If you’re like me, you like watching athletes enjoy themselves while playing their sport. Whether it’s Robbie Ross’ never-ending quest to catch every home run ball tracking towards the Fenway bullpen, or the smile-inducing friendship between Elvis Andrus and Adrián Beltré, something about players breaking from the serious nature of their sport, even for a brief moment, brings me happiness. It’s no mystery, then, why the Miami Marlins’ starting pitcher José Fernández is one of my favorite players.
Touting one of the biggest personalities in the sport, Fernández, along with Bryce Harper and other young talents, is making a conscious effort to “Make Baseball Fun Again.” Striving to break from the overly serious nature of the MLB, Fernández adds his own unique flair to every aspect of the game. He loves his job, and after you hear his story, it’s not hard to see why.
Born in Cuba during Fidel Castro’s infamous dictatorial regime, José Fernández has a background worthy of an Academy Award-winning movie script. For a quick history refresher, life in Cuba was extremely difficult under Castro. There was widespread hunger, human-rights violations, and the dictatorship made it extremely difficult to leave the country. Fernández, wanting nothing more than to make a better life for himself and his family in the land of promise called America. He braved the seemingly endless 90-mile stretch of wind, waves, and water between Cuba and the Florida in search of a new home. But the U.S. Coast Guard had other plans and thrice sent him back to Cuba where he was arrested and served jail time as a traitor to Fidel Castro.
However, at age 15 on his fourth defection attempt, Fernández took a slightly different route. He bypassed the Cuban police, snuck onto a speedboat on its way to Mexico, saved his mother from drowning after being knocked overboard by a rogue wave, and took a bus to the Mexican border. On April 5, 2008 he stepped into the state of Texas, ready make a name for himself in this new, unfamiliar land. And he didn’t waste a second.
After mowing down seemingly every high school batter in the Tampa Bay area and breezing through the minor leagues, Fernández continued his war on hitters as the Miami Marlins’ ace. He started his career 17-0 at home, and has now amassed a remarkable 25-1 record and 1.43 ERA in Marlins Park. No one comes out alive after facing the Cuban hurler at home.
While Clayton Kershaw’s outings mirror Mozart’s brilliant Symphony No. 5, a José Fernandez start is the baseball equivalent of Rush’s rock anthem “YYZ”…fast, powerful, deceptively intricate, and just plain fun. Fernández’ fiery disposition and sensational ability to make every batter in the majors look silly create a spectacle unmatched by anyone else in the game.
Jose Fernández combines an incredible ability to punch batters out with a surprising command of the strike zone. His 12.93 K/9 and 36.6% strikeout rate make him far and away the top strikeout arm in the MLB. Thanks to top-tier velocity and a curveball nicknamed “The Defector,” he has no trouble striking out anyone who ventures into the batter’s box. Though he leads the league in strikeout percentage, Fernández’ statistics reveal a complete pitcher with immaculate control. During the 2016 season he has amassed an 11-4 record and 2.52 ERA through 17 starts. His strikeout-to-walk rate is fifth-best in the majors, and his xFIP of 2.35 trails only the great Clayton Kershaw. It’s hard to believe that he’s still only 23 years old, and only two years removed from a successful Tommy John procedure.
“I believe [Jose Fernandez] is better than I was at the same age”
– Pedro Martínez, Red Sox Legend
While the Cuban’s sizzling fastball and changeup are worthy of closer examination, neither pitch can compete with his curveball. “The Defector” is without a doubt one of the filthiest pitches in all of baseball. Thrown about once every three pitches, Fernández’ curve serves as his preferred strikeout pitch. Hitters are batting a measly .121 against the pitch so far this season, and have amassed a wRC+ of only 12. Yes, 12. To put this number in perspective, the league average for a hitter’s wRC+ is 100.
“The Defector” draws a swinging-strike rate of 24.4%, a virtually unheard of whiff rate for any pitch. Even Clayton Kershaw’s notorious curveball only induces a swinging strike rate of 14.1%.
Hitters have almost no chance of making contact when when Fernández throws “The Defector” low-and-outside to a right-handed hitter. On top of that, hitters can’t even lay off the pitch, as evidenced by a near 50% swing rate on curveballs thrown outside the strike zone. Not a good combination for National League hitters.
“The Defector looks like no other breaking pitch in the game. It is well-supinated, leaving the right hand of Fernandez at a fastball trajectory before the laws of physics cease to apply and the laws of awesome take over.”
– Doug Thorburn, Fox Sports
The trajectory of Fernández’ curveball makes it unique in the sport. Unlike most, if not all other curveballs, “The Defector” leaves the pitcher’s hand on the same plane as a fastball before dropping off the face of the planet as it reaches the plate. To right-handed batters it acts almost like a slider, while running in towards the ankles of lefty batters after starting over the plate.
Curveball to a Right-Handed Batter:
Curveball to a Left-Handed Batter:
The fastball-like trajectory and vicious late movement combine to make this a virtually unhittable pitch.
While many pitchers’ overpowering fastballs increase the effectiveness of their breaking balls, Fernández’ fastball actually benefits greatly from the undisturbed effectiveness of his knee-buckling curve.
Put yourself in the shoes of a batter that’s stepping into the box against the Miami ace. If you’ve done your research on the Cuban hurler you know to look for a fastball to hit as his curveball is virtually unhittable. Here’s the problem: since both the curveball and fastball start of on the same trajectory, it’s difficult to pick up which pitch was actually thrown until you recognize the speed. By the time you settle on an answer, the fastball has already buried itself inside the catcher’s glove, leaving you looking almost as foolish as José Fernández after whiffing on Kenta Maeda’s mystery pitch.
Facing Fernández becomes a mid-pitch guessing game; a game that far more often than not you will lose.
José Fernández has already been through more in his young life than nearly every other player in the major leagues. After serving three prison terms before the age of 15, saving his mother from drowning at sea, and successfully escaping Fidel Castro’s brutal regime, baseball is of little importance to him in the grand scheme of things. But that’s not to say that Fernández doesn’t care about the sport. He pours his heart into it every single day, whether on the mound, or in the dugout.
He simply sees baseball for what it is: A game. A game that’s meant to be enjoyed by players and patrons alike. A game that we will be watching him dominate for many years to come.