Another reason to love Jose Fernandez

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
11:46
AM ET
As if we need more impetus to like Marlins phenom Jose Fernandez, he says this to MLB.com: "My goal this year is to have a 1.95 ERA."

Love it. Love that he has set a goal that will be outrageously difficult to achieve but firmly believes he can do it. "I expect to be a better pitcher than I was," he said.

As a 20-year-old rookie, Fernandez went 12-6 with a 2.19 ERA, holding batters to a .182 average and just 29 extra-base hits in 28 starts. Over his final 18 starts he allowed 22 runs and a .161 average while posting a 1.50 ERA.

SportsNation

Over or under on Jose Fernandez posting a 2.75 ERA?

  •  
    31%
  •  
    69%

Discuss (Total votes: 1,528)

Maybe 1.95 isn't so absurd.

But is there room for improvement? His batting average on balls in play was .242, the lowest mark in the majors among starters. His rate of home runs allowed on fly balls was 6.9 percent, 11th-lowest, although pitching in Marlins Park may have helped that number. OK, so let's say he had a little luck on balls in play and regresses to the 75th percentile of major league pitchers in BABIP. That would be a .280 average allowed. Over the number of in balls play Fernandez allowed last year, that's 15 extra hits. That would increase his overall average allowed to .206. Still pretty dominating.

As Fernandez said, however, maybe he pitches better. In his case, that would primarily mean improving the command of his four-pitch arsenal. He did walk 3.0 batters per nine innings, a walk rate of 8.5 percent that ranked 64th of 81 qualified starters. Clayton Kershaw, by comparison, had a walk rate of 5.7 percent.

But here's what's interesting: Fernandez actually threw a very high percentage of pitches in the strike zone. According to ESPN Stats & Info, his zone percentage was 54 percent -- sixth-best among those 81 starters, behind only Cliff Lee, Bartolo Colon, R.A. Dickey, Jordan Zimmermann and Hisashi Iwakuma.

In isolating some of the numbers, it looks like one reason for Fernandez's walk rate is what happens on 3-1 counts. His zone percentage in those counts was 56.9 percent, below the major league average for starting pitchers of 58.8 percent. While a guy like Lee has basically decided he won't walk anybody, even on 3-1 counts (Lee threw 70 percent strikes in those counts), Fernandez made the other choice, which was that he wasn't going to groove a fastball. It's two different philosophies of pitching. Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander, James Shields and Stephen Strasburg followed the "don't give in" approach and threw an ever lower percentage of strikes on 3-1 counts than Fernandez.

The pitch that could make Hernandez even tougher this year is the changeup. That's the fourth pitch that Fernandez possesses that Kershaw rarely throws (or doesn't need to). Fernandez threw it about 8 percent of the time, almost exclusively against left-handed batters. Overall, left-handers hit just .188 against Fernandez while right-handers hit .175, but while he had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 94-to-18 against righties, it was just 93-to-40 against lefties. If he throws the change more often against lefties with good command perhaps he gets ahead in the count more often and that walk rate goes down.

Which is a scary thought for opposing hitters.

Look, I wouldn't bet on a 1.95 ERA but I wouldn't bet against him either. Since 1950, only 15 different starting pitchers have had least two seasons with an ERA under 2.25. Since 1980, only three have done it -- Greg Maddux (five times), Pedro Martinez (four) and Roger Clemens (three).

Is Fernandez in that kind of company?

By the way, ZiPS projects Fernandez to a 2.57 ERA. Steamer has him at 3.35. Let's do an over/under of 2.75. What do you think?

David Schoenfield | email

SweetSpot blogger

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Comments

Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.