By Jacob Meyer
Jose Fernandez’s death nearly a month ago is truly a tragedy.
As a stat geek, I naturally looked at Fernandez’s baseballreference.com page when I found out he had died that Sunday morning. I realized his eight-inning, three-hit, 14-strikeout masterpiece four days earlier against the Nationals would be the last addition to his stats.
I then noticed the career. No season with a FIP (fielding independent pitching) greater than a 2.73. No season with an ERA higher than a 2.92. A career 11.2 K/9 rate. The list goes on, but it won’t be as long as it should be.
I then noticed his 2016 season – a season that ended two starts too short.
The 24-year-old was having a career year, and, despite his death a week before the season’s end, should win the NL Cy Young Award.
No matter who wins the award, it’s going to be a tight race, and before explaining why I would vote for Fernandez, let’s look at the rest of my ballot.
While I would pick him to finish fourth, Scherzer will likely finish first, and no one should have any problem with that. Scherzer checks a lot of the boxes that most voters care about, and coincidentally things I don’t care about.
He pitched on a playoff team, check.
He won led the league in wins with 20, check.
He threw 200-plus innings – 228.1 actually – in a year that not many pitchers threw more than 200, check.
This isn’t to say he didn’t have a great season – he did strike out 11.19 per nine versus only a 2.21 BB/9 – but he shows to be worse in other metrics.
While owning a pretty lucky .255 BABIP (batting average on balls in play), compared to the league average of around .300, he had the eighth worse HR/9 rate of all qualified NL starters with 1.22 per nine. He led the league in WHIP with 0.97, and if you adjust Scherzer’s BABIP to the mean, and his 2.96 ERA would not be a 2.96 ERA.
And while his FIP (3.24) and fangraphsWAR (5.6) are good, they aren’t Cy Young worthy this season.
In his first full season as a major league starter, Thor did not disappoint. He continued his impressive 2015 season – in which he owned a 3.24 ERA, 3.25 FIP and 3.1 fWAR in 150 innings.
In 2016, he led the National League in fWAR (6.5), FIP (2.29) while finishing third with his 2.60 ERA. He also upped his K/9 rate from 9.96 to 10.68 – good for fourth best in the league while keeping his BB/9 at an impressive 2.11.
In the year of the home run, in which players like Brad Miller, Rougned Odor and Jedd Gyorko hit 30-plus home runs, Thor posted an anemic 0.54 HR/9.
Syndergaard, the hardest throwing starting pitcher in baseball with an average fastball velocity of 96.5 mph in 2015, experienced some midseason drop in velocity. Sure enough, he ended the season with an average fastball velocity of 97.9 mph, while throwing all of his other pitchers hard too. Sometimes he’d have fun throwing his 89.7 mph changeup (harder than the average fastballs of both starting pitchers in Game Five of the ALCS). Or he’d put opposing hitters away with a devastating slider. It was good in 2015, but it took new heights in 2016, as he upped the velocity from 85 mph to an insane 90.8.
And while his season was great in many respects, it wasn’t as historic as the next pitcher – someone who most voters will not put ahead of Thor or Scherzer.
If it weren’t for a herniated disc in the best pitcher on planet Earth’s back that caused him to miss all of July and August, we would likely be saying that 2016 Clayton Kershaw is the best singular season pitcher ever, overtaking Pedro Martinez’s crown from 1999 and 2000.
Kershaw did not reach the arbitrary 162 innings required to be considered a qualified pitcher, which is why he will likely finish fourth or fifth and not where he should, as the 28-year-old only tossed 149 innings for the Dodgers.
If you take away the pointless innings minimum, which is becoming less important as we see starters going shorter and relievers taking over baseball, Kershaw’s season would indeed be the best season ever.
He would finish first in ERA (1.69), FIP (1.80), WHIP (0.725), H/9 (5.86), fWAR (6.5), HR/9 (0.48) and BB/9 (0.66). While the value argument is valid because he only threw 149 innings, looking at his fWAR of 6.5, tied with Syndergaard, it shows that three-fifths of a Kershaw season is just as valuable, if not more valuable, as any other top starter in the NL.
If Kershaw would have started two more regular season games, assuming he stayed true to form, he could have broken Martinez’s single season WHIP record of 0.737. His 0.66 BB/9 would be the lowest since Carlos Silva’s .43 in 2005 and only the fourth pitcher to post a BB/9 that low in the live ball era.
And while this should have been a historic season, it wasn’t; but someone did have a historic season this year.
I am giving the Cy Young to the kid because of one statistic, but let’s talk about the bigger picture before getting to the history he made in 2016.
The 24-year-old finished third in fWAR among starting pitchers with a 6.2 WAR. He finished second in FIP (2.30), second in HR/9 (0.64) and eighth in ERA (2.86) while owning a .332 BABIP that would suggest some misfortune.
Fernandez was virtually Noah Syndergaard this season while having the historic aspect of his season that Kershaw should have had.
Fernandez led the league in striking out 12.49 batters per nine innings, which led the NL by more than a point. That is the highest K/9 since 2001 Randy Johnson, who struck out an unthinkable 13.41 batters a game.
His K/9 this season is the fifth best of all time, and since Johnson beat him in two different seasons, 2016 Fernandez is the fourth best strikeout starting pitcher in the history of Major League Baseball.
Both times Johnson won the Cy Young; the one time Martinez struck out more than 12.49 batters a game, he won the Cy Young.
The only other pitcher to top that total, Kerry Wood, did it in his rookie season, throwing 166.2 innings and winning the Rookie of the Year (Tom Glavine won the Cy Young that year over Wood and Kevin Brown because he won 20 games).
Fernandez’s death was tragic, and his loss will be felt by the Miami Marlins organization and baseball fans every Opening Day, All-Star Game and other big moments that he will be absent from in the future alike.
In 2016, though, Fernandez was the most deserving pitcher of the National League Cy Young Award.
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