SweetSpot: Jose Fernandez

Tales of Saturday's aces

April, 5, 2014
Apr 5
They say one badge of a true ace is finding a way to succeed when you don’t bring your premium stuff or pinpoint location to the mound.

In the case of Jose Fernandez, the stuff is always premium, with a fastball that touches the upper 90s when he pumps it up, a slider that makes right-handed batters weep in torment and a sharp curveball that he’s not afraid to throw on any count. He’ll even drop in an occasional changeup, just to turn batters' brains to mush worrying about a fourth pitch.

[+] EnlargeJose Fernandez
AP Photo/Alan DiazMiami's Jose Fernandez (2-0) lowered his ERA to 0.71 with Saturday's win against the Padres.
The Padres’ approach in Fernandez’s second start of 2014 appeared to be: Wait him out, hope he’s a bit wild, maybe draw some walks and get a couple of timely hits to push across some runs or at least run up his pitch count and get to the Marlins’ bullpen early. Of the first 11 batters, only Jedd Gyorko and pitcher Andrew Cashner swung at the first pitch. The patient approach sort of worked, as Fernandez didn’t have the command he had an Opening Day, when 73 of his 94 pitches were strikes. Through the first three innings Saturday, Fernandez had thrown 56 pitches and walked two batters in the third inning that loaded the bases with one out. It looked like a short night was in order.

But his pitch to Seth Smith shows why Fernandez is a pitcher who relies on more than just stuff. The 21-year-old knows how to pitch. He usually throws a four-seam fastball, but against Smith he threw a first-pitch, 89 mph sinker that Smith pounded into the ground for a 4-6-3 double play.

That was pretty much it for the Padres. Fernandez regrouped, found his command and threw seven pitches in the fourth, 10 in the fifth and 14 in the sixth, allowing him to pitch into the seventh inning. He left with two outs in the seventh, after striking out Alexi Amarista (who reached when the curveball got away from catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia). Fernandez’s final line in the Marlins’ 4-0 victory looked like another dominating gem: 6.2 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 8 SO. But this is one of those games in which an ace overcame a shaky beginning.

Through two starts now, Fernandez has allowed one run and eight hits in 12.2 innings with 17 strikeouts. Going back to last season, he’s allowed more two runs just twice in 20 starts, and those two times he allowed three runs.

Fernandez, who weighed as much as 260 pounds in high school (perhaps a reason he fell to the 14th pick in 2011), spent the offseason biking as much as 600 miles per week on his $9,000 Specialized S-Works Venge bike. Listed at 240 pounds as a rookie, Fernandez is now a svelte but still powerful 220 pounds. He’s poised, confident, in terrific shape and developing the mind of an ace to go with his all-world right arm. Two starts in and he looks like a guy who will be the best pitcher in baseball in 2014.

* * * *

Stephen Strasburg is still trying to find the consistency that Fernandez seems to have found. He struck out 10 batters in six innings on Opening Day but still gave up four runs, as three of the five hits he allowed to the Mets came in the first inning, including a three-run homer.


Who will have the better season?


Discuss (Total votes: 1,677)

In his second start, against the Braves at home, his final line looked like a pitcher who got shelled -- eight hits, three walks and six runs in 4.2 innings. To be fair, his defense let him down, as two errors led to three of the runs being unearned, and there were some soft hits in there. But while Fernandez was able to get that double-play ball, Strasburg couldn’t escape a jam in the fifth inning, when the Braves scored four runs. After Freddie Freeman walked, Strasburg gave up two soft liners and a ground single to load the bases. He started Dan Uggla with a curveball in the dirt and then came back with another curve that Uggla grounded sharply into left field for a two-run single. Bryce Harper’s throwing error allowed the runners to move up to second and third for Ryan Doumit.

Strasburg is a strikeout pitcher and needed one here, with the Nationals down 4-2. Against the switch-hitting Doumit, he fired six fastballs in a row -- ball, called strike, foul, ball, ball, foul. It was a curious pitch selection, especially after he got the count to 1-2, because against left-handed batters in 2013, Strasburg’s fastball wasn’t a great strikeout pitch. In 223 plate appearances against lefties ending in fastballs, he struck out just 23 batters (and walked 28). Of 416 swings on his fastball by lefties, just 56 were missed. So Doumit hung in there. Strasburg did finally come in with a 3-2 curveball, but Doumit looked like he was sitting on it and lined it over a drawn-in infield for an RBI single. The sixth run came on a sac fly after Strasburg had been yanked.

In comparing Fernandez to Strasburg, the big difference comes with runners on base. Last year, Strasburg allowed a .184 average with the bases empty compared to .245 with men on. Fernandez was .176 with the bases empty and .191 with runners on.

Saturday night's games showcased that difference. Fernandez got out of his jam and settled down; Strasburg didn't. If the two entered the season regarded essentially as equals as Cy Young contenders, it's Fernandez's poise and pitchability that right now makes him the better ace.

* * * *

Felix Hernandez once had a fastball that matched Fernandez and Strasburg. But those days are in the past. He's now a wily veteran who turns 28 on Tuesday (can he really be that old already?) and his fastest pitch against the A's on Saturday was clocked at 92.3 mph. But Hernandez spots that fastball, usually on the black, and backs it up with one of the most devastating pitches in the game, a hard changeup that comes in at the knees and seems to take a 90-degree turn straight down at the last split-second.

Hernandez threw 23 changeups against the A's with an average velocity of 88.6 mph, not that much slower than his fastball, which makes it doubly tough for hitters to pick up. The A's did nothing against it: 15 swings, five misses, eight foul balls, one ground ball out and one fly ball out. The effectiveness of that fastball/changeup combo can be seen in the two jams Hernandez worked through.

In the fourth inning, the game still 0-0, Jed Lowrie singled with two outs and Brandon Moss doubled on a pop fly that shortstop Brad Miller lost in the sun. That brought up Yoenis Cespedes. Hernandez went 89 mph fastball right on the outsider corner, a slider off the plate that Cespedes missed, then another fastball right at the knees that Cespedes, perhaps looking for that changeup, swung through. In the sixth, Coco Crisp tripled with one out, bringing up Josh Donaldson. Slider for a strike, a foul tip on a changeup, a 92 mph fastball inside. With the count 1-2, Donaldson probably expected the changeup -- he had struck out earlier in the game on one. He got one that fell off a table. Swing and a miss, Donaldson nearly screwing himself into the ground. Hernandez then got Lowrie to pop up -- changeup, curveball.

Hernandez lost his shutout on Lowrie's home run in the ninth, but this game exemplified the King at his best: four pitches that he'll throw on any count, with precision and a plan and deception. It's a beautiful thing.

Overreact after one series? Of course we're going to overreact! We're baseball fans. It's no fun if we just spout things like "small sample size" and "check back in two months." So, what have we learned after one series? Here are a few trends and things to watch, starting with Evan Longoria.

The Rays third baseman went 2-for-4 in Tampa's 7-2 win over Toronto, slugging a three-run homer for his first home run of 2014. So here's the deal with Longoria: If anyone is going to crack the Miguel Cabrera-Mike Trout stranglehold on the AL MVP Award, Longoria is the most likely candidate. Consider his merits:

[+] EnlargeEvan Longoria, David DeJesus, Ben Zobrist
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsIs this the year Evan Longoria puts it all together for the Rays?
1. He's off to a hot start! Our guy is hitting .400.

2. He's good. Not including 2012, when he played just 74 games, he's finished fifth, sixth, third and fourth in WAR among AL position players and has three top-10 MVP finishes.

