Let me start this piece by highlighting the fact that any loss of life is a tragic and heart-breaking event. Let alone the loss of 3 young men aged 24,25 and 27 with their whole life ahead of them. On September 25th 2016, Miami Marlins ace Jose Fernandez and his two friends Emilio Macias (27) and Eduardo Rivero (25) lost their lives in a heartbreaking boating accident.
Regardless of your feelings surrounding the supposed circumstances of their deaths, three young men lost their lives that night. Three sons, brothers, friends, nephews, fathers and loved ones didn’t return home that evening.
Over the past few weeks I have consistently seen articles and blogs rating the best or most underrated players of the decade between 2010-19. And rightly or wrongly, all most none of them referenced the late Jose Fernandez. Whether he warranted a place on these lists is very much subject to both the author and the reader but at the very least his talent warranted mentioning.
The absence of Jose Fernandez amongst these lists prompted myself to imagine how the baseball landscape would lie if Jose Fernandez had never stepped foot on a boat that fateful night. Where would Fernandez rank within the leagues current pitching aces? What kind of numbers what he have been putting up every 5th night? Would he still be playing for the Marlins? The answer to all of those questions are ones we will never know and just speculating over them prompts one’s remorse over his wasted talent and life.
With that said, I keep returning to my initial quandary and fix of visualizing a butterfly effect baseball universe with him as a core piece. The purpose of this article is designed to highlight to the baseball world just how much of a talent we were robbed of enjoying.
Jose Fernandez made his Major League debut on April 7th 2013 at Citi Field against the New York Mets when pitching five innings, allowing one run on three hits with eight strikeouts. Within this piece I want to go some way as to projecting what Fernandez’s career may have turned out like in the years that followed his death. In order to do this I wanted to compare with him a number of pitchers who also made their debuts in 2013 and have since had varying success in the league. These pitchers chosen were Gerrit Cole, Michael Wacha, Sonny Gray and Alex Wood.
The reason for picking 4 pitchers with varying levels of success in the Majors was to gain an idea of the different trajectories that Fernandez’s career could have taken should he have mirrored the % change of for example Michael Wacha’s HR/9 rate or Sonny Grays BABIP.
Before mapping Fernandez’s career based on the pitchers above, I would like to very quickly highlight the varying innings pitched by each of the pitcher at the end of their 4th Major League season. The idea of these numbers is to add weight to the idea that Fernandez was one of, if not the rawest out of the 4 chosen pitchers, with arguably a tonne of development and improvement still to come.
· Sonny Gray – 491 IP
· Alex Wood- 439 IP
· Gerrit Cole – 463 IP
· Michael Wacha 353 IP
· Jose Fernandez 289 IP
By the end of their 2016 and fourth complete Major League season, Jose Fernandez had pitched 59% of Sonny Gray’s innings, 66% of Alex Woods, 62% of Gerrit Coles and 82% of Michael Wacha’s.
N.B- The numbers used and quoted below are from forecasting Jose Fernandez’s career based on his 2016 statistics and the percentage change of the corresponding stats from the pool of 2013 debutants as listed above.
Having only been drafted in the year prior to his debut, Wacha’s path to his MLB debut on May 30th 2013 was an exceptionally quick one. Going 7-7 with a 5.09 ERA in his first season with the Cardinals, Wacha did enough to earn himself a playoff start in his rookie season. He would later etch himself into baseball history with an NLDS elimination win against the Pirates, winning the NLCS MVP with 13 scoreless innings vs the Dodgers and becoming the 17th youngest pitcher to record a World Series win.
Following his postseason sorcery of 2013, Wacha’s career was halted by a stress fracture to his throwing shoulder in 2014. The same shoulder would later cause further discomfort in 2016 when pitching to a career-high 5.09 ERA and 1.48 WHIP in 24 starts.
In the years which ensued between 2016 and 2019, Wacha’s K/9 rate increased and decreased by 15% to 8.58 (16-17), -12% to 7.58 (17-18) and -3% to 7.39 (18-19). If Wacha’s career progression rate was applied to Jose Fernandez’s then his K/9 rates would have been 14.4 (2017), 12.7 (2018) and 12.4 (2019). These totals would have put Fernandez 1st (2018 & 2019 and 3rd (2019) in K/9 with only Gerrit Cole (13.82) and Max Scherzer (12.69) ahead of him 2019.
Even when mapped against a pitcher such as Michael Wacha, who despite such promise when entering the Major’s who has since struggled in the later years of his career to date, Fernandez would still be projected one of, if not the greatest strikeout pitcher within the whole of baseball.
Wood made his major league debut in June 2013 when earning the first loss of his career having surrendered just a single run to the Toronto Blue Jays. Following a stellar 2014 season with the Braves in which he went 11-11 with a 2.78 ERA in just over 170 innings, he was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers in a three way with the Miami Marlins in July 2015. His 2016 season was limited to just 10 starts and a 1-4 record having battled an ailing elbow injury for the majority of the season.
After beginning the 2017 season in the bullpen, Alex Wood quickly re-established himself back in the Dodgers rotation with a majestic first half of the season going 10-0 and being selected to his first and only All-Star game. In the following season, Wood’s control waned as he surrendered a career high in walks. In the winter of 2018 following a turbulent 2018, he was traded to Cincinnati along with Yasiel Puig. From there his 2019 season would largely be interrupted by injury as he managed only 35.2 innings pitching to a 1-3 record with a 5.80 ERA.
