Jose Fernandez, one of a kind
April, 22, 2014
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com
The latest episode of baseball's most entertaining reality show -- the Amazing Ace, starring the one, the only, the relentlessly effervescent Jose Fernandez -- will roll into Atlanta on Tuesday night.
If you have a dish, a cable box, a laptop, an iPhone or some other mobile device that can reel in this must-see slice of baseball life, here’s our advice: Carve out the time and watch this guy do his thing.
There's nothing like it -- because there’s no one quite like Jose Fernandez appearing on any big league mound in North America these days.
"He's probably the best pitcher I've ever seen," said his Marlins teammate, closer Steve Cishek. "The most competitive, for sure. He's a lot of fun to watch."
We should probably mention that the opposition doesn't always agree with the "fun" part of that review. You can ask Brian McCann all about it some day. But when the rest of us lay eyes on the Marlins' mesmerizing, 21-year-old ace, here's what we see:
Energy. Confidence. An irrepressible joy in doing what he does. And, ohbytheway, maybe the best stuff in baseball.
So we asked the men around him to tell us their favorite stories of a guy who, just 32 starts into his career, already has ripped off 26 starts allowing two earned runs or fewer (including 13 in a row at one point). And 27 starts allowing five hits or fewer (including 17 in a row). And five double-figure strikeout games (including back-to-back 13-K and 14-K games last summer).
Here are some of those tales:
Jose the base stealer
Marc Serota/Getty ImagesLook out, LeBron. Jose Fernandez is becoming a beloved figure in South Florida.
After Fernandez reached base in a recent start against the Brewers, Marlins manager Mike Redmond saw his ace dancing off second, acting like a guy ready to burst into a Billy Hamilton impression any minute.
"He was on second, and he started to fake like he was going to steal third," Redmond said. "And I said, 'Wait. When a guy's hitting, you've got to stay put out there.' And he was like, 'Well, I was going to steal third. They're giving it to me, and I'm just going to take it.' And this was with two outs. So I said, 'That's not your job. You're not a base stealer.' And this is like in the middle of the game. We're sitting on the bench, and we're having this conversation, and I'm just laughing."
Is that an indication, we asked, that Fernandez thinks there's nothing he can’t do?
"You have to be careful when you talk to him and say, 'You can't do something,'" Redmond chuckled, "because if you tell him, 'Hey, you can't throw this guy a changeup because he's really good at hitting a changeup,' he's going to want to throw him nothing but changeups to try and get him out, just to show you that he can really get him out with changeups.
"When we played the Rockies, we talked about not throwing [Justin] Morneau a lot of changeups. And he ended up throwing about six or seven changeups to him. So you have to be careful of what you say he can't do."
The 92 mph changeup
When most guys throw a pitch 92 miles per hour, it’s their fastball. Possibly their best fastball. When Jose Fernandez hits 92 on the gun, that’s an off-speed pitch.
"There was one pitch," said his catcher, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, "where he was facing [Chase Headley] and he threw a changeup. And Headley went, 'Damn, that was a nasty sinker.' And I didn't want to tell him it was a changeup."
The more Saltalamacchia thought about that exchange, the funnier it got. But he still isn't sure whether he should be happy a hitter was that confused about that pitch or worried that his ace was throwing his changeup way too hard.
"I didn't know how to take that," Saltalamacchia admitted, "whether it was a compliment or a bad thing."
But either way, it did fit right in with Fernandez's whole approach to pitching -- and life.
"From the get-go, the guy is pedal on the metal, and he doesn’t let up," Saltalamacchia said. "He's excited. You know how between innings, the umpires give you 2 minutes and 30 seconds [before resuming play]? Well, he's on the mound with like a minute and a half left. You're thinking, like, 'Take your time.' But he hits the gas pedal and he's going. You can't slow him down. You don't want to slow him down. It's just his tempo, and how he works."
The home run off a tee
And then there was the day that Fernandez sucked in a bunch of Marlins position players with a friendly wager -- that turned out to be (what else?) a giant setup.
"He kind of hustled some guys last year betting them that he could hit a home run from home plate off a tee," Cishek said. "And everyone was like, 'There’s no shot.' That's pretty tough to do, right? Now I don't know. I'm not a hitter. But I would imagine it's really hard to do, because all the hitters were like, 'There's no chance.'
"So he got people to jump in on it. And sure enough. First swing. Hit one out of our big park. We all just went nuts. Little did they know that he was practicing all day. It was hilarious just watching him. I was watching him practicing, trying to figure out the angle and everything. So then, when he went in the locker room, to try and get people on board and they bit, it was great."
