After recovering from Tommy John surgery, Jose Fernandez is having a historic season.
When the Marlins first decided to bring Jose Fernandez to the majors in 2013, the move made headlines. Fernandez, up to that point, hadn’t pitched a single inning in the upper minors, but impressed management enough during Spring Training that they felt he would succeed at the major league level. And boy were they right.
Fernandez burst onto the scene and immediately put his name in the running for the NL Cy Young, finishing third. His 6.3 bWAR ranked as sixth-highest in the MLB while his K rate of 27.5% ranked fourth in the bigs. It appeared that the Marlins had struck gold with their Cuban right-hander.
Then, the following season, Fernandez’s elbow began barking at him after eight starts. The results were a torn UCL, and Fernandez needed Tommy John surgery.
As with any type of invasive surgery, the recovery isn’t easy. With the timetable for a full recovery being over a year long, the mental grind can often be as hard as the physical one. Fernandez has been quoted as saying that “it’s a lonely rehab” and “it’s hard to be away” from the game he loves so much.
Nevertheless, Fernandez returned to a major league mound in 2015 on Jul. 2, less than 14 months after the procedure. For the 2015 season, he seemed to pick up right where he left off. With the Marlins mindful about his recovery, he never went more than seven innings in a start, but posted similar rate stats as he had pre-Tommy John.
This in and of itself was a victory for the Marlins. Fernandez had established himself as a premier pitcher prior to the injury and him coming back with similar results would mean they had an ace to build around through 2018, when his service clock would reach the six-year mark and he would become a free agent. But this season, Fernandez has taken his game to a whole new level, making performances like this a common occurrence:
Aside from his stellar 2.01 FIP, the first stat that pops out is Fernandez’s K rate. So far in 2016, Fernandez is sporting a 37.5% K rate, which not only leads the majors right now, but is also the highest strikeout rate of any qualified starter since Pedro Martinez also posted a 37.5% during his historical 1999 season. Anytime you’re in the same breath as Martinez’s 1999 season, you know you’re doing something right.
The increase in K rate is due in large part to a career low and MLB-leading contact rate of 67%. Yet again, Fernandez has the best numbers in over a decade, as the last time a starter had a lower contact rate was 2003 when hitters were only able to make contact on Kerry Wood’s pitches 66.2% of the time.
However, when batters do make contact with Fernandez, they are hitting the ball with authority. Ever since returning, Fernandez has gotten fewer ground balls (45.9% pre-TJ surgery vs. 39.5% post-TJ surgery) and more line drives (20.5% pre-TJ surgery vs. 28.3% post-TJ surgery) hit against him. In fact, to keep with the theme of league-leading, Fernandez’s 28.3% LD rate over the past two years is the highest among pitchers who have thrown at least 140 innings by 2.5%. This elevated line drive rate has helped raise his BABIP to .327 this season.
In addition, the road to a full, healthy season will not be met without its detours. This Wednesday, the Marlins announced that they’ll be skipping Fernandez’s next turn in the rotation to help keep his innings number down in hopes of him being at full strength down the stretch.
Overall, Fernandez has put together an interesting campaign so far in 2016. His historic strikeout and contact rate has pushed him into the discussion of best starter in the league not named Clayton Kershaw. While, his troublesome batted ball tendencies may knock him down a few spots, he has done a good job limiting the damage. At the end of the day, the Marlins are happy to have their ace back and pitching better than ever.
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