Finding José Fernández’s Family

May 4, 2013
 
It pains me to root for anything related to the Miami Marlins, a baseball team that skillfully merged everything that is wrong with professional baseball with everything that is wrong with art deco aesthetics in one ugly tax-funded stadium in the Miami. The news that Giancarlo Stanton is on the DL made me briefly giddy, because I thought it might spark the Marlins into trading him away.
 
Unfortunately, the Marlins brought up José Fernández, a twenty-year old pitching prospect and four-time Cuban defector, who once jumped off a raft to save his mom from drowning. As a baseball fan and a fan of courage in sharky waters, I can’t help but root for Fernández. And South African fur seals.
 
Which is a long preamble to our  question of the day, which is what we should make of the talented and non-shark-phobic José Fernández?
 
We’re five starts into his major league career right now: it’s a little early to know for certain whether his career will be like Pedro Martinez’s, or whether he’ll be more like Tom Seaver. Small sample size aside, it’s fun to make wide speculations about bright young talents, even if that talent is one of the few thing keeping the Marlins from being relegated to AAA.
 
(Brief aside: I know the major league/minor league system doesn’t allow this, but wouldn’t it be great if we had a system like the English Premier League? Wouldn’t it be cool if places like Louisville or Buffalo or  Salt Lake City or Moosic, PA could end up with a major league team next year? I love this idea; I’d totally move to Papillion and buy season tickets for the Nebraska Storm Chasers.)
 
I watched José Fernández’s first start against the Mets. After getting three fly outs n the first, Fernández struck out the side in the second, and pitched a clean third inning; he was perfect his first time through a major league batting order. He looked great: he has a terrific, lively fastball and a strong curve. For a pitcher making his big-league debut, he seemed utterly unfazed by the moment; he looked pretty good at the plate, too.
 
That’s been the peak so far. He pitched effectively in his next start, blanking the Phillies through six innings. He struggled in Cinncinatti; there was a point in the game where the Reds started swinging early in the counts, and put together a string of really hard-hit line drives off his fastball.
 
Fernández followed that with a loss in Minnesota and a really short outing against the Mets; he still hasn’t won a major league game. Still, he’s pitched decently as a twenty-year old, which is a significant accomplishment.
 
It’s also a rare accomplishment; since 1980, just 26 pitchers have tossed 50+ innings in the major leagues, while being a year under the drinking age. Unless something strange happens, Fernández will become the 27th. Who are those 26 other pitchers? How does he compare to them? Who is he most like? Who’s in his family?
 
*          *          *
 
Just a quick note, to break a bit of the suspense: José Fernández is not in Dwight Gooden’s family. That’s because no one is in Dwight Gooden’s family, not as a twenty year old pitcher.  Just throwing the numbers out there, because they’re all kinds of astonishing:
 
24-3 W-L record, 1.53 ERA, 276.2 IP, 268 strikeouts, 8 Shutouts, 16 Complete Games.
 
Or, as it looks on a Topps baseball card:
 
24-3 W-L record, 1.53 ERA, 276.2 IP, 268 strikeouts, 8 Shutouts, 16 Complete Games.
 
Lots of bold-ness there. John Tudor, who had the great misfortune of having a terrific season in the shadows of a more terrific season, actually beat Gooden in shutouts, 10-8. He did this while posted a 21-8 record with a 1.93 ERA for the World Champion Cardinals.
 
So the conclusion of this essay is not that José Fernández is the second-coming of Dwight Gooden. He isn’t. With the way the trends are moving in baseball, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see a twenty-year old pitch as dominantly as Gooden.
 
*          *          *
 
So who is José Fernández like?
 
Here’s the list of the twenty-six pitchers who have tossed at least 50 innings in the majors since 1980:
 
Name
IP, Age 20
Name
IP, Age 20
Dwight Gooden
276.7
Storm Davis
100.7
Ed Correa
202.3
Steve Avery
99
Fernando Valenzuela
192.3
Jordan Lyles
94
Felix Hernandez
191
Oliver Perez
90
CC Sabathia
180.3
Alex Fernandez
87.7
Rick Ankiel
175
Jeff D'Amico
86
Rick Porcello
170.7
Gil Meche
85.7
Jeremy Bonderman
162
Joel Davis
71.3
Bret Saberhagen
157.7
Jon Garland
69.7
Zack Greinke
145
Jose Rijo
63.7
Bobby Witt
129
Mark Grant
53.7
Madison Bumgarner
111
Marcos Carvajal
53
Clayton Kershaw
107.3
Bruce Robbins
51.7
 
There are some impressive names on the list. Gooden, Valenzuela, Sabathia, Saberhagen, Greinke, Felix, and Kershaw have all won Cy Young Awards….that’s seven of twenty-six, or a tick more than a quarter of the players on the list. Jose Rijo probably could’ve won a Cy Young Award. Madison Bumgarner might win it this year.
 
