I am."
That's about to change. "Hitters are going to adjust, as they always do," says a scout. "But this kid is for real. He's got the stuff -- but you can also see the tremendous self-belief on the mound."
No, he's not Yasiel Puig. But his story is just as compelling, and his future in the game is just as bright. "I'm not scared of anything or anyone," says Fernandez. "Albert Pujols, whoever, I'm going to go after them. No one can do anything to me that hasn't been done to me before, not after what I've faced in my life. I'm ready for everything."