WHAT WILL HE DO FOR AN ENCORE?
Virtually every interview Jose Fernandez did in the opening days of spring training included at least one question about the possibility of a “sophomore slump.”
It’s not an uncommon phenomenon in baseball or in sports in general. An athlete bursts onto the scene and dazzles. Expectations for year two skyrocket. And all too often, those expectations wind up unmet.
While many Major League Rookies of the Year go on to solid, and in some cases Hall of Fame careers, many others—probably a majority—never again attain the kind of glory they enjoyed during their debut seasons.
Whether they succumb to injury, fail to make the necessary adjustments as the league adjusts to them, or we come to grips with the reality that maybe these players simply weren’t as good as we once thought they were, for every Derek Jeter or Dustin Pedroia who’s taken home the hardware since 1990, there are plenty more players like Pat Listach, Bob Hamelin, Marty Cordova, Ben Grieve, Scott Williamson, Eric Hinske, Jason Jennings, Angel Berroa, Bobby Crosby, Geovany Soto and the Marlins’ own Chris Coghlan.
A few on that list of recent Rookies of the Year went on to decent careers after their initial success and enjoyed some longevity in the game. But several others are mere footnotes in baseball history, never coming close to replicating their success out of the gate and, in some cases, hanging on for dear life, being sent back to the minor leagues or even winding up out of the game altogether within a few years.
So that brings us to Jose. While those who asked the 21-year-old about the possibility of a year-two drop-off were only doing their jobs, let’s get real.
“I’ve heard about it,” Fernandez acknowledged in the opening days of camp. “A lot of guys have said something about it. I don’t know, but I’m feeling really, really good.”
And, clearly, he should.
For those who’ve endured sophomore slumps over the years, the reality–as hindsight has shown–is that in virtually all cases, year one was the aberration, not year two or the string of disappointing seasons that ensued.
There was no smoke and mirrors involved with Jose’s absolutely dominating 2013 season. His pure stuff, his mound savvy and maturity and his unsurpassed work ethic are indisputable.
Jose didn’t just win the National League’s Rookie of the Year Award because he had a nice year relative to other rookies (as is often the case in the annual voting). He won the award because he had a dominant season, one that placed him third in Cy Young voting, and, oh yeah, he just happened to be a rookie too. His was not merely a jaw-dropping rookie year. It was a jaw-dropping year. Period.
Jose showed up among major league leaders, not rookie leaders, in virtually every major pitching category. For him, the Rookie of the Year Award was almost anti-climactic. By late summer, the question ceased to be whether or not he was the best rookie in the National League (or in all of baseball), It became whether or not he was the best pitcher in the National League. Or where he might rank among the best pitchers in all of baseball.
Will he be better in every statistical category in 2014? Admittedly, that’s asking a lot.
How can he be expected to better his microscopic 2.19 ERA? Since 1980, only three starting pitchers have recorded multiple seasons with sub-2.20 ERAs: Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens.
Opponents hit .182 with a .265 slugging percentage and a .522 OPS (on-base plus slugging) against Jose last year.
Since 1970, only Martinez, and Nolan Ryan have had seasons in which they threw as many innings and allowed a lower batting average.
Only Ryan, Maddux and Martinez have thrown as many innings in a season while surrendering a lower slugging percentage over the last 44 seasons.
Only Martinez, Maddux, Don Sutton and Clayton Kershaw (in his amazing 2013 Cy Young season) have put together a season in which they allowed a lower OPS in as many innings of work.
And, again since 1970, only Ryan and Martinez have pitched as many innings and allowed fewer hits per nine innings than the 5.79 Jose gave up as a rookie, playing at age 20 for more than half of the season.
That’s a lot of Hall of Fame (or future Hall of Fame) company. There’s not a single one-year wonder on any of those lists.
The analysis can’t be all about the bottom-line numbers. With Fernandez’s pitch count and innings restrictions loosened a bit this year, you can expect him to be out there longer each time he gets the ball and to hopefully pitch all the way through September. More innings out of Fernandez certainly ought to make him even more valuable to his team.
Whatever the expectations of the baseball world may be, no one sets their goals higher than Jose himself. But the truth is, he’s not the only person in the Marlins clubhouse who scoffs at the notion of a sophomore slump.
Where does he go after turning the baseball world upside down in 2013?
“I believe he’s capable of having an even better year,” manager Mike Redmond told me on Marlins On Deck. “I know that’s probably crazy to say, but I really do believe that. This guy’s just special. His energy, his focus and his confidence are off the charts and I love that.
“He’s a winner. This guy wants to win. This guy goes out to beat you. I love that, and I know whenever I faced the best pitchers in the league when I was going through the big leagues, you could see their confidence. And that’s what he has. He’s a fierce competitor. He goes out there to win and that’s really his only focus: To go out there, to pitch his butt off and to get his team a win.
“There are always things that you worry about,” Redmond said. “Like trying to do too much or trying to be somebody he’s not when he’s pitching. I think the important thing is for him to just go out and pitch his game. He’s so good. His stuff is so good. He doesn’t have to do any more. He just has to be consistent in the strike zone. He’s got great breaking balls. He’s got great tempo. He’s got a ton of confidence. If he just stays within himself and pitches like Jose, he’s going to be in good shape.
Sure, there are things you have to worry about with any pitcher. But as long as he’s healthy, in Jose Fernandez’s case, a sophomore slump ought to be a long way down the list of concerns.
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