Jose Fernandez: Best strikeout talent since Randy Johnson?

He has answered any lingering questions following Tommy John surgery. Monday’s outing marked his 22nd start this season, surpassing his total number of starts in 2014 and 2015 combined.

Earlier this season, Fernandez had a stretch where he recorded 10-plus strikeouts in seven games. His seven starts with 10-plus strikeouts represent a single-season Marlins record. He also holds the club’s career mark of 16 such games. Fernandez’s domination starts with his strikeout pitch, the breaking ball. Make no mistake; the fiery right-hander has proven to be the best strikeout pitcher in baseball.

Through his first 21 starts this season, Fernandez is averaging better than one strikeout for every three batters faced (36.4 percent). He also boasts one of the highest strikeouts per nine inning rates (K/9) in league history. Over 131.2 innings thus far this season, Fernandez has struck out 192 batters; second in the league only to Max Scherzer. His rate of 13.12 strikeouts per nine innings leads the majors by a comfortable margin; Scherzer is next at 11.58.

Fernandez’s current strikeouts per nine innings rate (13.12) is 1.23 punch outs per nine higher than the second highest (Yu Darvish 2013–11.89) since 2001. If Fernandez can continue to strikeout batters at this high of a rate, he could become the first pitcher since Randy Johnson to average more than 13 strikeouts per nine innings.

Back in 2001, Randy Johnson put together one of the most dominant strikeout seasons in league history. In 34 starts for Arizona, Johnson struck out 372 batters (11th most all-time) in 249.2 innings pitched. His K/9 rate was the highest of all-time at 13.41 punch outs per nine. Johnson (21–6) won the NL Cy Young Award that year, and went on to win the World Series with Curt Schilling and the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Fernandez is on pace to put up huge lifetime strikeout numbers. In his first start after the All-Star break, Fernandez became the third-fastest pitcher (by games started) since 1900 — behind Dwight Gooden (61) and Yu Darvish (62) — to reach 500 career strikeouts as a starter, according to Elias.

So, what makes Fernandez so effective?

In 2013, as a rookie, Fernandez recorded 187 strikeouts in 172.2 innings pitched. Quickly solidifying himself as the Marlin’s ace, Fernandez only needed about 120 innings in the minors before Miami realized they needed to call up the 21-year-old prospect.

Originally perceived as the stereotypical “power pitcher” in his rookie season, Fernandez’s fastball has proven to be his most valuable pitch. According to FanGraphs’ PITCHf/x Pitch Values, his fastball was valued at 12.5 runs above average, good for 12th in the majors.

The two qualities Fernandez seems to have an excess of are passion and knowledge for the game. Nothing is more impressive than the development of Fernandez’s breaking ball over the last three years. The adjustments he have made are remarkable.

He has thrown the heater 54.5 percent of the time, compared to 57.3 percent in his rookie year. Meanwhile, he has made more frequent and effective use of his nasty breaking ball, throwing it on nearly 25 percent of his pitches, almost twice as often as in his first season.

To the naked eye, Fernandez appears to throw a single breaking ball, but under closer examination, it is evident that he throws two different breaking pitches (via FanGraphs):

His pitch selection couldn’t be more deliberate. He clearly favors different pitches based on handedness of batters, a very religious tendency for most pitchers. But Fernandez goes above and beyond just knowing which pitch to use. It appears as if Fernandez knows to change the grip on the ball to tailor the break of the pitch to each batter.

When asked, “Do you consider your breaking ball a slider or a curve?” The Marlin’s righty said, “I got both. I can throw both. I trust them both equally.”

According to FanGraphs’ Eno Sarris, since Fernandez actually possesses two breaking balls, Sarris believes FanGraphs’ assessment of Fernandez’s curveball may be be skewed.

FanGraphs’ Pitch Values, award Fernandez the number one most valuable curveball in the majors this season at 16.7 runs above average (wCU). But, after seeing the two breaking pitches split out, Sarris believes Fernandez possesses the 12th- or 13th-best curve amongst starting pitchers, and also the 11th-best slider. It doesn’t sound particularly impressive, perhaps, but Carlos Carrasco is the only other starting pitcher in the majors to boast two top-15 whiff rates on two breaking balls.

Let’s look at the two breaking balls separately.

This is the curve, thrown here to Dee Gordon (a lefty) for strike three. The vertical break is tremendous; starts at the belt buckle, finishes at the ankles. It leaves his hand at 82–83 mph.

The slider he throws is meant to be a swing and miss pitch. It’s tighter and a little bit faster at 86 mph. Watch Fernandez get Carlos Ruiz (a righty) to swing and miss with the bases loaded.

In 2016:
vs. L — 10.52 K/9
vs. R — 15.66 K/9

Here’s another example of his curveball versus a left-handed batter. Fernandez knows left-handed batters have the upper hand against righty pitchers, so he developed an even dirtier version of his slider to use primarily on lefties.

What makes Fernandez an exceptional strikeout talent is his fastball ability. At around 95–100 mph, his fastball becomes un-hittable when Fernandez uses his breaking pitch effectively. Watch Fernandez pin a 97 mph fastball on the black versus a righty for strike three.

While his two breaking pitches might look similar, we have to return to what Fernandez said — he has two. His own claims are further supported by the video evidence and the usage rates provided by FanGraphs’ Eno Sarris.

FanGraphs describes an “excellent” strikeout percentage to be 27 percent. Fernandez’s career strikeout percentage currently sits at 31 percent, far above average. In comparison, Randy Johnson’s career strikeout percentage sits at 28.6 percent.

If we compare career strikeout numbers at the age of 23, Fernandez more than stacks up. Actually, Johnson didn’t even make his major league debut until he was 24 years old.

Okay, so let’s be fair to Johnson now. I would compare strikeouts through their first three seasons, but because of Fernandez’s elbow surgery, the number of starts are skewed. To be more fair, let’s compare strikeouts by number of starts.

Through 69 career starts:
Randy Johnson: 332 SO
Jose Fernandez: 534 SO

What made Johnson so special was his longevity…not every pitcher can last 22 seasons. But youth is on Fernandez’s side. I am not saying Fernandez will break Johnson’s record of second most strikeouts all-time (maybe I am). But boy, wouldn’t that be fun to see?

We could be watching history folks. Make sure you tune in.

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