This is a good start on José Fernández’s family; we’ve got a lot of names to pick-and-choose from. But…it’s pretty clear that some of the pitchers are distant relatives; third cousins and great uncles. Bruce Robbins pitched 51.2 innings as a 20-year old, back in 1980, walking more batters than he whiffed and posting an ERA+ of 63. Robbins shares with Fernández exactly one trait: they both pitched in the majors at twenty. I don’t know that that makes them brothers.
 
To find out who José Fernández’s closest relatives are, I looked at three rate stats: strikeout rate,  walk rate, and strikeout-to-walk ratio. I’ll list the players who are closest to Fernández.
 
K/9 IP
 
Name
IP
K
K/9 IP
Oliver Perez
90
94
9.4
Jose Rijo
63.7
65
9.2
Dwight Gooden
276.7
268
8.7
Jose Fernandez
24
23
8.6
CC Sabathia
180.3
171
8.5
Fernando Valenzuela
192.3
180
8.4
Ed Correa
202.3
189
8.4
Clayton Kershaw
107.3
100
8.4
Felix Hernandez
191
176
8.3
Marcos Carvajal
53
47
8.0
 
Briefly, our man in Miami is in the company of Dwight Gooden, and comfortable wedged around some really terrific pitchers. This isn’t surprising: getting lots of strikeouts tends to net positive results. Unless your name is Oliver Perez.
 
The two would-be Cy Young winners who don’t end up near Fernández are Greinke (6.2 K/9 IPrate) and Saberhagen (4.2 K/9 IP).
 
Now checking on control:
 
Name
IP
BB
BB/9 IP
CC Sabathia
180.3
95
4.7
Gil Meche
85.7
45
4.7
Rick Ankiel
175
90
4.6
Clayton Kershaw
107.3
52
4.4
Jose Fernandez
24
11
4.1
Steve Avery
99
45
4.1
Jose Rijo
63.7
28
4.0
Marcos Carvajal
53
21
3.6
Alex Fernandez
87.7
34
3.5
 
Fernández is a touch on the wild side, at least in the early goings. Of the seven Cy Young winners, his walk rate is better than only Sabathia’s and Kershaw’s. Interestingly, the two pitchers with the best walk rate of the twenty-six are Greinke (1.6 walks/9 IP) and Saberhagen (2.1 walks / 9 IP), the two guys who didn’t rate with Jose in strikeouts.
 
Which is a nice segue to the relationship between strikeouts and walks:
 
Name
IP
K/BB
Jose Rijo
63.7
2.3
Marcos Carvajal
53
2.2
Rick Ankiel
175
2.2
Jose Fernandez
24
2.1
Bret Saberhagen
157.7
2.0
Oliver Perez
90
2.0
Clayton Kershaw
107.3
1.9
Jeremy Bonderman
162
1.9
CC Sabathia
180.3
1.8
Alex Fernandez
87.7
1.8
 
Here, Fernández finds himself right next to Saberhagen, and a few ticks ahead of CC and Kershaw. This is the second ‘tier’ of the group; the middle grouping of twenty-year old pitchers. There are a lot of successes; Saberhagen, CC, Kershaw, Rijo all had fine careers. There are also a few misses: Ankiel, Perez.
 
There’s a significant jump in K/BB rate to the tier above this one, and a corresponding jump in the ratio of successes/blowouts:
 
Name
IP
K/BB
Dwight Gooden
276.7
3.9
Zack Greinke
145
3.8
Madison Bumgarner
111
3.3
Fernando Valenzuela
192.3
3.0
Felix Hernandez
191
2.9
 
None of the guys in the first tier missed. If a 20-year-old pitcher notches at least three strikeouts per walk, they’re going to stick in the majors. This is good news for Madison Bumgarner.
 
If a pitcher has a rate between 1.8 and 2.4 strikeout-per-walk, they might turn into an elite pitcher, and they might burn out. José Fernández is in that second group.
 