3. The Rays are a good bet to make the postseason. MVP voters love that.

4. Longoria is an RBI guy, averaging 110 RBIs per 162 games over his career. MVP voters love themselves some RBIs.

5. He should knock in more than the 88 runs he did last year, when he hit .265 with just four home runs with runners in scoring position (22 of his 32 home runs came with the bases empty).

In truth, as good as Longoria has been, we've kind of been waiting for that monster season, haven't we? Maybe that's unfair to say about one of the best all-around players in the league (did you see the play he made the other night?), but Longoria hit .294 in 2010 and just .269 last season, when his strikeout rate increased to 23.4 percent, easily his highest rate since his rookie season. If he cuts down on the strikeouts, I can see that average climbing over .300 for the first time in his career and the RBIs climbing well over 100.

Other thoughts from many hours of baseball viewing over the past few days:

  • If they stay healthy, the Giants are going to have the best offense in the National League. On Thursday, they scored five runs in the eighth inning to beat the Diamondbacks 8-5. Angel Pagan is a solid leadoff hitter, and Brandon Belt, Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval and Hunter Pence provide a juicy meat of the order. I've mentioned Belt as a guy I like to have a big breakout season, and he hit his third home run. Pence seems to get better the higher he wears his pants legs. Posey won't slump like he did in the second half last year. Sandoval hits and eats and hits some more.
  • The Angels’ and Phillies’ bullpens look like disasters. The Mariners pounded every reliever the Angels tried in their series and the Angels are suddenly staring at another bad April start: 9-17 last year, 8-15 in 2012. Jonathan Papelbon looked like a shell of his former shelf in getting roughed up the other day.
  • [+] EnlargeJim Johnson, Bob Melvin
    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesStruggling Jim Johnson might get hooked from his role as the A's closer.
  • How long do the A’s stick with closer Jim Johnson? OK, he led the AL in saves the past two seasons. He also led the AL last season in blown saves and was second in relief losses. He has two losses already, he’s not a strikeout pitcher and the A’s have other good relievers. It’s never too early to panic about your closer!
  • How many closers do you have complete confidence in right now anyway? With low-scoring games and tight pennant races, late-inning relief work is going to decide a division title or two. We had six blown saves on Wednesday. The D-Backs coughed up that game on Thursday. The Rockies blew an eighth-inning lead to the Marlins. And so on. Rough few days for the bullpens (in contrast to starters, who generally dominated).
  • A young pitcher who hasn’t yet made his mark to watch: Seattle’s James Paxton showcased electrifying stuff in his first start, striking out nine in seven and throwing 97 mph in his final inning.
  • With Clayton Kershaw missing a few starts, the new Cy Young favorite in the National League: Jose Fernandez. He’s must-watch TV, Pedro-in-his-prime eye candy. His run support will be an issue, but the stuff, poise and confidence are that of a wise veteran, not a 21-year-old kid.
  • In case you had doubts, Michael Wacha is most assuredly the real deal. His changeup is Pedro-in-his-prime nasty. The Reds went 0-for-10 with four strikeouts against it.
  • Veteran Alex Gonzalez is not going to last as the Tigers' shortstop. He simply doesn’t have the range to play there. Stephen Drew, come on down?
  • Manager on the hot seat: Kirk Gibson. The Diamondbacks are off to 1-5 start, and nine of their next 15 games are against the Dodgers (six) and Giants (three). If the D-backs can avoid digging a big hole over that stretch, the schedule does get a little easier starting April 21, when they play 19 consecutive games against teams that finished under .500 in 2013.
  • Tyro Zack Wheeler is not Matt Harvey. Hold down your expectations, Mets fans.
  • We’re going to see a lot more shifts this year. I haven’t checked the numbers, but anecdotal evidence suggests infield shifts are way up. Expect batting averages to continue to plummet as a result.
  • Free-agent-to-be Max Scherzer is going to make a lot of money this offseason.
  • I hope B.J. Upton gets fixed, but I have my doubts. Six strikeouts in his first 12 plate appearances.
  • Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman is going to have a high BABIP again. Great stroke to all fields, great balance between attacking fastballs early in the count and waiting for his pitch later in the count. He'll be an MVP candidate again.
  • Clearly, Emilio Bonifacio (11 hits in three games!) is the best player in the NL. OK, seriously: The Royals couldn’t find a spot for this guy on their roster? Ned Yost, everyone!
  • Rookie Xander Bogaerts is ready NOW. He’s hitting .556 with three walks and one strikeout in three games. Maybe the power takes a year or two to fully develop, but his mature, disciplined approach at the plate is going make a star right away.
  • Dave Cameron of FanGraphs suggested this and it’s not outrageous: With Jose Reyes injured, Brad Miller might be the best shortstop in the AL. Or maybe Bogaerts. Could have been Bonifacio, if only the Royals had kept him!
  • Best team in baseball: The Mariners ... too early?

The first rule of Opening Day: Don't overreact to Opening Day. So these are merely observations from flipping around watching a bunch of different games.

1. At one point during the Cardinals-Reds opener, Adam Wainwright looked a little perturbed, presumably at the strike zone of plate umpire Gary Cederstrom. After all, Wainwright walked three guys unintentionally in his seven innings (plus another intentional walk). This was a guy who walked just 35 batters in 34 starts last year, just once walking three guys in a game. So he may have been unhappy with the balls and strikes … and yet still threw seven scoreless innings with nine strikeouts and just three hits allowed in the Cards’ 1-0 victory. Whenever the Reds threatened, Wainwright got the big outs -- a Joey Votto double play on a 2-2 fastball in the third and Zack Cozart on a tapper in front of the plate with two runners on to end the sixth. He threw 105 pitches, including 22 of his famous curveball -- the Reds went 0-for-6 with a walk against the curve, including Cozart’s out. Here’s the thing about the Cardinals: While I (and others) have spent a lot of time discussing their depth and versatility, they also have two of the best players in the game: Wainwright and Yadier Molina. Their lone run off Johnny Cueto: Molina’s home run in the seventh off a 0-0 cutter that didn’t cut.

2. I don’t know if Billy Hamilton will hit, but I know he can’t hit Wainwright. The Reds’ rookie went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts against Wainwright to register the dreaded golden sombrero -- the 17th player since 1914 to go 0-for-4 with four strikeouts on Opening Day. The potential bigger picture: If Hamilton and Brandon Phillips don’t get on base enough -- a distinct possibility -- Votto is going to draw 100-plus walks no matter if he has Jay Bruce, Johnny Bench or Frank Robinson hitting behind him. Which will lead to the haters complaining about Votto’s RBI total.

3. The Tigers beat the Royals 4-3 thanks to a big day from emergency shortstop acquisition Alex Gonzalez, who tripled in the tying run in the seventh and singled in the winning run in the ninth. Justin Verlander scuffled through his six innings, giving up six hits and three walks with just two strikeouts, but that’s not my initial concern. The concern is that Opening Day roster, which includes Gonzalez, Andrew Romine, Bryan Holaday, Tyler Collins, Don Kelly, Ian Krol and Evan Reed. Besides Krol and Reed, the bullpen includes Phil Coke (1.6 WHIP over the past two seasons), Joba Chamberlain, Al Alburquerque and Luke Putkonen. In other words: The final 10 spots on the roster could be a disaster. It could work out -- Chamberlain and Alburquerque will probably be OK if they stay healthy, for example -- but the lack of depth on this team could be an issue. Detroit's star players -- Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and Max Scherzer -- have been very durable, but a lengthy injury to any of those three or Anibal Sanchez, Austin Jackson or Ian Kinsler could be crushing.

