It is cruel to have to write a career retrospective of a 24 year old with only four seasons under his belt, but the tragic loss of Jose Fernandez leaves us with little choice. This world is cruel like that. And humbling.
There was nothing humble about Jose Fernandez, however, a young man who radiated with a well-earned confidence that was neither malicious nor obnoxious. His smile and joy for the game are what people will remember most, even as his performance matched up with the all time greats.
Fernandez defected from Cuba as a 15 year old in 2008 and attended high school in the Tampa area while learning English. He was drafted 14th overall in 2011 by the Miami Marlins and shot through their minor league system. In 2013, at age 20, he made the club out of Spring Training, as the Marlins looked to rebuild the always fragile relationship with their fans.
He was a godsend that year, starting 28 games and posting a 2.19 ERA with 187 strikeouts in 172.2 innings. He was named National League Rookie of the Year and was on the All Star team. He started strong in 2014 as well before he felt a twinge in his elbow.
Fernandez underwent Tommy John Surgery that summer and would be out for more than a year. He returned late in 2015, and it was like he hadn’t skipped a beat. In 11 starts, he was 6-1 with a 2.92 ERA.
Healthy again in 2016, he helped fuel the Marlins’ surprising run for the Wild Card, starting 29 games, with a 16-8 record, a 2.86 ERA and a ridiculous 253 strikeouts in 182.1 innings. He made his second All Star team, and will likely be one of the finalists for the NL Cy Young Award.
As great as he was on the mound, he was as much of a delight off of it. In late July, I was fortunate enough to be in Miami for the annual conference for the Society for American Baseball Research. I was sitting in the left field bleachers before the game while Fernandez shagged balls below. He became obsessed with throwing a ball to a particular fan standing in the back row of those bleachers, some 150-200 feet away, and 25-30 feet above him. He effortlessly and gracefully tossed a ball which flew over the head of its intended recipient by a good ten feet. He asked for another ball and threw that too. That missed. Baseball after baseball arced into the stands as kids scrambled to get the souvenirs. He never stopped smiling and gesturing to his target, and eventually, after more than a dozen tosses, hit him right in the hands. The fan dropped the ball, and Fernandez doubled over laughing. I’ll never forget it.
In his short career, Fernandez was simply dominant and was poised to go down as one of the greatest pitchers in modern history. A review of starting pitchers with at least 75 starts from 1876 to the present finds that Fernandez comes in fourth all time in ERA+:
He is also sixth all time in ERA+ among starters 25 or younger who have started 75 games, better than all-time greats like Clayton Kershaw, Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens, and Tom Seaver:
His career record stands at 38-17 with a 2.58 ERA and 589 strikeouts in 471.1 innings. He has the second highest strikeout rate of all time among starters with more than 75 starts, one hundredth of a point behind Yu Darvish.
There is simply almost no upper limit to how great he could have been over the course of his career, had he been able to continue it. And there simply is no way to quantify the scope of his loss for baseball fans, and fans of the Marlins in particular. But still greater is the loss felt by his friends, family, teammates, and everyone whose lives he personally touched. These include his mother, his grandmother, his girlfriend, and his unborn child, which he announced to the world just five before his tragic death. This and the memories he left behind in the minds of millions of fans are his legacies.
Rest in peace.