A lot of words have been written throughout the course of this season about Jose Fernandez‘s historic rookie year. Comparisons have been made to all the great rookie seasons on the mound, from Mark Fidrych to Fernando Valenzuela to Doc Gooden. Lately, there have even been articles questioning whether Fernandez is one of the best pitchers – if not THE best pitcher – in the Majors. I’d like to narrow the scope, though, and compare Fernandez internally by looking at how he matches up with some of the great Marlins pitching seasons of all time.
In their 21 seasons of existence, the Marlins have had some rough pitching staffs. Just the other day, I was flipping through some old baseball cards, and I found a Mark Hendrickson card. That guy started an Opening Day game for the Marlins! And just a few cards behind Hendrickson was Brian Moehler, who somehow pitched 280 innings for the Marlins. Man, have they had some bad starters! But then you think back to the good names, the Kevin Browns and Josh Becketts of the world, and you realize that Jose Fernandez’s season has been right up there with the best of them.
Below are the top 10 seasons in Marlins pitching history, a list that, with any luck, will soon be populated with more Jose Fernandez sightings.
10. Ryan Dempster, 2000, 4.2 WAR, $268,000
Dempster is that rare breed of player: All-Star starter-turned-mediocre starter-turned-mediocre closer-turned-All-Star starter-turned-mediocre starter. During the first arc of that weird, weird career, Dempster was the Marlins’ All-Star representative in 2000. Dempster went 14-10 at age 23 while posting a 3.66 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, and 121 ERA+. He struck out 209 batters – do you believe that? – but he also walked 97. He led the league in walks the following season.
9. Ricky Nolasco, 2008, 4.2 WAR, $390,000
Once upon a time, Ricky Nolasco gave Marlins fans hope. For years, his peripheral statistics never lined up with his traditional statistics, and fans would point to this performance, his 2008 season, as proof that he could, indeed, be a frontline starter. Nolasco finished the season 15-8 with a 3.52 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, and a 124 ERA+, which has been the only above-average ERA+ of his career until this year.
8. Carl Pavano, 2004, 5.3 WAR, $3,800,000
Remember this guy? This is the masterful season Pavano was able to parlay into an incredible contract with the Yankees, which led to the amazing nickname American Idle. Pavano was an All-Star for the Marlins in this season, and finished 6th in the Cy Young voting after posting an 18-8 record with a 3.00 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, and 137 ERA+. I remember when people were upset that the Marlins let him leave Miami.
7. Al Leiter, 1996, 5.6 WAR, $2,750,000
This was the season in which Leiter threw the first no-hitter in franchise history. This was also the season in which Leiter led the league in BOTH walks AND fewest hits per 9 innings. Weird. Leiter posted a 16-12 record, 2.93 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, and a 139 ERA+, but was completely overshadowed by his teammate, Kevin Brown (more on him in a moment).
6. Jose Fernandez, 2013, 5.9 WAR, $490,000
You know all about him. Since June 1st, he’s been the best pitcher in baseball. He’s going to garner some serious Cy Young consideration (though he won’t, and shouldn’t, win it) despite throwing somewhere around 170 innings this year. Oh, and he’s two years out of high school.
5. Josh Johnson, 2009, 6.6 WAR, $1,400,000
This was the year Marlins fans – and many around baseball – began to realize that Johnson had ace potential if he could stay healthy. JJ put up a 3.23 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, and 133 ERA+ en route to his first All-Star Game. He also made 33 starts and threw over 200 innings, both of which are marks he’s never reached again.
4. Kevin Brown, 1997, 7.0 WAR, $4,510,000
Brown was a beast for the second year in a row (we’ll talk about his first year in a moment) in 1997. He went 16-8 for the World Champs with a 2.69 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, and 150 ERA+. He threw a no-hitter that was almost a perfect game if not for Marvin Bernard’s foot (one of Brown’s league-leading 14 hit-by-pitches) and was so dominant that the crowd in San Francisco was standing and applauding him by the end.
3. Dontrelle Willis, 2005, 7.2 WAR, $378,500
Dontrelle was awesome in 2003. He took a step back and 2004, and then put 2005 in a headlock and beat the crap out of it. (What went wrong after that is anybody’s guess.) The D-Train was a serious Cy Young contender in 2005, finishing second to Chris Carpenter who, by the way, had a lower ERA+, lower WAR, and fewer wins than Willis. Given all that’s transpired with his career since, and how amazing his run was in 2003, it’s easy to forget just how dominant Willis was in 2005 – he posted a 22-10 record (his 22 wins led the league) with a 2.63 ERA, 113 WHIP, and 152 ERA+. He gave up just 11 home runs all year and did this while throwing an insane 236.1 innings – that’s a ridiculous 0.4 HR/9 innings. He had 7 complete games and 5 shutouts, both of which led the league. And that smile…oh man, that smile.
2. Josh Johnson, 2010, 7.2 WAR, $3,750,000
Like Dontrelle, it’s easy to forget how dominant JJ was in 2010 because since then, he’s been frequently injured, traded unceremoniously, and put up a 6.20 ERA for Toronto in a free agent walk year. JJ’s record wasn’t sparkling at 11-6, thanks to a subpar Marlins team, but he did have a league-leading 2.30 ERA. He also led the league in ERA+ at 180 and had a 1.11 WHIP. He gave up 7 home runs all year – ALL YEAR – which led to a sparkling 0.3 HR/9 rate (sorry, Dontrelle). Oh, and he didn’t even pitch the last 4 weeks of the season due to back pain.
1. Kevin Brown, 1996, 8.0 WAR, $3,350,000
Here’s the crazy thing about Kevin Brown – he pitched incredibly well for some under-the-radar teams early in his career, then pitched incredibly well for one big market team but got injured fairly often, then pitched poorly for the Yankees after signing a big contract, so no one likes him. Fact is, Kevin Brown was dominant, and not just for a short period of time. He has an incredibly compelling Hall of Fame case but fell off the ballot already. But that’s a topic for another day. Point is, in Brown’s sterling 19-year career, this season was one of his top two (and I place it above his 1998 season, in which his WAR was higher but with the exception of strikeouts he achieved at a much lower level). Brown went 17-11 with a 1.89 ERA. He had a 1.89 ERA. Only Bob Gibson, Dwight Gooden, Greg Maddux, Luis Tiant, Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax, Pedro Martinez, Rod Guidry, Tom Seaver, Sam McDowell, Vida Blue, Phil Niekro, and Roger Clemens have had lower single-season ERAs than that since 1964. Those are some names. His ERA+ was a league-leading 215, and he led the league with a 0.944 WHIP. Utter dominance.
When all is said and done, we have no idea where Fernandez’s career will go. He could have a borderline Hall case like Brown. He could flame out like Willis. He could be up and down like Dempster. What we do know is this: his season has been impressive at any age, let alone at age 20/21, two years removed from high school. Barring a shelling in his final start, Fernandez will finish with the second lowest single-season ERA in Marlins history. Likewise, he’ll finish with the second best single-season WHIP. He’s already a shoo-in for lowest H/9 in Marlins history (remember Leiter’s league-leading ratio of 6.395? Fernandez is at 5.759). He’s going to best Josh Beckett’s team record of K/9 ratio (he currently stands at 9.887) and he’ll have the third-best Adjusted ERA+ in team history. He’s been a beast – and it’s been a pleasure to watch him.