Jose Fernandez's eventful debut
Dull moments were few and far between in the Miami pitcher's rookie season
Jose Fernandez has been a perpetual motion machine since the Miami Marlins informed him that he had thrown his final pitch of the 2013 season. At the very least, he's found that staying busy is a great antidote for boredom.
During a trip to New York, Fernandez attended a Dwight Gooden book signing and chatted briefly with one of his baseball idols. At Citizens Bank Park, he frolicked with the Phillie Phanatic. In idle moments, he shags balls in the outfield, digs through the dugout stash for sunflower seeds, commandeers the blender in the clubhouse lounge to make icky-yet-nutritious green veggie shakes, and expends lots of energy cheering on his teammates in their quest to surpass 60 victories.
Of course, he would rather spend his time reading scouting reports and navigating opposing lineups. But when the front office decrees that 172 2/3 innings are enough and it's time to start planning for next season, a 21-year-old phenom can only do so much to plead his case.
"I wish I could pitch the whole year," Fernandez said. "I feel really strong and I think I can throw 200 innings, but they know what they're doing. I have to sit back and understand that we're in last place and there's no reason to push me. They want to play it safe."
The Phillies, Nationals and Tigers -- the three teams Fernandez would have faced down the stretch -- are certainly grateful for the reprieve.
Fernandez shut it down two weeks ago with numbers that were impressive by any standard, much less those of a rookie. He's second in the majors to Clayton Kershaw with a 2.19 ERA, and ranks fourth behind Kershaw, Matt Harvey and Max Scherzer with a 0.98 WHIP. He held opposing hitters to a .182 batting average and posted a 9-0 record and a 1.19 ERA at home. His 6.6 WAR ties him for third-best among big league starters behind Kershaw and Chicago's Chris Sale.
Not bad for a kid who was going to be pitching for Double-A Jacksonville until shoulder injuries to Henderson Alvarez and Nathan Eovaldi helped land him a spot in the big league rotation out of spring training. Fernandez was sufficiently blindsided by the news that he had to hit the local mall and buy three suits in accordance with the team's dress code.
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Click here to read Jerry Crasnick's story on Jose Fernandez in Spanish.
Six months later, the people around him are grasping for comparisons. The list of admirers includes Marlins manager Mike Redmond, who was a backup catcher with the team 10 years ago when Josh Beckett, A.J. Burnett, Brad Penny and Carl Pavano were all getting established.
"I don't think I've been around a guy who's so mature," Redmond said. "His pitches are so advanced. Josh and A.J. had great stuff, but they still had things they were working on -- whether it was command issues, curveballs, changeups or whatever. You look at Jose and there aren't a lot of weaknesses there. And he's only going to get better as he learns the hitters and learns the league. That's a little bit scary."
The Marlins punted on the 2013 season last November when they traded Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson to Toronto, but there's reason to think the next chapter in South Florida baseball might not be as painful as initially expected. Giancarlo Stanton is still around and will fetch a mother lode of talent if they Marlins decide to move him before he hits free agency in November 2016. Outfielder Christian Yelich looks like the real deal, Adeiny Hechavarria has shown flashes of defensive wizardry at shortstop along with that .569 OPS, and the farm system has some promising pieces in place.
At the top of the list, the Marlins have a young starter with the competitiveness, aptitude and physical skill to carry a staff. Fernandez's stuff elicits comparisons to a young Justin Verlander, and he has the charisma and joie de vivre of Pedro Martinez.
The back story is well-documented. Fernandez's stepfather, Ramon Jimenez, defected from Cuba in 2005. Jose, his mother (Maritza) and sister (Yadenis) made three unsuccessful forays via speedboat to follow him to the United States. The third failed attempt landed Jose in jail, and he was expelled from the state-run boarding school for elite athletes that he'd been attending. On the fourth try, Jose had to dive into the Gulf of Mexico to save his mother from drowning before the family found safe haven in Mexico. After a pit stop in Hidalgo, Texas, mother, son and daughter finally settled in Florida.
Yelich was familiar with Fernandez's story from news accounts, but he heard it first-hand for the first time while sitting in an airport with Fernandez in July 2012. They were on their way to the All-Star Futures Game in Kansas City when they bonded over baseball and plain talk.
"We're just sitting there shooting the [breeze] and he tells me the whole thing at 6 in the morning," Yelich said. "When I was 14, I was in the eighth grade doing who knows what. I didn't even know what to say to him. I was like, 'Uhh, do you want me to buy you a Starbucks or something?'"
