When Jose Fernandez headed for the mound every fifth or sixth day, it wasn't just a baseball game. It was an Event. With a capital E. And maybe a capital V-E-N-T, for that matter.
But not just in Miami. For the entire sport of baseball.
"When he went down, I got a lot of text messages from people around the game," Marlins general manager Dan Jennings said. "And it was all stuff like, `I love watching him pitch.' ... 'I love his energy.' ... And that's the thing about Jose. He didn't just represent all the fun things that go with being a dominant pitcher. What people loved about the kid was his energy, and the fun he had out there."
Well, it's funny Jennings should mention that. As the news was breaking this week that Fernandez was headed for Tommy John surgery, I was already in the process of polling 19 scouts and executives from around baseball on the following question:
Who are the 10 "must-see" starting pitchers in baseball?
I wasn't just looking for pitchers with great numbers. I was looking for pitchers who made you stop what you were doing and watch.
I was searching for pitchers who, if you were flipping through a riff of games on your TV remote, forced you to stop flipping, through their sheer charisma on the mound.
Most of all, I was hunting for guys who exude that special quality that Jose Fernandez exuded every time he grabbed the baseball -- namely, FUN. It was just fun to watch him do his thing.
Well, not surprisingly, Fernandez was running away with that poll when his season was so rudely interrupted. So even though he's about to drop off the radar for the next year, he still makes this list. But the rest of this group is a reminder that even without the most fun guy to watch in the entire port, this is an age where we're still lucky enough to have plenty of marquee attractions taking the mound daily.
So here they come, our Top 10 Must-See Starters in Baseball:
1. Jose Fernandez (17 votes)
The first scout I surveyed for this poll uttered Fernandez's name in about 1.6 seconds, then said, "I'd be surprised if this one wasn't unanimous."
Well, pretty close. Fernandez got 17 out of 19. And I only asked for five names from each voter, simply to make their lives easier. So if I'd asked for 10, I have no doubt he'd have gone 19-for-19.
Just listen to some of the stuff people on other teams had to say about him: "He is, by far, the pitcher I track the most, who isn't available via trade, or not on our team." ... "I'd pay to see him." ... "I love the way he attacks hitters -- and the smile on his face."
And then there's this: "He's got the best stuff in the game, and it's not close. He overshadows anybody else in the major leagues."
Now all this came from teams that had to face this man, remember. Let's just hope that when Fernandez returns next year, he brings the fun --and that electric stuff -- back with him.
2. Clayton Kershaw (11 votes)
"He has to be on the list," chuckled one NL exec, after tossing Kershaw's name out there. "He's the highest paid pitcher in the game."
Uh, no he doesn't. That's the best part of a list like this: No dollar signs attached whatsoever.
Jose Fernandez is making $635,000 this year. Kershaw will be earning about that much every four innings over the life of his new contract. But the Dodgers' ace still belongs in our Must See Club -- because of, well, just his overall awesome-osity.
The reviews: "He's just the master." ... "I love the deception. I love the way he throws downhill, changes speeds, isn't afraid to throw any pitch in any situation." ... "It's power finesse. He's a finesse pitcher, but he can use his power stuff with finesse. He can spot an above-average fastball. He can pitch behind in the count. And he can pitch behind in the count with a variety of off-speed pitches. So he's a finesse pitcher wrapped up inside a power pitcher."
3. Felix Hernandez (9 votes)
I wasn't taking votes from active pitchers in this survey. But when the Angels' C.J. Wilson found out I was doing this piece, he told me, "Felix is my No. 1 guy I like to watch." So that kind of got my attention. And why is that, you ask?
"Because he's got so much different stuff going on," Wilson said. "He sinks the ball. He cuts the ball. He's got the hard breaking ball, the soft breaking ball. He's got a changeup that's 90 miles an hour somehow, that people swing at and miss. And the pitches that he has are like different versions that nobody has. I mean, nobody has a Felix Hernandez changeup. He's just got a singular style."
And that summed up King Felix as well as anyone who actually cast a vote -- with the possible exception of one exec, who fired out this quip: "He's KING Felix. The name says it all."
T-4. Masahiro Tanaka (8 votes)
If I'd just been polling myself in this survey, I'd have jumped Tanaka to the No. 2 spot, right behind Fernandez, because, for me, the Tanaka Show is as good as it gets right now.