4. The Pirates picked up with the kind of game they won last year, beating the Cubs 1-0 on Neil Walker’s walk-off home run in the 10th inning. The Pirates won five 1-0 games last year (there were only 48 such games in the majors last season, so the Pirates had over 10 percent of all 1-0 victories). The major league average when scoring one run, two runs or three runs was a .270 winning percentage; the Pirates were 25-39 (.390) when scoring one to three runs, so they won a lot of low-scoring games. The big positive besides the bullpen throwing four scoreless innings was the six dominant innings from Francisco Liriano, who tied a Pirates club record with 10 strikeouts on Opening Day. With the loss of A.J. Burnett, the pressure is on Liriano to repeat his 2013 performance.

5. Showing early confidence in B.J. Upton, who hit .184 last year while striking out in 34 percent of his plate appearances, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez hit his center fielder second while moving Justin Upton down to fifth (Chris Johnson hit cleanup). I can’t say that’s the lineup I’d go with -- Justin Upton seems the logical choice to bat second behind leadoff hitter Jason Heyward -- but no matter what order Gonzalez chooses there are going to be some OBP issues if B.J. Upton, Dan Uggla and Evan Gattis don’t get on base more often. Yovani Gallardo kept the Braves in check with six shutout innings -- a good sign for the Brewers considering Gallardo’s inconsistency and drop in velocity last year -- while Francisco Rodriguez was called on for the save in the Brewers’ 2-0 victory.

6. One reason I’m a little wary about the Orioles is new closer Tommy Hunter’s struggles against left-handed batters -- he gave up 12 home runs last year, which is way too many for a reliever to begin with, and all 12 were against lefties. He scraped through the save in the O’s 2-1 win over the Red Sox, hitting Will Middlebrooks with a pitch and giving up a one-out single to Dustin Pedroia, but he got ahead of David Ortiz 0-2 before getting him to fly out to medium-deep left center, and then struck out Jackie Bradley looking on a fastball at the belt. (Bradley was hitting after pinch running for Mike Napoli in the eighth).

7. I was dubious about Tanner Scheppers as a starter and his performance in the Rangers’ 14-10 loss to the Phillies didn’t alleviate any of those concerns. His fastball averaged 96.3 mph last year as a reliever but 93.3 on Monday as a starter. His strikeout rate as a reliever didn’t scream “try this guy as a starter” and he fanned just two in his four innings, which required 93 pitches to get through. It's just one start and considering it was his first in the major leagues and on Opening Day -- a strange choice by Ron Washington -- let’s give him a pass and keep an eye on his next outing.

8. Tough loss for the Mets, blowing leads in the seventh and ninth innings and then losing in 10 to the Nationals. As Mets broadcaster Gary Cohen said after Anthony Rendon hit a three-run homer off John Lannan in the 10th, “What an atrocious day by the Mets' bullpen.” Something Mets fans have witnessed all too often in recent seasons.

9. While flipping through the various games, it’s pretty clear we're going to see even more defensive shifting. According to Baseball Info Solutions, the number of shifts has increased from 2,358 in 2011 to 4,577 in 2012 to 8,134 in 2013.

10. Jose Fernandez. He looked brilliant in his six innings, throwing 73 of his 94 pitches for strikes, and smiling when Carlos Gonzalez homered in the sixth off his one mistake. I think I may watch 33 Marlins games this year.
videoThere's nothing quite like Opening Day. As Pete Rose once said, "It's like Christmas except warmer." It's a reminder that for perhaps inexplicable reasons we still love this crazy game, that we're ready to devote way too many hours over the next seven months to watching games that will enthrall us and disgust us but bring us together. We'll laugh, we'll cry, we'll shout -- and that's just within one Starlin Castro at-bat. It's Opening Day. Enjoy.

Must-watch game of the day
If I could watch only one game on Opening Day -- which would pretty much qualify as cruel and unusual punishment if actually forced to such limits -- I'd go with St. Louis Cardinals at Cincinnati Reds (4 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN). First, we get a heated division rivalry with two playoff teams from last season. We get a great pitching matchup with Adam Wainwright and Johnny Cueto. We get Billy Hamilton trying to get on base and then trying to run on Yadier Molina if he does get on. We get the new Reds lineup with Joey Votto and Jay Bruce hitting third and fourth. (Oh, how we miss you, Dusty.) Plus, there are potential cameos from Eric Davis, Chris Sabo, Pete Rose or Schottzie.

Best pitching matchup of the day
Considering the depth of starting pitching in the majors, you'd think we'd have more can't-miss pitching matchups of Cy Young contender facing Cy Young contender, but that isn't really the case on this day. But James Shields versus Justin Verlander is a great one (Kansas City Royals at Detroit Tigers, 1:08 p.m. ET).

Here's an interesting fact: The Tigers had all that great pitching last year, right? Well, the Royals allowed the fewest runs in the American League. Shields is making his sixth career Opening Day start while Verlander makes his seventh in a row. Verlander allowed zero runs his past two openers (although he pitched just five innings last year on a cold day in Minnesota). Royals fans must deal with no Jeff Francoeur in the opening lineup for the first time in four years. Hold those tears.

Pitcher you have to watch if you've never watched him
The Marlins rarely appear on national TV, so you may not have seen Jose Fernandez pitch as a rookie unless you're actually a Marlins fan or your team faced him. If you missed him, you made a mistake, so don't miss this one. No dinner break. No excuse that this may be your third game of the day. He starts against Jorge De La Rosa as the Colorado Rockies play the Miami Marlins (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2/WatchESPN).

This is kind of a cool random factoid from ESPN Stats & Information: This is the first Opening Day matchup in the past 100 years of pitchers born in Cuba and Mexico. Fernandez will become the fourth-youngest Opening Day starter in the past 35 seasons behind Dwight Gooden (1985 and 1986 Mets), Fernando Valenzuela (1981 Dodgers) and Felix Hernandez (2007 Mariners).

The "Wait, he's starting on Opening Day?" award
This is always a fun one. One year the Pittsburgh Pirates started Ron Villone, who had posted a 5.89 ERA the year before -- primarily as a reliever. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays started Dewon Brazelton in 2005; he'd finish the season 1-8 with a 7.61 ERA. The Twins started Vance Worley a year ago. This year's most interesting surprise starter is Tanner Scheppers of the Rangers (Philadelphia Phillies at Texas Rangers, 2:05 p.m. ET) -- interesting because he has never started a major league game.

Since 1914, only three pitchers made their major league debuts starting on Opening Day: Lefty Grove of the A's in 1925, Jim Bagby Jr. of the Red Sox in 1938 and Al Gerheauser of the 1943 Phillies. Scheppers doesn't match their feat because he's pitched in relief, but he does match Valenzuela, whose first major league start came in that 1981 Opening Day start. Of course, to match Fernando, all Scheppers has to do is throw five shutouts and six complete games in his first seven starts.

Just thought I'd mention this
The Los Angeles Dodgers will pay reliever Brandon League more this season ($8.5 million) than the Pirates will pay National League MVP Andrew McCutchen ($7.458 million), who will rank 34th among outfielders in salary in 2014. Anyway, watch McCutchen's Pirates host the Chicago Cubs (1 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN).

Another reason to love McCutchen, besides the fact that he's a talented artist, can imitate others' batting stances and helps old ladies cross the street: His WAR has increased each season of his career, 2.3 to 3.8 to 5.7 to 7.0 to 7.9.

Watch Robinson Cano in a new time zone
Cano makes his Mariners debut in a late game, Mariners at Angels (10 p.m. ET, ESPN2/WatchESPN). As a bonus, you get Felix Hernandez and Jered Weaver, Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, Abraham Almonte and Justin Smoak. The Mariners begin the season with a seven-game road trip and play 22 of their first 25 games against division opponents while trying to patch together a rotation missing Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker for a few weeks, so few teams will be under more pressure early on than Seattle. Enjoy the marine layer, Robby!

