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Jose Fernandez: Sophomore Slump?

MLB: Miami Marlins at Arizona Diamondbacks
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After putting up arguably the best rookie pitching performance in recent memory, Marlins right-hander Jose Fernandez took home National League Rookie of the Year honors and ranked third place in NL Cy Young voting for 2013. With this incredible success in his first big league season, it seems the 21-year-old will has a very bright future in the MLB. However, nothing is set-in-stone, so it’s worth evaluating whether we will see some regression in his sophomore season.

ERA/WHIP

Fernandez took an uncommon, but impressive path to the majors after being drafted 4th overall in 2011. The flamethrower never pitched at any level above High-A Jupiter in the minors, and accumulated a total of jut 138.1 innings throughout his MiLB career. But, he did post terrific rates during this time. Fernandez recorded a 2.02 ERA, 0.961 WHIP, and allowed just 6.2 hits per 9 innings in his 27 minor league starts.

Fernandez jumped multiple levels of the minors and landed a spot in the Marlins big league rotation to start 2013. He then recorded a stellar 2.19 ERA, 0.979 ERA, and 5.8 H/9 in 172.2 major league innings.

Working primarily with a fastball that averaged at 94.9 MPH and two great breaking balls in his curveball and slider, Fernandez was super tough to scrounge hits off of. He was aggressive in going after batters, throwing 55.0% of his pitches in the strike zone (the league average is 44.7%).

The biggest factor in keeping his rates low was his strikeout rate of 9.7 strikeouts per 9 innings. When taking a deeper look, his batted ball and control numbers were actually near league average. His 21.6% line drive percentage, 45.1% ground ball percentage, and 33.3% fly ball percentage almost mirrored the MLB averages of 21.2% LD%, 44.5% GB%, and 34.3% FB%. Additionally, his rate of 3.0 walks per 9 innings is identical to the MLB average.

Allowing just 10 home runs in his 27 starts yielded him a rate of 0.52 home runs per 9 innings. As Fernandez allows a nearly average amount of fly balls, one would figure that this rate would regress toward the league average 0.96 HR/9. But as Marlins Park ranked last place in the MLB in home runs allowed, the Cuban won’t run into a lot of these issues at home. But, I do think his 0.72 HR/9 on the road could have been slightly lucky, considering he held a pedestrian 10.9% home run to fly ball ratio (HR/FB).

So what does this all mean? I think it points to some regression in his rates. He was not getting way too lucky or unlucky, but his batted ball data probably should have allowed some more hits and runs. Most ERA predictors back up this claim, as his 2.73 FIP (Fielder Independent Pitching) and 3.15 SIERA (Skill Interactive ERA) were both significantly higher than his 2.19 ERA. Similarly, his .240 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) can also be a sign of regression as well.

All things considered, I think most people expect Fernandez’s ERA and WHIP to head upward, but that doesn’t mean he can’t continue to be a top-tier fantasy starter.

Strikeouts

Fernandez toyed with batters in the minor leagues, as he recorded a rate of 10.7 strikeouts per 9 innings. Per usual, his numbers regressed a bit when he made the transition to the majors, as his strikeout ratio fell to 9.7 K/9 in his rookie year. Still, it was a top-of-the-line rate, especially for a 21-year-old rookie.

If he starts giving up more home runs and extra-base hits as I predicted earlier, he may choose to not challenge batters as aggressively. Instead of going after the strikeout, he may look to induce more groundballs. He has the stuff to do it, and I think it’d be a pretty easy transition for him. Thus, a slight regression from his 9.7 K/9 could be expected as he refines his approach a bit. I’d expect it to be somewhere around 9.2 K/9 in his sophomore season.

Of course, this probably won’t make a huge difference on what he does from start-to-start. He will continue to be one of the best options in baseball in terms of what he does in every outing. But the youngster may again be limited in terms of what he can do on the season as a whole. His innings cap of 172.2 innings limited him to 187 strikeouts last year. He’s capable of a lot more than that. Miami should allow him to pitch somewhere around 200 innings in 2014, and that should help his season totals.

Win Potential

At the moment, it’s difficult to expect any Marlins pitcher to win a lot of games. While Fernandez racked up a solid 12 wins last season, that’s really not a great number considering he started 28 games, recorded a microscopic ERA, and averaged over 6 innings per start.

It’s pretty simple to credit this issue to his team’s poor offense. The Marlins ranked dead last in the MLB in runs scored, batting average, home runs, and most other major batting categories. With a healthy Giancarlo Stanton and a handful of other potentially helpful additions, things could get slightly better in Miami. But, I still can’t see the team even ranking in the top-20 in runs scored for 2014.

With some ERA regression and a batting lineup that probably won’t get a whole lot better, Miami will still make it hard for Fernandez to rack up wins. Even if he performs like a Cy Young candidate again, he will be tough to count on in that category. Fantasy owners should really try to find their wins somewhere else.

The Verdict

Fernandez is almost everything you want out of a starting pitcher. He has velocity, control, command, and a heck on arsenal. At such a young age, his ceiling is limitless, and there should be many good years to come.

I do not expect a “sophomore slump” for Jose Fernandez in 2014. I expect another good season from him, making him a top-15 starting pitcher once again. He’s the 11th starter off the board in ESPN leagues right now. I think there’s a chance he may finish a few spots behind there, but he shouldn’t fail to live up to his draft value.

2014 Projection: 31 GS, 200 IP, 12 W, 2.85 ERA, 1.120 WHIP, 210 K.

Check out my piece on Reds pitcher Tony Cingrani here.

About This Empire Soldier: Follow Zach on Twitter @DSE_Mongillo https://twitter.com/DSE_Mongillo

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