Jose Fernandez's performance this year has placed him in the company of Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez. (Juan Salas/Icon SMI)
It seems foolhardy now to ever question the logic of 21-year-old Jose Fernandez jumping over Double A and Triple A. But those would have been wasted pitches and wasted innings in the life span of one of the game’s great young talents. Prodigies don’t follow developmental curves -- they just adapt and excel with seeming ease, which was evident yet again as Fernandez turned in another virtuoso performance on Friday night.
The Marlins’ precocious ace shut out the Indians for eight innings, allowing just three hits and one walk while striking out 14. This came on the heels of a 13-strikeout domination of the Pirates on Sunday, making Fernandez only the sixth pitcher since 2000 with at least a baker’s dozen of strikeouts in back-to-back games. It’s an accomplished list: Randy Johnson (thrice), Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, Mark Prior and Chan Ho Park.
Fernandez’s game score -- a Bill James-devised metric to sum up a pitcher’s performance in one number -- was an 89. That’s tied for 14th-best in the majors this season, but in the past quarter century, only Kerry Wood has exceeded it among pitchers aged 20 or younger (which Wood accomplished in his 20-strikeout masterpiece in 1998). Fernandez is only the 18th pitcher in that age bracket in history with a start rated so highly; the only two 20-and-under pitchers to have multiple starts with a game score of 89 or higher are Doc Gooden and Bob Feller. (Fernandez turned 21 on Wednesday, but for statistical purposes, how old a player is on June 30th determines his age that season.)
For the season, Fernandez is now 8-5; though win-loss records don’t often represent a pitcher’s true performance, this is no small accomplishment on a club with a sub-.400 winning percentage. He also has a 2.54 ERA and a 9.7 K/9, which rank eighth and seventh in the majors, respectively.
For perspective’s stake, let’s remember that Fernandez is a year younger than the Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg was during his acclaimed rookie season and is three years younger than another NL East ace, the Mets’ Matt Harvey. In other words, Fernandez is ahead of the curve even by the remarkable standards of the current generation of young aces. (Like the others, Fernandez will face an innings limit, expected to be between 150 and 170; he’s thrown 127 2/3 so far.)
Entering Friday’s start, Fernandez had an ERA+ of 144, which meant he was 44 percent above average when adjusting for league and ballpark. That number will rise with his latest eight shutout innings and will put him on pace for another list of remarkable company. Only five pitchers in their age-20 seasons have ever thrown 150 or more innings with an ERA+ of 150 or better: Dwight Gooden (1985), Don Drysdale (1957), Bob Feller (1939), Smoky Joe Wood (1910) and Harry Krause (1909).
“This is not an everyday thing, that you bring a 20-year-old up,” Marlins president of baseball operations Larry Beinfest said at the time of Fernandez’s big league debut, “and there’s been a few that have done it and done very well, and we’re hoping he’s the next one.”
We saw this coming in that debut, most notably in the way he discarded the Mets’ David Wright on three pitches in the fourth inning with a sharply breaking curve for a called strike, a 97 mph fastball that Wright barely flicked foul and then another tight breaking ball for a knee-buckling called third strike.
Fernandez, lest you forget, was less than two years removed from his high school graduation and in only his fourth inning above High A ball, and he was facing a franchise player about to make his seventh All-Star appearance. It became clear that Fernandez was to be taken at his word when he acknowledged before the start that he was only afraid of “roller coasters and snakes.” If you were to poll NL hitters, you might just find Fernandez’s name equated with such angst-inducing images.