Player most likely to be booed on Opening Day
I was going to say Dan Uggla or Ryan Braun, but unfortunately the Atlanta Braves play at the Milwaukee Brewers (2:10 p.m. ET) instead of vice versa.

Player likely to get the biggest ovation
I'll go with Paul Konerko of the Chicago White Sox, in what will be his final Opening Day -- although he's not guaranteed to start (Twins at White Sox, 4:10 p.m. ET). OK, Konerko or Ike Davis, I'm not sure.
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.


Over or under on Jose Fernandez posting a 2.75 ERA?


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?
As expected, Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer easily won the Cy Young Awards on Wednesday, with Kershaw capturing 29 of 30 first-place to win his second Cy Young Award, and Scherzer collecting 28 of 30 first-place votes to win his first.

Kershaw, with his 16-9 record and 1.83 ERA, was the clear choice in the National League. Jose Fernandez had a similar dominance over hitters -- Kershaw allowed a .195/.244/.277 batting line, Fernandez .182/.257/.265 -- but Kershaw pitched 63 more innings, making that comparison moot. Adam Wainwright was terrific, going 19-9 with a 2.94 ERA, walking just 35 batters in 34 starts while leading the majors in innings pitched, but he allowed 28 more runs while pitching just 5.2 more innings.

The American League race arguably had a little more flavor to it if you looked past Scherzer's shiny 21-3 record. Over at FanGraphs, Dave Cameron outlined the specifics of the debate when it came to using advanced metrics to evaluate the candidates:

We have two different models of pitcher WAR: one based on FIP, and one based on runs allowed. These represent the extreme opposite ends of the viewpoints on how much credit or blame a pitcher should receive for events in which his teammates have some significant influence. If you go with strictly a FIP-based model, a pitcher is only judged on his walks, strikeouts, and home runs, and the events of hits on balls in play and the sequencing of when events happen are not considered as part of the evaluation.

If you go with the RA9-based model, then everything that happens while the pitcher is on the mound -- and in some cases, what happens after they are removed for a relief pitcher -- is considered the pitcher's responsibility, and he's given full credit or blame for what his teammates do while he's pitching.

Scherzer fared best in the Fielding Independent Pitching version of WAR, with his terrific strikeout and walk rates; Yu Darvish and Hisashi Iwakuma, because they allowed slightly fewer runs in a similar number of innings, fared best in the runs-based model. Iwakuma, for example, led the AL in Baseball-Reference WAR, which focuses more on runs (while considering other factors like team defense and quality of opposition). But as Cameron pointed out, Scherzer rates high in both models. Scherzer likely won so easily because of his 21-3 record, but he's a deserving winner even if he'd gone 17-7.

Did either pitcher have a historic season? Scherzer did have the fifth-highest winning percentage for a pitcher who won 20 games:

Ron Guidry, 1978 Yankees: .893 (25-3)
Lefty Grove, 1931 A's, .886 (31-4)
Cliff Lee, 2008 Indians: .880 (22-3)
Preacher Roe, 1951 Dodgers: .880 (22-3)
Scherzer, 2013 Tigers: .875 (21-3)

But Scherzer's 2.90 ERA wasn't historical, and teammate Anibal Sanchez had an even lower ERA. Scherzer was hard to hit and had a high strikeout rate, but his .583 OPS allowed ranks just 31st during the wild-card era. I'm not trying to diminish Scherzer's season, just suggesting the win-loss record overstates his dominance a bit. He took a huge leap forward, however, and is now correctly labeled as one of the best in the majors.

It's easier to make the case for Kershaw. Since 1950, we've had just 33 seasons where a starter allowed an ERA under 2.00, with 21 of those coming in the 10-year span between 1963 and 1972, when pitching dominated. Going back to 1994 and the wild-card era, just seven times has a pitcher finished with an ERA under 2.00: Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez twice, Kevin Brown, Roger Clemens and now Kershaw. Kershaw's .521 OPS allowed is third-best in that era, behind Martinez in 2000 and Maddux in 1995. I would rate Kershaw's season behind those two since they pitched in much higher-scoring leagues.

In fact, Baseball-Reference isn't all that impressed with Kershaw's season, valuing it at 7.9 WAR -- just 38th since 1990. Consider the other factors in play: He pitched in a good pitcher's park, offense across the majors was at its lowest point since 1992 and he didn't face a particularly tough slate of opponents.

Not that 7.9 WAR isn't anything but awesome. It is awesome. Kershaw is clearly the best starter in the majors right now, having finished first, second and first in the past three Cy Young votes while leading the majors in ERA all three seasons. He doesn't turn 26 until next March. I don't think he's going to stop at two Cy Young Awards.

SweetSpot TV: Cy Young preview

November, 13, 2013

Eric and myself preview the Cy Young Award races. It seems pretty clear who will win but should it be so obvious?
Baseball's future is in good hands. And good arms. A year after Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Yu Darvish and Yoenis Cespedes burst on to the major league scene, 2013 gave us Jose Fernandez and Yasiel Puig, two players who have the ability to win even bigger awards than rookie of the year in the future.

Fernandez outpointed Puig for National Rookie of the Year in one of the more interesting rookie votes in recent seasons: Pitcher versus hitter, both explosive talents with unrivaled raw talent. Maybe the most surprising part of the seasons these two put together is that back in March neither was supposed to be here, let alone be this good.

Fernandez had spent 2012 in Class A ball. Considering he wouldn't turn 21 until July, he was expected to begin the year in Double-A, maybe Triple-A. The Marlins were heavily criticized when he opened the season in the rotation, with analysts wondering why the team would rush him to the bigs and start his arbitration and free-agent clocks so quickly. As Fernandez showed, however, the Marlins couldn't keep him down -- he was too good.

Puig is a couple years older than Fernandez, but after signing with the Dodgers last summer he played just 23 games in the minors, none above Class A. After a torrid spring training, he began the year at Double-A Chattanooga. With the Dodgers struggling in early June and facing injuries in the outfield, Puig got the call after just 40 games in Double-A. Like Fernandez, he was ready.

I think the voters made the right selection in both cases. Fernandez, also one of the three finalists for the NL Cy Young Award, went 12-6 with a 2.19 ERA in 28 starts, striking out 187 in 172 2/3 innings. Baseball Reference estimated his value at 6.3 WAR, third among NL pitchers. Puig, in 104 games, hit .319/.391/.534, with 19 home runs, 42 RBIs and 66 runs. Baseball Reference estimates his value at 5.0 WAR.

How good was Fernandez? Over his final 18 starts he allowed more than two runs just twice -- and both of those times he allowed just three. His ERA over that span was 1.50 and opponents hit just .161 against him. For the season, opponents hit .182/.257/.265. Basically, he turned the entire National League into Mario Mendoza.

If there's an argument for Puig, it was that he played a major role in helping the Dodgers reach the playoffs while the Marlins lost 100 games. The Dodgers were scuffling in June when Puig was recalled (and Hanley Ramirez returned from the disabled list); they took off soon thereafter with that historic 50-game run. In games Puig appeared in, the Dodgers went 66-38.

But the award isn't the most valuable rookie, so while MVP Award voters consider things such as quality of teammates (sorry Mike Trout), the rookie of the year voters focus on the individual contribution and ignores a team's place in the standings.

So Fernandez it is. A historical rookie season and now a shiny trophy for his fireplace mantel.

* * * *

The American League crop was pretty uninspiring, with all three of the top candidates being partial-season players. Wil Myers became the first AL Rookie of the Year position player who played fewer than 100 games (he played 88 for the Rays) but still won the vote easily, collecting 23 of the 30 first-place votes.

