Remembering the too-brief life and brilliant career of Jose Fernandez
- Fernandez's death in a boating accident on Sunday at age 24 cuts short a brilliant career for the Miami Marlins ace that seemed to be pointed to even bigger things, perhaps even a spot in the Hall of Fame.
The news is a gut punch, its ramifications almost unimaginable. Jose Fernandez, one of baseball's elite pitchers and most charismatic young stars, died in a boating accident off Miami beach early Sunday morning. Less than two months past his 24th birthday, he was nearing the end of his fourth and most complete major league season.
The mind reels when confronting such tragedy; the death of any 24-year-old is incomprehensible enough, and the fact that Fernandez was one of three people killed in the accident only deepens the sadness of the news. But what is particularly painful and haunting in the case of Fernandez is that in his brief career he had become one of the faces of baseball, at the forefront of a culturally diverse, awe-inspiring and perhaps unprecedented wave of young talent that includes not just past MVPs like Angels outfielder Mike Trout and his superstar counterpart, the Nationals' Bryce Harper, but also Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant, Astros shortstop Carlos Correa, Orioles third baseman Manny Machado, Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard and others.
In the grand scheme of things, we've only begun to appreciate the magnitude of those players' talents and the places it might take them. To have one of those arcs abruptly halted and, in Fernandez's case, one of the game's brightest and most recognizable smiles extinguished… it doesn't get much worse. Quite simply, the modern baseball world has never endured the death of such an accomplished player at such a young age—none who ever made an All-Star team or received a Cy Young vote has perished so prematurely.
Born in Santa Clara, Cuba in July 31, 1992, Fernandez defected in April 2008, along with his mother, stepsister and stepsister's mother; the family landed in Mexico and made its way to Tampa, where Fernandez starred at Braulio Alonso High School. The Marlins made him the 14th pick of the 2011 draft, and after just one full season of minor league ball split between two levels of A-ball (plus two appearances at the tail end of 2011)—a mere 163 minor league innings—he made the Marlins out of spring training in 2013, thanks in part to injuries to pitchers Henderson Alvarez and Nathan Eovaldi. That kind of jump that rarely happens these days, given how protective major league organizations are of their prized pitching prospects, and it drew charges that he was being rushed, particularly because Miami was coming off a disastrous 93-loss season that had started with such buildup—the additions of Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle via free agency, the hiring of manager Ozzie Guillen, and the opening of the long-awaited Marlins Park—and culminated in an all-too-typical fire sale.
Fernandez's performance defied those odds and cut through the cynicism that has surrounded the franchise for the past two decades. Even at 20 years old, he was simply brilliant. He struck out eight Mets in five innings in his major league debut on April 7, 2013 and delivered six shutout innings of two-hit ball against the Phillies six days later. Just after an eight-inning, two-hit, 10-strikeout start against the Padres on July 1, he became the rare rookie and the youngest Marlin named to an All-Star team. Out of concern for his workload, Miami stuck to its plan to shut Fernandez down before the end of the 2013 season. He made his final start on Sept. 11, putting an exclamation point on his year with a home run against the Braves that he admired a little too long for the taste of Atlanta catcher Brian McCann, who had words for Hernandez when he reached the plate; both benches cleared but there was no further escalation.
Fernandez finished the year with a 12-6 record, a 2.19 ERA and 187 strikeouts in 172 2/3 innings. Both the ERA and his 9.7 strikeouts per nine ranked second in the NL, his 6.3 Wins Above Replacement ranked third; the last figure was the highest by a rookie since Mark Eichhorn's 7.4 WAR for the Blue Jays in 1986—six years before Fernandez was born. Fernandez received 26 out of 30 first-place votes in the NL Rookie of the Year balloting, and placed third in the Cy Young vote behind winner Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers and Cardinals righty Adam Wainwright.
He quickly began building on that auspicious debut. Fernandez didn't allow a run in three of his six April 2014 starts, finishing the month with a 1.59 ERA and a pair of eight-inning scoreless gems in which he limited the Braves to a total of five hits while striking out 22, including a 14-K performance on April 22, matching a career high he had set against the Indians the previous August. Alas, he made just two starts in May before it was revealed that he had suffered a torn ulnar collateral ligament and required Tommy John surgery; the injury may have resulted from an altered delivery after he pitched through some discomfort. He returned to competition on June 6, 2015, and after five rehab starts, he was back in the majors on July 2. In his second outing of the year, he struck out nine Reds over seven scoreless innings. While he missed five weeks due to a biceps strain and topped 100 pitches only once in his 11 big league turns, he was again brilliant. Between his two abbreviated seasons, he delivered a 2.71 ERA, 2.21 FIP and 11.5 strikeouts per nine in 116 1/3 innings, numbers that if extrapolated certainly would have drawn All-Star and Cy Young consideration.
This year, Fernandez finally had the chance to put together a complete season, and aside from a couple of scratched starts to limit his workload, he was doing just that. Through 182 1/3 innings he had gone 16-8 while delivering a 2.86 ERA with NL bests in both FIP (2.29) and strikeouts per nine (11.5), and the league's second-highest strikeout total (253). He reached double digits in whiffs in nine of his 29 starts, tied with Kershaw for second in the majors; only Washington's Max Scherzer has more (12). With perhaps two starts remaining, his performance had placed him amid an NL Cy Young race with no clear favorite given Kershaw's two and a half month absence due to a herniated disc.
Fernandez clearly had the talent to win such awards, and who knows what he might have done given a 10-, 15- or 20-year career. Maybe he would have pitched his way to the Hall of Fame, or maybe his arm would have given out in mid-career, his brilliance confined to a handful of seasons that we nonetheless recall with reverence, the way we do for Herb Score, Mark Fidrych, Fernando Valenzuela, Dwight Gooden and so many others.
Baseball has lost great players to tragedy in mid-career before, including Hall of Famers Ed Delahanty, Addie Joss, Ross Youngs and Roberto Clemente, all of whom at least put together longer resumés before their untimely passages. The game has lost even more who had only begun to display their talents, such as Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart in 2009 and Cardinals outfielder Oscar Taveras in '14. But it defies memory to find a precedent that combines youth with accomplishment on a par with Fernandez. The closest parallel that comes to mind predates the formation of professional leagues. In 1862, Jim Creighton, the ace of the champion Excelsiors of Brooklyn, who had revolutionized pitching with what official MLB historian John Thorn described as "an unprecedented combination of speed, spin, and command that virtually defined the position for all those who followed," died four days after suffering what is now believed to be a ruptured inguinal hernia that he incurred while hitting a home run. He was 21.
The brevity of Fernandez's life is too painful to contemplate right now, and it's almost absurdly reductive to place numbers on his career. But if his brilliance can be summed up in one statistic, it is this: among starting pitchers with at least 400 innings in their careers none struck out batters with a greater frequency than Fernandez's 31.2%, not even Hall of Famers Randy Johnson (28.6%) and Pedro Martinez (27.7%). You can apply context to that in terms of sample sizes and league norms, but the figure will stand on its own to tell us that we've lost nothing less than a remarkable, singular talent who might one day have taken his place alongside the all-time greats. We’ll never forget you, Jose Fernandez.