And what, we asked, was the moral to that story?
"Don't trust anything Jose says," Cishek said, laughing uproariously. "If he says he can do something, take his word for it."
The pregame show
When most pitchers are gearing up to start a game, they withdraw to their own silent planet. Not Jose Fernandez.
"He's unique," Redmond said. "He's not the kind of guy where you come in and he's sitting at his locker with his game face on and you can't talk to him. I mean, he's hitting in the cage, he's bunting in the cage, he's in my office, he's sitting on the couch, he's talking to me about a couple of hitters. Then he's out, and he's back in. He's joking with the guys. He's all over the place. So he's unique. I never played with a guy like that, man. And that's how he is every day. Just that day that he gets the ball, he can't wait. He just really loves to pitch."
But when Fernandez pops into the manager's office before a start, Redmond confessed, he often isn't in there to talk about pitching.
"It could be about hitting," Redmond said. "He'll want to swing at the first pitch all the time, because he thinks that's the pitch that he should be hitting every time. So he'll be like, 'Come on, Red. You've got to turn me loose first pitch.'"
For the record, Fernandez has come to the plate eight times this year -- and swung at the first pitch in half those trips. He has put none of those hacks in play.
Last January, Fernandez was invited to attend the New York baseball writers' dinner, to accept his NL Rookie of the Year award. So naturally, a delegation from the Marlins' front office went with him, and occupied a large table in the ballroom.
So as general manager Dan Jennings recalls it, after Fernandez accepted his award at the podium, he returned to his team's table and told everyone around him: "I want to be up there again next year, too."
And that, of course, could have meant only one thing. He was planning to win the Cy Young this time around. Right?
"Well, I don't think he'll be rookie of the year again," Jennings deadpanned. "He's got that box checked."
We tried to get a report on what opposing hitters say to their buddies on the Marlins after they reach base against Fernandez. But that turned out to be tougher than we'd envisioned.
"Every once in a while, somebody will say something like, 'That's the best stuff I've ever seen,'" said Greg Dobbs, who started 47 games at first for the Marlins last year. "But there haven't been many [of those conversations] -- because there weren't very many guys who got over there. He doesn't give up many hits, you know."
Yeah, good point. Fernandez actually had a higher batting average last season (.220) than the hitters who faced him (.182). But as that shouting match with McCann last year illustrated, Fernandez's flamboyance has been known to light an occasional fire in the other dugout. So his teammates often have some explaining to do -- that their ace doesn't mean any harm. He merely has only one speed on his transmission.
"I don't want to change who he is or what he's doing, but he's young," Saltalamacchia said. "You can see that in the way he handles certain things. He wants to be great. There's nothing wrong with that. But sometimes you've got to understand what the situation is, and when to back off, and when to kind of get going. But right now, he's just kind of got that 100 miles an hour [pace]. And I can't say that's not a good thing, because it obviously works for him."
Cishek echoed that, shaking his head as he said: "Man, he's just in your face. The way he acts out there, he's really not trying to show people up. He just really wants to shut every single [hitter] he sees down. When he gives up a hit, he's mad at himself. For goodness sakes, if we're shagging in BP, he likes to power-shag out there. If he drops a ball, he's screaming at himself and everything. He's just a perfectionist."
So this is not a guy who even realizes he's firing up the opposition. He's just so talented, so confident and so driven, he expects to strike out about 20 every night.
"Oh, he definitely thinks he could," Cishek said. "I'm telling you. If he gives up a hit, say in the first inning, he's just blown away. He's like, 'Man, I can't believe I just gave up a hit.' That’s what it seems like anyways."
You can understand, then, why he might rub a few hitters the wrong way. But he's becoming a more beloved figure in South Florida every time he goes out there. Look out, LeBron.
"My kids have been around him, this is the second year now," Redmond said. "And my boys woke up Opening Day and they were like, 'Dad, we can't wait to watch Jose pitch tonight.' We’re talking about 13- and 11-year-old kids. And they couldn't wait.
"He's got a lot of people that love him. You see that when he pitches in Miami. The crowds are electric. A lot of people come out to watch him. Like I said last year, he brought a lot of excitement to Miami when we really needed it. And we still need that."
And one thing they've learned about Jose Fernandez in his first 32 trips to a big league mound: If it's excitement you're in need of, he's just the man you’re looking for.