By uninspiring, I don't mean that as a knock against the Myers' future, or that of Jose Iglesias or Chris Archer. I don't think this is Chris Coghlan beating out J.A. Happ.

I do think the voters got this one correct as well. In fact, look back to that Coghlan vote in the NL in 2009. Andrew McCutchen finished fourth that year with similar numbers to Coghlan (and much better defense). It was pretty obvious, however, which player was the better bet for the future and McCutchen would have been a more astute choice.

Should rookie of the year voters factor that in? Certainly, between Myers and Iglesias, Myers is the guy everyone would bet on to make the bigger impact over the next decade. I would argue that if you have two rookies who had similar value, go with the guy with more upside. NL voters did this a year ago in choosing Bryce Harper over Wade Miley and AL voters did it in choosing Myers over Iglesias.

SweetSpot's 2013 NL All-Star team

September, 29, 2013
I did my American League All-Star team yesterday. Here's my National League squad. A few more tougher calls in the NL.

Catcher: Yadier Molina, Cardinals (.319/.359/.477, 12 HR, 80 RBI, 5.8 WAR)
Two questions: Is Molina a legitimate MVP candidate and how will he fare in the voting? Sure, he's a strong candidate, although I have Andrew McCutchen as my clear No. 1 guy. Due to his relatively low runs plus RBIs total (he has 68 runs scored), Molina would certainly be an unconventional MVP candidate. Wins Above Replacement accounts for some of Molina's defense -- such as throwing out runners -- but can't measure some of the intangibles, such as the confidence he gave to the young St. Louis starters. Molina's offense numbers are similar to last year, when he finished fourth in voting, so I wouldn't be surprised if he jumps up to second this season.

First base: Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks (.302/.401/.553, 36 HR, 124 RBI, 7.1 WAR)
Goldschmidt or Joey Votto? It's not quite as simple as Goldschmidt's 51-RBI advantage as both put up similar numbers otherwise, with Votto having the edge in on-base percentage (.436) and Goldschmidt in power (36 home runs to 24). Both were extremely durable -- Goldschmidt has missed two games, Votto zero -- and solid defenders. The one big difference is an advanced metric called Win Probability Added, a category Goldschmidt led all NL position players in, thanks in part to his .350 average in high-leverage situations and nine home runs in late and close situations (second-most in the majors to Chris Davis). I'm confident Goldschmidt is the right choice here.

Second base: Matt Carpenter, Cardinals (.320/.394/.484, 11 HR, 78 RBI, 6.7 WAR)
An easy choice as Carpenter leads the NL in runs, hits and doubles while ranking in the top 10 in numerous other categories. I'm guessing Molina garners more MVP support, but Carpenter is just as worthy to finish in the top five.

Third base: David Wright, Mets (.308/.393/.516, 18 HR, 57 RBI, 5.8 WAR)
Pedro Alvarez leads the NL with 36 home runs and has knocked in 100 but a .233 average and sub-.300 OBP means he created a ton of outs to generate those runs. Ryan Zimmerman waited too long to start hitting. Chris Johnson hit .321 for the Braves. None were above-average defenders. So almost by default I'll go with Wright, who easily has the highest WAR even though he missed 50 games.

Shortstop: Andrelton Simmons, Braves (.244/.292/.390, 17 HR, 58 RBI, 6.5 WAR)
I've been raving about Simmons all season so I can't change now. Troy Tulowitzki was great once again and relatively healthy (125 games), although he hit 61 points higher at home. Hanley Ramirez was the best on a per at-bat basis but played just 86 games. Ian Desmond flew under the radar year for the Nationals. But Simmons is my guy, even with that sub-.300 OBP. His defense was that good.

Left field: Carlos Gonzalez, Rockies (.302/.367/.591, 26 HR, 70 RBI, 5.1 WAR)
Starling Marte had an excellent all-around season (41 steals, great defense) for the Pirates and Matt Holliday was solid for the Cardinals. Gonzalez's season was similar to Wright's -- if he'd remained healthy, he'd be the obvious choice, but he missed 50 games. Unlike Tulo, he actually hit better on the road, so it's not a Coors-inflated season. I'll go with CarGo just barely over Marte.

Center field: Andrew McCutchen, Pirates (.317/.404/.508, 21 HR, 84 RBI, 8.2 WAR)
Carlos Gomez would be an MVP candidate if he had better teammates. Shin-Soo Choo gave the Reds exactly what they needed, a leadoff hitter who got on base. But this was McCutchen's season as he often carried a mediocre Pittburgh offense and hit .339/.441/.561 in the second half, helping keep the Pirates in the division title race. He's the likely MVP winner and not a "weak" MVP, as some have speculated. His WAR is higher than the past three NL MVPs, Buster Posey, Ryan Braun and Votto. He may not drive in 100 runs or score 100 (he's at 97), but it was the best all-around season in the league.

Right field: Jayson Werth, Nationals (.318/.398/.532, 25 HR, 82 RBI, 4.8 WAR)
A loaded position, and that's with Jason Heyward and Giancarlo Stanton missing significant time. Jay Bruce, Yasiel Puig, Hunter Pence and Marlon Byrd all have their supporters (and Gerardo Parra leads in WAR). The knock against Werth, like Wright and Gonzalez, is that he missed significant time (129 games). But Bruce has a .329 OBP. Puig didn't get called up until June and Pence's monster September (11 HR, 29 RBI) came after the Giants had long been eliminated and arguably against dubious September pitching.

Starting pitchers: Clayton Kersaw, Dodgers (16-9, 1.83 ERA, 8.0 WAR); Cliff Lee, Phillies (14-8, 2.87 ERA, 7.2 WAR); Jose Fernandez, Marlins (12-6, 2.19 ERA, 6.3 WAR); Adam Wainwright, Cardinals (19-9, 2.94 ERA, 6.2 WAR); Matt Harvey, Mets (9-5, 2.27 ERA, 5.4 WAR)
Oh, Cliff Lee is still good. There were no shortage of top starters in the NL as 18 qualified starters have posted an ERA of 3.25 or under, the most since 17 did it in 1992 and 10 more than last year.

Left-handed setup guy: Luis Avilan, Braves (5-0, 1.55 ERA)
Part of Atlanta's dominant bullpen, Avilan fanned just 38 in 64 innings but allowed a .173 average and just one home run. He gets great movement on his two-seam sinking fastball, resulting in fewer K's but a lot of groundballs. Honorable mention to Pittsburgh's Justin Wilson.

Right-handed setup guy: Mark Melancon, Pirates (3-2, 1.39 ERA)
He had a couple rough outings in September, but was dominant throughout the season, first setting up Jason Grilli and then earning 16 saves when Grilli was injured.

Closer: Craig Kimbrel, Braves (4-3, 50 saves, 1.23 ERA)
He did blow four save chances and wasn't quite as statistically dominant as last season -- and still finished with 1.23 ERA and 50 saves.

The 10 best decisions of 2013

September, 25, 2013
Let's take a break from these hectic final days of the season and look back at the 10 best decisions of the season. To me, these were decisions based on good analysis or good scouting or both, with a reasonable chance of working out. Signing Zack Greinke is easy. Having Scott Kazmir work out is good luck. These were calculated decisions that paid off.

10. Tigers don't overpay for a closer. Throughout the offseason, during spring training and into April and May, there were cries for the Tigers to go out and acquire a Proven Closer. General manager Dave Dombrowski resisted and eventually veteran setup man Joaquin Benoit took over as closer ... and has been perfectly great, going 4-1 with a 1.94 ERA and 23 saves and just one blown save. Why give up a good prospect for a closer when one isn't that hard to find?