*          *          *
 
So who is in José Fernández’s family? There are four pitchers who show up on all three lists, who seem the closest relatives to the Marlins rookie:
 
Name
IP
K
K/9
BB
BB/9
K/BB
Jose Rijo
63.7
65
9.2
28
4.0
2.3
Marcos Carvajal
53
47
8.0
21
3.6
2.2
Jose Fernandez
24
23
8.6
11
4.1
2.1
Clayton Kershaw
107.3
100
8.4
52
4.4
1.9
CC Sabathia
180.3
171
8.5
95
4.7
1.8
 
The unknown on the list is probably Carvajal, a Venezuelian pitcher who came up with the Rockies in 2005. Carvajal has some parallels with Fernández: Carvajal split time between A and AA as a nineteen-year old, before getting called up to the Rockies. Carvajal showed good strikeout ability (74 k’s in 764 IP), though he was wild. José Fernández also split time at Age-19, shifting from A to A+ ball, but Fernández posted better strikeout rates than Carvajal, and better control.
 
You know about CC and Clayton.
 
The storyof Jose Rijo actually parallels the story of Fernández, and connects us back to Dwight Gooden…
 
Rijo was a huge prospect. At eighteen, Rijo posted an 18-7 record, with a 1.88 ERA and 184 strikeouts over 200.2 innings. He did this while bouncing between A and AA. This was 1983, and Rijo was playing in the Yankees system.
 
In 1984, the cross-town Mets brought up a bright young talent named Dwight Gooden, who pitched extremely well as a nineteen year old. Yankees manager George Steinbrenner, a genial sort who was usually content to let the seasons play out without his interference, decided that the Yankees should try the same thing with their bright and talented prospect. So the Yankees brought up Rijo.
 
Rijo struggled. He struggled because he was a nineteen year old who skipped AAA and got dropped into the rotation of a contending team that didn’t have room to be patient with a nineteen year old rookie. The Yankees expected him to be Dwight Gooden: they didn’t realize how rare Dwight Gooden was. 
 
The Yankees traded Rijo to Oakland for Rickey Henderson. The A’s traded Rijo for Dave Parker. Before he was twenty-three, he was a significant trade chip for two really good baseball players.
 
Rijo was great for the Reds. Over a seven-year stretch between 1988 and 1994, Rijo weny 87-53, posting a 2.63 ERA. He won two games (and the MVP) during the 1990 World Series, posting a 0.53 ERA in his two starts against the A’s…I don’t know how well Dave Parker did in that series. Elbow issues limited Rijo from building a credible HOF case, but he was an elite starter for a long time. He didn’t win the 1993 Cy Young Award, but WAR credits him as easily the best pitcher in the NL, 9.3 to Greg Maddux’s 5.8 mark.
 
José Fernándezis a weird amalgam of Gooden and Rijo. His minor league track record sits somewhere between Rijo and Gordon…ahead of Rijo but behind Gordon. He’s currently playing in a pitchers’ park in the NL East (like Gooden). Like Rijo, Fernández was brought up unexpectedly to the major, on the whim of an owner who makes Steinbrenner seem endearing. Like Gooden, Fernandez has shown flashes of brilliance and moments of adjustment (Gooden had a 4.85 ERA and a 2-2 record after six starts, before turning on the jets in mid-May).
 
We’re in the early stages of a long career, but José Fernández is keeping some good company. He’s worth watching, even if it hurts.
 
Dave Fleming is a writer living in Wellington, New Zealand. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com.
 
 

COMMENTS (5 Comments, most recent shown first)

shthar
I had Gooden AND Tudor on my strat team that year. Lots of fun.
5:14 AM May 9th
 
briangunn
Great piece. But the 1985 Cards - thanks to the Royals, Don Denkinger, etc. - were merely NL Champs, not World Champions.
9:14 AM May 5th
 
DaveFleming
Jose Fernandez was masterful tonight in Philly: 7 IP, 9 K, no runs.

He allowed a single in the 1st and then retired 17 batters in a row before allowing a walk to start the 7th inning. He then struck out Utley, Howard, and Young to get out of the inning. He threw just 82 pitches.

His rate stats are now: 9.3 K/9 IP, 3.2 BB.9 IP, and 2.9 K/9.
7:58 PM May 4th
 
DaveFleming
Right....Doc was 24-4. I must've confused it with Guidry's 1978 season (25-3). They're very similiar seasons...in another fifty years we'll know for sure which one was beter.
4:08 PM May 4th
 
ErnieSS
Very interesting article; makes me want to start catching Fernandez's starts on TV.
Was Rickey traded strictly because of money? It'd be interesting to do an article on that particular trade, as it involved not only an all-time great at the peak of his prime, but as you mentioned, a super-prospect, in Rijo.

Quick aside: I'm pretty certain that Gooden was 24-4 during that great 1985 season. Not a big deal, but no use exaggerating a year which, according to WAR, is the single greatest pitching season of the past 100 years. Literally. A hundred.
3:30 AM May 4th
 
 
©2019 Be Jolly, Inc. All Rights Reserved.|Web site design and development by Americaneagle.com|Terms & Conditions|Privacy Policy