Jose Fernandez Could Have Been One of the Best Pitchers in MLB History

Jose Fernandez Could Have Been One of the Best Pitchers in MLB History

When he was on the mound, Jose Fernandez was as a force that couldn’t be reckoned with, but unfortunately his life was cut short at 24.

For an example of how one mistake can end your life, look no further than Jose Fernandez. On September 25th 2016, Jose Fernandez and two others were tragically killed in a boating accident. Sadly, it was later determined that he was to blame. Autopsy reports revealed that Fernandez’s alcohol intake was twice above the legal limit and that he had cocaine in his system.

After that, everything spiraled down for his family. His girlfriend gave birth to his daughter in February 2017, while his family reached an out of court settlement and had to pay the families of the two other people that died that night a sum that was reported to be under $2 million. The house that he bought a few years earlier went into foreclosure as well. Along with this, plans to honor Fernandez with parks and streets in Miami as well as a statue outside of Marlins Park were squashed after his autopsy results were made public.

Despite all that, it can’t be argued whether Jose Fernandez was one of the best pitchers in the game at the time because he truly was. In 29 starts in 2016, he went 16-8 with 253 strikeouts (3rd most in the major leagues) and only 149 hits given up in 182.1 innings pitched. Five days before his death, unknowingly, he made the last start of his career where he whiffed 12 batters and only gave up 3 hits without letting a batter get on base via a walk or giving up any runs, which resulted in the Marlins winning that game 1-0. After that game, he revealed to his teammates that this was the best game he ever pitched in his life.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports

Even before 2016, he was one of the leagues brightest stars who was on the verge to becoming a superstar. In 19 starts combined between 2014-2015 where he dealt with injuries and underwent Tommy John surgery, he posted a 2.71 E.R.A. with a record of 10-3. In his 2013 rookie season at the age of 20, he won 12 games with an incredible E.R.A. of 2.19 with a ridiculous opponent average of .182. That led to him being named the NL Rookie of the Year and a 3rd place finish in Cy Young voting falling behind established superstar Clayton Kershaw and veteran Adam Wainwright.

Not only was Fernandez establishing himself as an ace but he was always primed to be one from an early age. When he grew up in Cuba, his next door neighbor, the uncle of major league player Aledmys Diaz, knew that he could make Fernandez the best pitcher in Cuba because of his deadly arm. His arm was so deadly, that he was throwing 87 MPH at the age of 13, just a few ticks below the average velocity of a fastball from major league pitchers which consists of grown men.

In his major league debut, Fernandez struck out 8 batters in five innings which set a club record for most strikeouts in a major league debut. Also in his rookie season when the Marlins faced the Rays, then Rays manager Joe Maddon, one of the best managers in the major leagues, tweeted, “Jose Fernandez might be the best young pitcher I’ve seen at that age. I believe he will go far”.

Playing in the National League also gave him the luxury of being able to hit where, for a pitcher, he actually wasn’t a bad hitter. In 136 career AB, he slashed .213/.217/.301 with 2 HR. However in 2016, it looked like he was starting to establish himself as a pitcher who wasn’t an automatic out at the plate. He was able to have as many hits as times he struck out (13) and batted .250 with an OPS of .553, numbers that any club will take from a pitcher.

In his brief major league career that lasted 4 seasons and 76 games, he went 38-17 with an E.R.A. of 2.58 along with 589 strikeouts and only 357 hits given up with an opponent average of .209 in 471.1 innings pitched. That also came with a Rookie of the Year award in 2013, 2 all-star appearances and a posthumous Comeback Player of the Year award in 2016 which was his first full season after Tommy John surgery.

Even with his success in a short sample size, there was no doubt that Fernandez was going to be one of the best pitchers in the major leagues, in his era and possibly all time.

Just to put out a few facts of how good he was:

  • He had the 4th most strikeouts (253) in a season for a pitcher 24 or under
  • He struck out 31.2% of the batters he faced in his career which is the best strikeout percentage in major league history
  • Home stats: 29-2 with a 1.49 E.R.A
Steve Mitchell/USA Today Sports

To sum that up, basically he was as close to un-hittable as anyone could get and anytime the Marlins stepped on the field at Marlins Park with Fernandez on the mound, they were almost guaranteed to win the game. His MLB best strikeout rate of 31.2% could have gone down if he was still pitching in the big leagues today, but it also could have very well gone up with the increase in strikeouts that the league has seen every season.

Fernandez was just 24 years old when he died, a young man just entering the prime of his career where he was only going to get better. He had a fastball that was able to reach triple digits and a devastating slider that made hitters look silly when they even dared to try and hit it.

Based off his career stats, a full season average from Fernandez would have been a record of 17-8 with 264 strikeouts and an E.R.A. of 2.58. Let’s assume that Fernandez would have been able to keep his rate of excellence up until the age of 35 where his performance starts to drop as well as the stats he already totaled, he would have amassed 3493 strikeouts with 225 wins. That’s also not factoring how much better he would have gotten as he got bigger, stronger and better and that he most likely would have made his average strikeouts over a whole season higher than 264 because he’s just that good. Another thing that’s not being considered is the amount of strikeouts he would get after the age of 35 as he probably wouldn’t be the strikeout artist he once was but he would still be able to rack up a considerable amount of strikeouts because he’s still Jose Fernandez.

Factor in everything that was just said in the paragraph above, Fernandez would have saw himself on all-time leader boards. If Fernandez were to reach 3493 strikeouts by the age of 35, that would have put him 10th all time for strikeouts where he would still be able to add to that total by strikeouts accumulated after 35 and the strikeouts that are unaccounted for as he would most likely be able to increase his average of 264 strikeouts a season from age 25-35. While Nolan Ryan’s record of 5714 strikeouts would be a far cry for Fernandez to reach, surpassing Steve Carlton who’s 4th on the all time strikeout list would have been plausible as he totaled 4136 strikeouts in his career.

If Fernandez was still here with us, he would have been a free agent after the 2018 season and arguably would have been the most coveted free agent of that year’s class, even with the names of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado among the free agents that were available. Entering free agency at the young age of 26, there was an extremely good chance he would have received a $300 million+ contract which would have been the biggest contract that a major league pitcher would have ever signed. Despite being a free agent a year earlier than Gerrit Cole who currently holds the richest contract ever given to a pitcher (9 years, $324 million), he still probably would have had the richest deal for a major league pitcher as Fernandez is two years younger.

There is no doubt that if Fernandez didn’t go boating in the early morning of September 25th, 2016, he would have been in so many more all-star games, breaking more records, having multiple seasons where he would strikeout more than 300 batters and be in the running for Cy Young awards. All of this would have paved the way for him to be the fifth Cuban player to have a plaque enshrined in Cooperstown.

Unfortunately though, we will never get to truly witness and experience the greatness of Jose Fernandez.


Featured Image Credit: Sports Illustrated

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