9. Rays acquire Yunel Escobar. Last year, the Rays got so desperate for some offense at shorstop that Joe Maddon eventually had to move Ben Zobrist there. Escobar went from Toronto to Miami in the big Jose Reyes-Josh Johnson-Mark Buehrle trade, and then Tampa Bay got him for marginal prospect Derek Dietrich. Escobar wore out his welcome in Atlanta and Toronto, but hasn't had any issues in Tampa. The Rays didn't panic when Escobar was hitting under .200 in mid-May. He turned things around and has had a solid .258/.333/.370 season. These days, that's good offense from a shortstop.

8. Dodgers sign Hyun-Jin Ryu. For all the talk about the Dodgers' enormous payroll, they brought Ryu over from Korea with a $25.7 million bid and a reasonable six-year, $36 million contract. That's about $10 million a year for a pitcher who has gone 14-7 with a 2.97 ERA. That's only $8 million more than the Cubs gave for four years of Edwin Jackson, who has a 4.74 ERA. Chalk it up to good scouting.

7. A's trade for Jed Lowrie. Oakland had terrible production from its shortstops in 2012 and only had to give up platoon first baseman/DH Chris Carter to acquire the injury-prone Lowrie. It was a trade with little risk for the A's but high upside: Yes, Carter had power but he was never going to be a star with all of his strikeouts. Lowrie has stayed healthy and been one of the top hitting shortstops in the majors.

6. Reds trade for Shin-Soo Choo. This was a perfect example of a team identifying an obvious need -- the Reds needed a leadoff hitter -- and going out and solving the problem. Even though he struggles against left-handers, Choo is second in the National League in on-base percentage, walks and runs. His defense in center field has been a minor liability instead of a major one and the Reds are heading back to the playoffs.

5. Red Sox acquire good clubhouse guys. More importantly, Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli and Jonny Gomes also produced on the field. Victorino was a signing I liked even though it was widely panned -- I liked the idea of having a second center fielder in right field and a good option in case Jacoby Ellsbury got injured. Victorino's offense has been a bonus and his defense has been terrific.

4. Marlins give Jose Fernandez a job out of spring training. Fernandez didn't pitch above A-ball last year, so when he broke camp with the Marlins everybody wondered why the desire to rush him and start his service time when the Marlins weren't going to be any good. But sometimes you have to do the obvious thing: Like Dwight Gooden in 1984, Fernandez had to be in the major leagues because he was that good. All Fernandez did was post a 2.19 ERA and hold batters to a .522 OPS, the lowest for a starter since Pedro Martinez in 2000.

3. Pirates sign Russell Martin. The Pirates made several smart moves -- trading for Mark Melancon, giving the closer job to Jason Grilli, signing Francisco Liriano (although that one produced more upside than anyone could have imagined) -- but Martin was an under-the-radar move that solved a huge problem for the Pirates. Last year, the Pirates allowed 154 stolen bases while catching just 19 basestealers, an abysmal 11 percent caught stealing rate. Thanks to Martin, they've cut that total to 93 steals and 43 caught stealing, a 32 percent rate (Martin has caught 40 percent). Martin is also one of the better pitch framers around and his offense has been about league average. With what he's meant behind the plate, he could see some down-ballot MVP support.

2. Dodgers call up Yasiel Puig. It looks like an easy decision in retrospect, but this was still a 22-year-old kid with just 67 games of minor league experience, 40 of them above A ball. It took some guts to call him up in early June, even if the move was born out of a little desperation. Give credit to the Dodgers correctly analyzing the raw ability and believing he would hold his own in the majors.

1. Cardinals move Matt Carpenter to second. You can probably count the number of successful third base-to-second base conversions on one hand; players rarely move up the defensive spectrum to a tougher position, which is why many expected that Carpenter would soon return to a utility role. But in Carpenter the Cardinals had the perfect pupil: A player in his second season who wanted to break into the starting lineup, but also a 27-year-old with more maturity than most second-year players. He's a smart player with a good ethic. Plus, the Cardinals knew he could hit, not that they expected a .324 average and 55 doubles.

It's been a terrific year for rookies in the National League, but Yasiel Puig and Jose Fernandez have stood out above the others. Who should be the Rookie of the Year? Eric Karabell and I fight it out.
Some quick thoughts on Wednesday's results and a look forward to Thursday.

At-bats of the night: Robinson Cano and Mike Carp hit home runs as the Yankees and Red Sox won late. I wrote about those two games here.

Pitching performance of the day: Jose Fernandez completed his brilliant rookie season by allowing one run in seven innings -- and also hitting a home run, which rubbed the Braves the wrong way when he admired it for few seconds (God forbid!) and led to a little bench-clearing exchange of phone numbers. Fernandez apologized for his actions, which included some looks into the Atlanta dugout after giving up a home run to Evan Gattis, saying, "I feel embarrassed. I feel like I don't deserve to be here, because this isn't high school. This is a professional game. I made a mistake. I'm going to learn from it." Love the mature response after the fact. Cut the kid some slack. He got caught up in the excitement of his final game.

Anyway, what were the playoff implications here? Well, the Braves are battling the Dodgers for home-field advantage in the NL, currently holding a 2-game lead. Considering Atlanta has an MLB-best 51-20 home record, it's not an insignificant race to look at.

Most important win: The Yankees beating the Orioles and climbing over the O's and Indians into second place in the second wild card standings. Yay for the second wild!

Most important loss: The Pirates sat Andrew McCutchen and didn't have Mark Melancon or Jason Grilli available, but they beat the Rangers 7-5 as Vin Mazzaro got out of a jam in the eighth and Kyle Farnsworth got the save. That completed a sweep over the Rangers, who received another poor effort from Matt Garza. Combined with the A's 18-3 thrashing of the Twins, the Rangers are now 3 games behind the A's and just 3.5 up on the Yankees.

Thursday's best pitching matchup: Jake Peavy versus Jeremy Hellickson (Red Sox at Rays, 7:10 ET). As one reader on Twitter commented to me, maybe the Rays have been eating too much fried chicken. They're 4-13 since Aug. 25, hitting .226 and averaging 2.6 runs per game over that span. After going 0-5 in a six-start stretch with a 9.00 ERA, Hellickson tossed 5.1 scoreless innings his last start.

Player to watch: Yoenis Cespedes, A's. Is he heating up at the right time? He's hitting .421/.450/.632 in September after hitting .216 in August. It could be a hot streak fueled by a .500 BABIP, since his strikeout-to-walk rate is still poor (8 to 1), but if he gets going after a disappointing year, the A's will be that much harder to catch. The A's have an afternoon game in Minnesota while the Rangers get the day off before the teams meet for a weekend showdown in Texas.

Last chance to see Jose Fernandez

September, 11, 2013
Miami Marlins rookie phenom Jose Fernandez will make his final start of the season tonight, as the Marlins cap his innings total at about 170. What a season it's been for the 21-year-old -- he didn't turn 21 until July 31, so this is actually considered his age-20 season -- who stands at 11-6 with a 2.23 ERA while leading the National League in fewest hits allowed and most strikeouts per nine innings.

He leads all major league starters in opponents' batting average (.181), slugging percentage (.260) and OPS (.516). He's been even more dominant since June 1: 1.59 ERA, 21 runs in 17 starts, .159 average allowed. My lord; those are Pedro-in-his-prime numbers.

