Here's a look at the much too short professional baseball career of Miami Marlins ace Jose Fernandez, who tragically perished in a boating accident early Sunday, September 25th.
Fernandez was born July 31st, 1992, in Santa Clara, Cuba. He was close friends with Aledmys Diaz, future St. Louis Cardinals shortstop. Fernandez made several attempts to escape Cuba and defect to the United States, finally succeeding in 2007 in an incident where he saved his mother from drowning. He played high school baseball in Tampa and quickly earned the attention of scouts.
Fernandez was drafted in the first round in 2011, 14th overall. He pitched just four innings that summer and had command issues with four walks, but the scouting reports were promising. Here's the comment for Fernandez from the 2012 Baseball Prospect Book:
A Cuban refugee, Fernandez came to the United States in a small speedboat. Pitching for Alonso High in Tampa, he emerged as dominant prep arm and was drafted in the first round last year, 14th overall, earning a $2,000,000 bonus. He has a mature, workhorse body with plus arm strength, working at 92-95 MPH, sometimes higher. He probably won’t pick up much more velocity, but he already throws quite hard, while complimenting the heater with a strong secondary arsenal including a slider, curveball, and changeup. His command is considered solid for a young power pitcher, although he was wild in his only start in short-season A-ball, which of course means nothing. Although some scouts think Fernandez could zip through the system as a relief pitcher, his arsenal is diverse enough to start. At this point, he needs innings and experience to iron out his command. Grade B.
Fernandez's 2012 season was a stunning success: he pitched 134 innings between Low-A Greensboro and High-A Jupiter, posting a 1.75 ERA with a 158/35 K/BB and a mere 89 hits allowed. His velocity kicked up a bit and his feel for pitching was beyond his years. The comment for 2013:
Drafted in the first round from a Tampa high school in 2011, Cuban defector Jose Fernandez had a stellar 2012 campaign in the Marlins system, emerging as one of the best pitching prospects in baseball. The statistical case is obvious: all of his numbers were terrific. Note particularly the fact that he’s only given up two home runs in 138.1 professional innings. The scouting reports are as good as the numbers. Fernandez works consistently at 93-96 MPH and has been clocked as high as 99. The fastball has movement as well as velocity, making it tough for hitters to square up. He also has an excellent power curveball, will throw some sliders, and has made good strides with his changeup. His command isn’t perfect, but it is solid for a young power pitcher, and he does a good job mixing his arsenal and pitching, not just throwing the ball past people. Fernandez is physically mature and unlikely to gain additional velocity, but he’s already got plenty so concerns about "projection" don’t apply in this case. The only blemish in his profile is a mound presence described as "brash," which turns some people off. However, Fernandez backs it up with talent and results, and no one questions his work ethic and desire to succeed. If he stays healthy, he will develop into a genuine ace. Grade A.
Even that enthusiastic report underplayed what Fernandez was able to accomplish. He jumped directly to the major leagues in 2013, skipping Double-A and Triple-A. He thrived, going 12-6 in 28 starts for Miami with a 2.19 ERA and a 187/58 K/BB in 172 innings, allowing a mere 111 hits. He made the All-Star team, came in third in Cy Young Award balloting, and was named National League Rookie of the Year.
There were no complaints about any excess "brashness" in the majors. He played with energy and joy and he certainly backed up his confidence with performance, emerging as one of the bright young stars in baseball and a leader on and off the field.
Fernandez opened 2014 in fine form with a 2.44 ERA in eight starts and a 70/13 K/BB in 51 innings. However, in mid-May he was placed on the disabled list with elbow discomfort. An MRI revealed a torn ligament and he had Tommy John surgery. His recovery was successful and he came back strong in the second half of 2015, posting a 2.92 ERA in 11 starts with a 79/14 K/BB in 65 innings.
His 2016 season was another huge success: 16-8 in 29 starts, 2.86 ERA, 253/35 K/BB in 182 innings. If anything he was a more dominant pitcher after Tommy John than before, with a notable rise in strikeout rate without any loss of control. He regained his pre-injury velocity but had fully refined his secondary pitches. He had been especially dominant in the weeks before his death, posting a 29/5 K/BB in his last 22 innings.
All told, Fernandez made 76 major league starts, going 38-17 with a 2.58 ERA in 471 innings with a 589/140 K/BB. He will go down in baseball history as one of the great "what if" stories, a true ace cut down much too early.
Those are his accomplishments on the field. What really matters in the big picture are his accomplishments off it, what Fernandez meant to his teammates and friends and family and his community. Scott Gelman at Fishstripes puts it well
In every way, Fernandez exemplified the American Dream. He fled his country, had success as a child, was drafted and quickly progressed through Miami’s minor league system and emerged as the face of the Miami Marlins.
He was able to pitch in one of the United States’ most diverse communities and related to it. Everyone wanted to meet Jose Fernandez. Everyone wanted Jose Fernandez’s autograph. Everyone wanted to see Jose Fernandez pitch. "Jose Day" has been a trademark of Miami Marlins baseball for the last three seasons.
The community rallied around Fernandez because he gave it hope. And for baseball fans in Miami, he provided a spark. Even if the Marlins weren’t in contention—which wasn’t the case this season—people were talking about Jose Fernandez.
Jose Fernandez was more than a baseball player. He was a hero. Whether you support the Marlins, baseball or the South Florida community, everyone is honoring Jose Fernandez today. Everyone has met a Jose Fernandez.
Jose Fernandez, baseball player. Jose Fernandez, human being. He will be missed.