Who else gets swings and misses with five different pitches? Who else has a split-fingered monster that drops, like, 11 feet, a pitch that hitters have swung at and missed 51 percent of the time -- even though they pretty much know it's coming?
"He epitomizes 'must-watch,'" one scout said. "It's amazing the way he's lived up to the hype. ... He has the weight of a whole country on his shoulders, as much as, if not more than [Daisuke] Matsuzaka and [Yu] Darvish. They expect perfection, and he's living up to it. And he's doing it in a major market. I actually think that's bringing out the best in him. It just adds the right ingredients to what we already thought we knew about him."
T-4. Max Scherzer (8 votes)
Hey, guess what? Scherzer wound up getting more votes in this survey than his partner in Cy Young Motown crime, Justin Verlander. Yeah, I know it's a small sample. But it's also dead-on, in the case of a guy who now consistently blows away hitters with a 95 mph smokeball, 85 mph change and 78 mph curveball.
"He's ahead of Verlander," one scout said of Scherzer. "He's been ahead for maybe a year and a half."
Among the other reviews: "I love the way he dominates hitters. And knowing what his background is, how much he's improved and how far he's come, I appreciate that." ... "His ball probably finishes in the strike zone as well as anyone." ... "It is high-octane pitching, leaving nothing in the tank. I'm not sure if it is the elite fastball, the dual-colored eyes or the intensity, [but] he has plenty of reason to watch."
6. Justin Verlander (7 votes)
Ah, but Verlander isn't lurking far behind. He isn't quite what he used to be, now that he's no longer dialing up 99 in the ninth any time he needs it. But he's still as fun to watch as anybody alive, when you combine that look in his eye with the perpetual joy on his face.
"He's on my list, because the juices to compete are still there," one scout said. "Even if he's lost something off his fastball, he still competes his butt off. He's going to make you beat him."
7. Yu Darvish (6 votes)
I had to chuckle when one of our voters described Darvish as "most likely to throw a perfect game on any given night." Uh, either that or "most likely to have one broken up with two outs in the ninth -- or five days later."
But whatever. Darvish has to be on this list, just because he's baseball's ultimate swing-and-miss machine. He reached 500 career strikeouts in fewer innings than any pitcher in history. And his 21 double-digit strikeout games since 2012 are seven more than the next closest whiffmaster (Scherzer).
"Darvish is so electric when he's on," one exec said, "And the movement on his pitches is so special, he can do so many different things with the shape and speed of his breaking balls."
T-8. Cliff Lee (5 votes)
Listening to the guys we surveyed talk about Lee, one of my first thoughts was: If the Phillies seriously attempt to trade him in July, they won't lack for interest. What separates Lee from the masses is that he's baseball's most efficient strike-thrower. Since 2010, this man has a strikeout/walk ratio of 7.11 whiffs for every walk. No other active starter is even at 4.50 K/BB. So if you like that sort of thing, he's the best attraction in the business.
"Watching Cliff Lee pitch is like watching Peyton Manning carve up a defense," one AL executive said. "The things he can still do with one pitch [i.e., his fastball] are incredible."
T-8. Adam Wainwright (5 votes)
Wainwright is another guy who would rank really high on my personal list. But even though he didn't pile up a huge quantity of votes, the scouts and execs who voted for him shared my admiration for his incredible presence, intelligence and feel for the art of pitching.
A couple of highlights from the reviews he got: "Best pitchability guy in baseball [but has stuff, too]. Ultimate craftsman." ... "The ultimate professional and preparation king. He gives the game what [other] guys should."
T-8. Mark Buehrle (5 votes)
So how about this? A man whose fastball travels 7 miles per hour slower than Felix Hernandez's changeup makes the list. But why the heck not? Buehrle may have the second-lowest average fastball velocity in baseball (ahead of only a knuckleballer, in R.A. Dickey) -- but he's 7-1, with a 2.04 ERA. How can you not be glued to your flat screen trying to figure out how the heck he does that?
"You know who I really like to watch, is Buehrle," said one scout who's a former power pitcher. "It's 'Here it is, it's the best I've got,' it's 83 to 86, it's a lot of strikes, and it's the same every year. All of us scouts like guys who throw 97. But I'll take this guy and Bronson Arroyo, who are out there throwing 86 and still getting them out."