During his time with both Los Angeles and then Cincinnati, Alex Wood’s xFIP increased 2% (16-17), 11% (17-18) and 19% (18-19). Evidently increasing your xFIP year on year isn’t necessarily a good but this feels somewhat of a fair representation of Alex Wood’s career since Jose Fernandez’s passing. If these rates were applied to Fernandez’s xFIP as a means of projecting his career with Alex Wood’s lack of consistency, then Fernandez would have posted xFIPs of 2.60 (2017), 2.89 (2018) and 3.45 (2019). These would have placed Fernandez 2nd in xFIP (2017), 3rd (2018) and 13th (2019). He would have trailed only Corey Kluber in 2017, Jacob DeGrom and Patrick Corbin in 2018 during these seasons.
Jose Fernandez’s talent and potential are nearly beyond words at this point. When applying Alex Wood’s xFIP improvement, a good but not great pitcher who had seasonal fWaR’s of 3.1, 2.4 and -0.2 you would have been projecting xFIPs of 2.60, 2.89 and 3.45 over the same time period.
Having made his Big-League Debut with the Oakland Athletics originally out of the bullpen in July of 2013 against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Gray’s time in the Majors has since been a turbulent one. Following 4 fruitful seasons with Oakland in which he finished 3rd in CY Young Voting and was selected to his first All-Star game in 2015, he was traded to the Yankees amidst their 2017 play-off push following an injury plagued 2016.
Gray’s troubles continued in New York going 12-15 with a 4.85 ERA before being demoted to the Yankees bullpen. In January 2019, Gray was traded to Cincinnati where his career would transform. He would later go 11-8 with a 2.87 ERA and 3.65 XFIP.
Between the years of 2017 and 2019, Sonny Gray’s ERA increased & decreased by -38% (16-17), 38% (17-18) and -41% (18-19). If Jose Fernandez had mapped Sonny Gray’s career trajectory in this time then his ERA following his 2016 season would have sat at 1.78 (2017), 2.46 (2018), 1.44 (2019). This would have led the league in both 2017 and 2019 with only Jacob DeGrom, Blake Snell, Trevor Bauer and Aaron Nola having an ERA lower than Fernandez’ projected ERA. It’s worth remembering that this projected ERA based on the career progression of Sonny Gray is based on his 2018 season where he produced a 4.90 ERA, 4.17 FIP and 1.21 WHIP. With all of this accounted for, Fernandez would have produced a 2.46 ERA, 5th in the whole of baseball.
Without a shadow of a doubt, the gem of not only the 2013 pitching debutant class but of arguably the 2010’s pitching debutants was Gerrit Cole. Having surmounted a 2019 season for the ages with a 6.8 bWaR season with a 20-5 record, 2.50 ERA, 326 K’s, 0.895 WHIP and 13.8 K/9. Having been drafted originally by the New York Yankees in the 2008 draft out of High School, he opted to attend UCLA on a scholarship. He’d later be drafted by the Pirates as the first overall selection in the 2011 draft earning an $8m bonus.
It would only take Cole 2 years to appear in the Majors, making his MLB debut on June 11th 2013 against the San Francisco Giants. Cole would go on to finish 2013 with a 10-7 record with a 3.22 ERA over 19 starts. His performance during the season earned him the Game 2 start in the NLDS against the St Louis Cardinals. Over the coming years, Cole carried the Pirates, pitching 463 innings between 2013 and 2016, the same fateful year of Fernandez’s passing. His 2016 record (7-10) didn’t really represent just how well Cole pitched in his first season as he owned a 3.88 era, 2.5 fWaR and 3.3 WHIP.
Over the years which followed Fernandez’s tragic death, Cole would reduce his BABIP by -15% (2017), -4% (2018) and -4% (2019). Should these rates of improvement been applied to the 2016 stats of Jose Fernandez then he would have projected BABIP rates of 0.287 (2017), 0.275 (2018) and 0.265 (2019) in comparison to Cole’s 0.298 (2017), 0.286 (2018) and 0.275 (2019).
Despite the impressiveness of the projected BABIP for Fernandez based on the improvement that Cole incurred, there is more to come. Over the same time period (2017-2019) Cole managed to improve his xFIP by -5% (2017), -20% (2018) and -13% (2019). If these rates were applied to Fernandez then his xFIP for these seasons would have been an expected 2.42 (2017), 1.93 (2018) and 1.57 (2019).
Can you just imagine someone posting seasonal xFIP’s of 1.93 and 1.57 That is absolute ludicrousy. Even when accounting for a far from perfect model, adding 50% of tax to the projections to make them slightly more realistic, you’re left with xFIPS of 2.8 and 2.3 for 2018 and 2019, which without needing to be said would have easily been amongst the best in baseball., and that is with a 50% added on.
Living in a new decade, we will inevitably see the rise of new phenoms, the fall of current stars and invariably a live ball vs bygone era comparison without a tangible answer. The point of this article wasn’t to demean or challenge the achievements of Sonny Gray, Michael Wacha, Alex Wood or indeed Gerrit Cole. But to highlight the sheer talent of Jose Fernandez and how his career may or may not have turned out based on the ensuing years of his peers at a similar position of their careers to Fernandez himself.
It goes without saying, what a loss Jose Fernandez was to not only the Miami Marlins, but baseball as a whole. Fans were robbed of the chance to see arguably the best pitcher of his generation pitch every 5th night for 10+ years. How his career would have panned out is something that we will never ever know. Sometimes the heir of mystery outweighs the achievements which could follow, but that wasn’t the case with Jose. He truly had the baseball world at his feet.
Rest in piece Jose. The baseball world misses you so very dearly.
Four Bases x