How tough has Fernandez been to hit? Here's the list of lowest slugging percentages allowed, minimum 162 innings, since 1950:

Bob Gibson, 1968: .236
Sam McDowell, 1965: .244
Dean Chance, 1964: .244
Nolan Ryan, 1972: .246
Nolan Ryan, 1977: .256
Greg Maddux, 1995: .258
Pedro Martinez, 2000: .259
Greg Maddux, 1994: .259
Jose Fernandez, 2013: .260
Luis Tiant, 1969: .262

His OPS allowed is 11th-best since 1950, just ahead of Clayton Kershaw this year and just ahead of Dwight Gooden in 1985 for best by a 20-year-old. Speaking of Gooden, he threw 276 innings that year so his season was much more valuable than Fernandez's, since Fernandez has pitched 165 innings. Still, here's the list of highest WAR totals for a 20-year-old since 1950:

Dwight Gooden, 1985: 12.1 (!)
Bert Blyleven, 1971: 6.4
Don Drysdale, 1957: 6.1
Jose Fernandez, 2013: 5.9
Dave Rozema, 1977: 5.7
Dennis Eckersley, 1975: 5.3
Fernando Valenzuela, 1981: 4.8
Frank Tanana, 1974: 4.7

Among recent pitchers, Rick Ankiel was at 3.3 in 2000, CC Sabathia at 2.9 in 2001 and Felix Hernandez at 1.3 in 2006.


Which pair would you rather have?


Discuss (Total votes: 981)

By the way, here's a question Eric Karabell posed to me the other day: Which pair would you rather, Fernandez and Giancarlo Stanton, or Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper?

Fernandez is under Marlins control through 2018; Stanton is under Marlins control 2016. Strasburg is under Nationals control through 2016; Harper through 2018. So you get the same number of years with each pair. Strasburg's season has sort of flown under the radar with his 7-9 record, but he's nearly as tough to hit as Fernandez with a .204 average and .304 slugging.

Tonight's matchup against Mike Minor and the Braves is hardly the most important game of the night, but I know I'll tune in for at least few innings to catch a last glimpse of one of the game's rising stars.

Sometimes, the rookie of the year debate gives us Chris Coghlan and J.A. Happ, and, sometimes, it gives Yasiel Puig and Jose Fernandez.

With apologies to a deep rookie class in the National League, this season's race is shaping up as Puig versus Fernandez. Here are the National Rookie Wins Above Replacement (WAR) leaders entering Monday's action:

Fernandez: 4.5
Puig: 3.7
Nolan Arenado: 3.5
Julio Teheran: 3.2
Juan Lagares: 2.8
Shelby Miller: 2.7
Hyun-Jin Ryu: 2.6
Tony Cingrani: 2.4
A.J. Pollock: 2.0

Braves fans will certainly demand support for Teheran, and Cardinals fans for Miller, but, right now, Fernandez has the edge in WAR and peripheral stats. As good as those two have been, they have to rank behind Fernandez. Rockies third baseman Arenado fares well in WAR thanks to some outstanding defensive metrics, but he's like the annoying third wheel who hangs around too long after dinner.

So, it's really about Puig and Fernandez, and they faced each other on Monday night in Miami. Fernandez had faced the Dodgers earlier this season, but that came in May before Puig's call-up, so it was the first time the two Cuban defectors would do battle.

First inning: No outs, runner on first
After Carl Crawford walked on four pitches, Puig stepped in. Fernandez didn't fool around: His first pitch was a high, 97 mph fastball that Puig swung late on. A 99 mph fastball was outside, and then Puig fouled off a 98 mph four-seamer. Fernandez has nasty breaking pitches, but it's his confidence in that explosive heater that allows him to set up his curveball, slider and occasional changeup. With two strikes, Puig did a good job to foul off a curve and then popped up another low curve to shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria in foul territory.

Entering the game, Puig's .358 season average was still boosted by a .447 batting average on balls in play (BABIP). The BABIP will eventually come down, but he's held pretty steady on the batting average. One reason is he's looking like a quick learner at the plate. Here, let's break down his plate appearances into four periods.

Period 1: June 3-June 22 (74 PAs): 2 unintentional walks, 16 strikeouts, 37 percent chase rate, 56 percent swing rate, 27 percent miss rate. This was the Puig who caught baseball by storm, hitting .435 with six home runs.

Period 2: June 23-July 9 (71 PAs): 4 unintentional walks, 16 strikeouts, 39 percent chase rate, 55 percent swing rate, 42 percent miss rate. Puig hit .379 in this stretch, even though he was swinging at and missing more pitches.

Period 3: July 10-July 31 (67 PAs): 4 unintentional walks, 19 strikeouts, 35 percent chase rate, 51 percent swing rate, 43 percent miss rate. Puig slowed down after the All-Star break and hit .267 in this period as his BABIP fell to a more reasonable .359.

Period 4: Aug. 1-Aug. 19 (77 PAs): 7 unintentional walks, 17 strikeouts, 33 percent chase rate, 51 percent swing rate, 31 percent miss rate. Puig has hit .313 in August with just one home run, but he has six doubles and a vastly improved strikeout-to-walk ratio (he's also drawn four intentional walks). He's gone from an 8-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio to 2.4-to-1. Small sample size, of course, and some of the walk rate is no doubt the result of pitchers not going after him, but that's also a sign of respect. The important thing is Puig is showing the ability to lay off the pitches outside the strike zone that many believed could lead to a Jeff Francoeur-esque downfall.

Third inning: One out, bases empty
Fernandez certainly wasn't pitching around Puig, however. After starting him with hard stuff in the first inning, Fernandez threw a curve that Puig took low for a ball, a 96 mph fastball up out of the zone and then another curve that Puig grounded routinely to shortstop. A routine grounder that beat Puig by a step. Anyway, you can view the 2-0 curveball two ways: Fernandez's confidence to throw it for a strike, or not wanting to challenge Puig with a fastball when down in the count. Either way, it was a good pitch, and you're going to win a lot of games if you can get ground balls on 2-0 curveballs.

Fifth inning: Runners at the corners, one out
Puig stepped in, top buttons on jersey undone, in a key moment: The Dodgers had just scored on Crawford's bases-loaded force play to cut Miami's lead to 2-1. The first pitch was a 97 mph fastball on the outside corner that Puig swung through. The 0-1 fastball looked just off the outside corner, but plate umpire John Hirschbeck called it a strike (pitch data says it was a ball). Catcher Jeff Mathis then set up outside on the 0-2 pitch; Fernandez missed the target badly but Puig missed a 97 mph four-seamer up at his shoulder.

[+] EnlargeYasiel Puig
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsPlate umpire John Hirschbeck helped trigger Yasiel Puig's tantrum over a fifth-inning whiff.
As Puig walked away, Hirschbeck yanked off his mask, pointed out Puig and shouted at him. I didn't see Puig say anything on the third pitch (replays had a good angle of him walking away), although maybe he said something on the strike-two call. Either way, it looked to me like another case of a veteran ump going out of his way to put a young player in his place. Hirschbeck is a respected veteran umpire, but I didn't see reason for him to show Puig up. Plus, he missed the call; Puig understandably might have complained/groaned/dropped a four-letter word.

When Puig got to the dugout, he went a little nuts, yelling and screaming, with Juan Uribe and Hanley Ramirez finally calming him down. Puig's energy is one thing that makes him so exciting, but even if Hirschbeck was wrong, Puig is going to have to better control his temper.

That was it for Fernandez/Puig. The Marlins rookie left after six innings and two runs (one unearned) and got the win as the Marlins pushed across the go-ahead run in the sixth and eventually won 6-2 to give the Dodgers their first two-game losing streak since June 20-21.

Puig had two more at-bats, striking out in the seventh and flying out to center in the ninth.


Who is the best NL rookie?


