On Friday morning, it looked likely that the most interesting game of the entire weekend would take place Friday night in Miami. On Saturday night, Rich Hill and Dave Roberts made sure the previous night’s game wouldn’t even be the most memorable of the series. Plenty has been written about the Dodgers’ manager, their second-best left-handed starter, and the heat emanating from that southpaw’s index finger. I want to take a little more time to talk about Friday night. And actually, let’s forget about the Dodgers.
Clayton Kershaw was fine. He wasn’t himself, exactly, but for a first appearance in 75 days, it went well. He was in, he was out, he didn’t move the game’s needle very much. Jose Fernandez, though, was electric. It took him most of a trip through the order to really find his form; he allowed two singles (one on a broken bat) and two walks within his first eight batters faced. Starting in the third inning, though, Fernandez began a seemingly impossible vivisection of the Dodgers offense. He struck out the side in order in the third inning—Corey Seager, Justin Turner, Adrian Gonzalez, down on strikes, all on fastballs, two called, one (Gonzalez, reaching off the plate away in a 3-2 count after starting the count 3-0) swinging. He would have done the same in the fourth frame, but for a Josh Reddick double. Through four innings, he’d fanned eight. He would pitch three more, whiffing another six Dodgers, and when he gave way to the bullpen, it was after just six baserunners (two over his final five innings) and 14 strikeouts. He faced 27 batters, and punched out more than half of them.
By now, outings like that one should not surprise anyone. Of the 14 qualifying starting pitcher seasons in MLB history, seven belong to Randy Johnson. Three belong to Pedro Martinez. Then there’s Kerry Wood’s rookie season (the one that destroyed his elbow, but also made him a legend), Yu Darvish’s 2013, and Clayton Kershaw’s 2015. Above even most of them, though, and below just one season apiece for Johnson and Martinez, stands Fernandez’s 2016 campaign to date. He’s struck out 34.8 percent of opposing batters this year. Fernandez has 238 strikeouts for the season, just 13 off the league lead (held by Max Scherzer, who has made three more starts and thrown about 35 more innings than Fernandez). He leads MLB in DRA-driven WARP. The only non-reliever with a better cFIP than Fernandez’s 61 is Kershaw. Given all that, there’s no particular reason Fernandez shouldn’t be the front-runner for the NL Cy Young Award. Yet, he isn’t.
He isn’t, because with (in all likelihood) four starts left in his season, Fernandez has no chance at all of reaching 200 innings pitched. He’s at 167 â…“ right now. If he matched his season high for innings pitched (seven innings! That’s it!) in each of the next four outings, he’d finish just on the high side of 195 innings. The only player to win the Cy Young as a starting pitcher in a non-strike season without pitching at least 200 innings was Kershaw, in 2014, when he missed a month of the season and still finished with 198 â…“ frames. In fact, it’s awfully tough to win the award without reaching 220 innings. For an uninjured pitcher facing a full-season field to win the award with (more realistically) 190 innings to his name is unfathomable.
Let’s talk about how we got here. Fernandez has been managed carefully throughout this season, as the Marlins try to keep him fully healthy through the remainder of his early 20s. He had a start skipped around the All-Star break, and another in mid-August. It’s easy to see, too, how the team has saved themselves an inning in many of Fernandez’s starts. He’s pitched exactly seven innings 11 times, but has never pitched to a batter in the eighth. He’s thrown at least 110 pitches seven times, but never more than 117. This is the modern reality of MLB: the greatest pitchers aren’t always asked to bear the heaviest load. Blame the restrictor plates used on the highest-octane relief pitchers, or pitch and inning counts designed to preserve fragile arms, or the distorted roster construction that plagues the league these days. Blame the macro level logistics (not only the fiscal limitations of small-market teams like Fernandez’s Marlins, but revenue sharing, the second Wild Card, and unbalanced schedules) that make team building and player valuation wildly different than they used to be. Whatever the cause (or causes), we might need to revisit the way we consider the shape of a pitcher’s workload.
That’s hard to do, for two reasons:
1. The old-school workhorses haven’t gone extinct, by any means. Justin Verlander, Chris Sale, Scherzer, and Madison Bumgarner still pitch deep into games on a regular basis, even though the complete game is (famously) dead. As long as there are great pitchers throwing 30 or 40 more innings than greater ones (on a rate basis) like Fernandez, there will be significant and earned reticence to value the seemingly small gap in performance more highly than the seemingly huge gap in volume.