Viewed against that backdrop, baseball was a snap.
Fernandez required precious little seasoning after the Marlins selected him with the 14th pick in the 2011 draft out of Alonso High School in Tampa. He went 14-1 with a 1.75 ERA and 158 strikeouts in 134 innings during two Class A stops in 2012, and impressed the brass enough that the Marlins defied convention this spring and let him skip the final two rungs of the minors.
Before Fernandez struck out eight batters in five innings in his major league debut against the New York Mets, he told Marlins beat writers that the only things he fears are roller coasters and snakes.
"I've been in jail. I've been shot at. I've been in the water," Fernandez said. "I'm not scared to face David Wright. What can he do?"
If there was a moment early in the season when Fernandez validated the Marlins' faith in him, it came against the Phillies on April 13. Miami was clinging to a 1-0 lead in the sixth inning when Hechavarria put the tying run on second base with a throwing error. After pumping in five straight 95- to -97-mph fastballs, Fernandez struck out Ryan Howard with an 82-mph curveball to end the threat. It was his 85th and final pitch of the night, and the Marlins went on to beat the Phillies 2-1.
"That gave me a little more confidence," Fernandez said. "It's the at-bat that keeps popping into my head."
Fernandez is a big believer in setting goals -- short-term, long-term, concrete and abstract. He reveals that when he began the season with the big club, he aspired to 15 wins and a 2.50 ERA. He came up short in the win department with a 12-6 record, but demolished his ERA target.
He might want to add "avoiding embarrassing situations" to the list. His season ended on Sept. 11 with a tension-filled episode against Atlanta that began when he stood at home plate and admired a home run off Mike Minor, then spat in Chris Johnson's direction while rounding third base. For those antics, Fernandez earned widespread condemnation from the "respect-the-game" police, and even Redmond suggested that he could benefit from toning down the emotion and acting more professionally.
Fernandez's abundant self-confidence can land him in some ticklish situations. He barely spoke a word of English upon arrival in Florida, but still managed to get in trouble on his first day of school when his teacher chastised him for speaking on his cell phone in class.
To his credit, Fernandez sought out Braves catcher Brian McCann and Minor after the Atlanta incident to offer an apology.
"The game got the best of me there," he said in hindsight. "Hopefully, it was the last time. I told those guys, 'I'm sorry,' and I think that will fix some things. I learned from it and I'm trying to get better. That's what we're here for -- to learn, learn, learn."
Fernandez's more seasoned Miami teammates give him subtle reminders when he oversteps his bounds. In contrast to Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, who seems to make the same mistakes over and over and sometimes appears mentor-proof, Fernandez takes the suggestions in stride and is intent on ironing out the rough edges.
"You let him know when he crosses the line," said Marlins catcher Jeff Mathis. "He's too good a player and too good a kid to have that kind of mess hanging above his head. He knows he shouldn't have done it. I don't think it will happen again."
During this memorable rookie season, nearly every day has provided a new wonder to behold. Fernandez brought Maritza out onto the field for Firework Fridays after home games, and took a plunge into the home run fountain beyond the center field fence at Coors Field during a series in Denver.
Moving forward, Fernandez is determined to embrace the subtleties of pitching and take his game to greater heights in 2014. His 28 starts this season taught him that the strike zones are smaller in the big leagues, bad things can happen with two outs, and mental lapses against the bottom third of opposing batting orders can be costly.
"They can score five runs off you, and you open your eyes and you're down 5-0," Fernandez said.
For the record, his biggest clunkers this season came against Cincinnati in April and Tampa Bay in May. He logged monthly ERAs of 1.67 in June, 2.06 in July, 1.15 in August and 0.64 in September, so he quickly got the hang of things.
On rare occasions when Fernandez backslides or loses sight of the big picture, some vivid images flash in his head and keep him motivated.
"The big leagues to me are the most amazing thing," he said. "I respect this game with my life. I know a lot of people have been through a lot of stuff, but it wasn't easy for me. I went through a lot of things a boy shouldn't have been through at 14 or 15. It makes me appreciate my freedom [in America]. Every time I have a chance to be part of this game, it's amazing."
The pitching has ended for 2013, but the education endures. At 21, Jose Fernandez has reached a compelling crossroads between a riveting past and a limitless future.
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