Discuss (Total votes: 7,199)

The rookie of the year race will be interesting down the stretch. Will Puig's attention overshadow Fernandez's historic season? (The last pitcher in his age-20 season to finish with 5.0 WAR or higher was Dwight Gooden in 1985.) Presumably, Fernandez will be shut down around 165 innings (he's at 145⅔), so he might only have three or four starts remaining -- which could also allow Teheran, Miller and Ryu to make a stronger case, since they'll keep pitching through September with their teams likely heading to the postseason.

For one game, however, Fernandez showed once again why he's not only the best rookie pitcher in 2013, but one of the most dominant pitchers of the season regardless of experience.

Rookie of the year? I think it's still open. If I had to vote today, I'd go Fernandez. Let's check back in a few weeks.

We have a great matchup Thursday afternoon between rookie starters Jose Fernandez of the Marlins and Gerrit Cole of the Pirates. Tristan Cockcroft discussed that matchup and some great young pitching combos in the majors in this edition of SweetSpot TV.

I thought I'd also rank my top 10 young pitchers, based on predicted long-term success. I considered rookies or guys with limited exposure before this season, so I included Matt Harvey (he just missed rookie eligibility) but not Patrick Corbin (more than 100 innings last year) or Trevor Rosenthal (a reliever, for now).

One interesting note: Nine of the 10 are National Leaguers.

1. Matt Harvey, Mets

Repertoire: Fastball (average velocity: 95.8 mph; max: 100.1), slider, curveball, changeup.

Fun fact: Harvey's average fastball velocity is tops in the majors among qualified starting pitchers.

What makes Harvey so tough is that four-pitch offering, all quality pitches, all thrown with command. He will hang the slider from time to time and I wonder if the curveball eventually becomes his No. 2 offering after his great fastball. He leads the majors in lowest OPS allowed -- better than Clayton Kershaw. The reason I like him more than Fernandez is primarily the age difference; Harvey is four years older and a better bet to stay healthy. Fernandez, even if handled carefully, still has to get through those precarious age 21 to 23 years.

2. Jose Fernandez, Marlins

Repertoire: Fastball (average: 94.8; max: 99.0), curveball, slider, changeup.

Fun fact: In 81 plate appearances ending with his slider, batters have six hits, 49 strikeouts and no walks.

Fernandez doesn't quite have Harvey's command yet, but he's just as tough to hit. In 21 starts, he's allowed just 21 extra-base hits -- 11 doubles, two triples and eight home runs. Compare that extra-base ratio to, say, Mike Minor, who is a pretty good pitcher. Minor has allowed 53 extra-base hits. Fernandez's curveball and slider are both proving to be wipeout pitches. Check out the heat map below:

Jose FernandezESPNJose Fernandez is 8-5 with a 2.54 ERA thanks to a curveball and slider that batters can't touch.

That's a lot of blue. Batters are hitting just .127 against those two pitches -- with 89 strikeouts, 11 walks and two home runs. If Fernandez gets ahead in the count with his fastball, batters basically have no chance. Right now, he throws his curve about twice as often as the slider; both pitches have big movement and that slider reminds me of the one a young Kerry Wood threw, sweeping across the plate, nearly impossible to make contact with.

3. Shelby Miller, Cardinals

Repertoire: Fastball (average: 93.7; max: 97.9), curveball, changeup.

Fun fact: Among pitchers with 100 innings, the only ones with a higher percentage of fastballs thrown are Bartolo Colon and Juan Nicasio.

Miller has basically been a two-pitch guy -- fastball, curve. If he can refine that changeup, he'll be even tougher against left-handed batters.

4. Julio Teheran, Braves

Repertoire: Fastball (average: 91.9; max: 95.7), slider, curveball, changeup.

Fun fact: Since getting roughed up in his first three starts, Teheran has a 2.38 ERA since April 23, fifth best in the majors.

Teheran has made the slider his No. 2 offering and essentially ditched the changeup he used in the minors (he's throwing it just 5 percent of the time). He may need to eventually bring back that pitch, however, as left-handed batters have an .804 OPS off him.

5. Gerrit Cole, Pirates

Repertoire: Fastball (average: 95.8; max: 101.0), slider, curveball, changeup.

Fun fact: Cole has thrown the fastest pitch of any starter this year.

Cole's velocity is as good as any starter in the majors, but right now his fastball isn't a swing-and-miss pitch; it's straight and batters see it pretty well. Among pitchers with at least 10 starts, Cole's swing-and-miss percentage on his fastball (11.8 percent) ranks 106th out of 153 pitchers. He's shown good command of it, but it will be the development of his off-speed stuff that determines whether he'll be an ace or settle in as a No. 2 or No. 3 guy.

6. Chris Archer, Rays

Repertoire: Fastball (average: 94.9; max: 98.8), slider, changeup.

Fun fact: In eight starts from June 23 to Aug. 2, he went 5-1 with a 1.80 ERA and .185 average allowed.

Archer was on a roll, commanding his fastball after some shaky outings after his June recall from the minors, but he left Wednesday night's start with a tight forearm. Obviously, let's hope he's OK. Archer primarily uses that explosive fastball and wicked slider; his changeup hasn't yet proven to be an effective pitch. You can get by with being a two-pitch guy, but he'll get more strikeouts if the changeup develops.

7. Zack Wheeler, Mets

Repertoire: Fastball (average: 94.5; max: 98.4), slider, curveball, changeup.

Fun fact: The five picks ahead of him in the 2009 draft: Stephen Strasburg (Nationals), Dustin Ackley (Mariners), Donavan Tate (Padres), Tony Sanchez (Pirates), Matt Hobgood (Orioles).

There's no denying the upside talent here, but he's a long way from being a polished pitcher. While he brings it in the mid- to upper-90s, his fastball hasn't yet been a dominating pitch. He's allowed seven home runs off it in nine starts with 27 strikeouts and 22 walks. He's thrown the changeup only 32 times, so that remains a pitch to work on, as well. For Wheeler, it's all about command. We'll see if he gets there.

8. Hyun-jin Ryu, Dodgers

Repertoire: Fastball (average: 90.1; max: 94.6), changeup, slider, curveball.

Fun fact: He's 5-1 with a 1.83 ERA at home.

At 26, he's the oldest guy here, but he's proven to be the polished left-hander the Dodgers believed they were getting when they brought him over from Korea. His fastball may not match up with the guys above him but he's a four-pitch guy who commands his pitches and keeps the ball down in the zone.

9. Tony Cingrani, Reds

Repertoire: Fastball (average: 92.1; max: 96.3), curveball, slider, changeup.

Fun fact: Among those with at least 10 starts, Cingrani's swing-and-miss percentage against his fastball is sixth best in the majors.

Cingrani basically throws high fastballs, relying more on deception than velocity. He throws the fastball 81 percent of the time -- even more often than Miller -- but hasn't reached 100 innings yet. Some believe hitters will eventually catch on to him, and he'll always be a little prone to home runs, but I think it's a package that can still work, especially if the other offerings improve.

10. Jeff Locke, Pirates

Repertoire: Sinking fastball (average: 90.2; max: 94.8), curveball, changeup.

Fun fact: Locke has seven starts allowing zero runs. Only Hiroki Kuroda with eight has more. (Miller and Yu Darvish also have seven.)

Locke has his skeptics, due to his fastball velocity and poor strikeout rate. It's possible the skeptics could be right -- he's allowed 27 hits in 16 1/3 innings in his past three starts. But he does keep the ball down in the zone (only seven home runs allowed). You can win without racking up big strikeout totals but he'll have to find that balance between issuing too many walks (4.2 per nine) and throwing too many hittable pitches to maintain long-term success. I like his chances more than most, but I understand the reasons not to believe in him.