2. There’s a fine line to be walked here. Every season (indeed, every month) provides more evidence that dominating opposing batters gets easier as one slides down the spectrum from workhorse to, at the farthest extreme, matchup reliever. If Edwin Diaz can go from promising starting pitching prospect with honest-to-God flaws to closer-slash-human steamroller in a matter of weeks, that has to tell you something. If Carl Edwards, Jr. can go from walk-prone Triple-A middle relief to one of MLB’s best setup men in a matter of days, that speaks even louder. To discuss Fernandez as a Cy Young alternative to Scherzer, Bumgarner, or Johnny Cueto is to dance perilously close to the argumentative space in which a one- or two-inning reliever (who might, as Aroldis Chapman has since joining the Cubs in July, strike out batters at 25 percent higher a rate than Fernandez has this year, and allow less hard contact, to boot) can be as valuable as a starter. That isn’t true, and the fact that it isn’t is a good reminder that volume matters. Maybe it just matters less than we once thought.
Fernandez might make it through this period of relative injury vulnerability and start ratcheting up his innings, in future seasons, to match those of Bumgarner, David Price, and others. It’s possible, too, though, that this will always be how he operates. More and more often, as teams come to understand not only the rising risk of injury as a pitch count piles up but the penalty a starter incurs as they see the batting order a third and fourth time, starters are pulled proactively. That still doesn’t happen as often as it should, but it’s increasing in frequency, and if that evolution continues, there will be more Fernandez-shaped Cy Young cases in coming years.
Even now, it isn’t as though Fernandez lacks an ability to spin through the lineup for a third time. He is, in fact, pretty good at it. During the third inning on Friday night, Dennis Martinez joined the Marlins’ broadcast booth. He mostly praised Fernandez, but cautioned that in his opinion, the young right-hander used his curve (he called it his slider, but Brooks Baseball labels it a curve) too often early in the game. Martinez believes a pitcher should establish his fastball, and pitch off of it. It’s sage advice, for a hurler of Fernandez’s particular skills and size. He generates enormous velocity early in games (and never more velocity, in fact, than he found in the first two innings Friday night, when he repeatedly touched 101 miles per hour), and if he can get past batters without showing them his curve or changeup (at least in their usual sequence), that’s a bonus. Martinez was wrong, though, in his assertion that Fernandez had done anything else. He threw his fastball roughly 70 percent of the time in the first inning, and over half the time in the second. That’s typical for him.
Then, as the lineup turns over, Fernandez flips his scripts. After walking Turner in the first inning on a full-count breaking ball (he’d thrown him five elevated fastballs first, and seemed to be hoping for a chase), Fernandez struck out the Dodgers’ slugging third baseman in the third (first-pitch hook for a called strike, then three straight fastballs in, then one on the outside corner for a called strike) and the fifth (three straight curves: a called strike right where he’d gotten one on the first pitch the previous time, then two low and away when Turner was primed for the heat inside, both for whiffs). The first two times through the order, Fernandez tries to mix things up, mixing his pitches pretty evenly and hoping hitters are unable to outguess him. The third time through, he begins leaning on his curve more. His arm angle drops slightly (something to watch, and perhaps one reason why he never pitches past the seventh), so the fastball becomes very slightly less effective anyway, but the real genius is in the fact that Fernandez goes to the curve roughly twice as often as his heat when behind in the count the third time through. He navigated the sixth inning Friday night with three 1-1 curveballs that caught the batters who swung at them off balance.
There’s nothing Scherzer does especially well that Fernandez can’t do, too. The same goes for Bumgarner, and for Cueto, and for any of the Cubs’ dominant trio of starters. Fernandez plays in front of an occasionally shaky defense. He throws to the worst regular catcher in the league at pitch framing, in J.T. Realmuto. He’s being handled with kid gloves, because that’s the way his organization and his agent want it to be, and it might cost Fernandez the Cy Young Award. He’s the NL pitcher with the best mixture of stuff, durability, and pitchability, though. As we get better at appreciating the swirl of unique circumstances and interaction factors that affect our perception of Fernandez and pitchers like him, I suspect we’ll find that he’s the model of the modern starter.