It was a sad day on May 13th, 2014. Amid a season with a sparkling 2.44 ERA and elite rates of 12.19 K/9 and 2.26 BB/9, Jose Fernandez was scheduled to undergo Tommy John Surgery like many inspiring young arms entering the majors before him. The baseball community as a whole felt the blow and we waited patiently for the exciting Marlins ace to get another chance back on the hill. After an excruciating 14 months of recovery, Fernandez finally got his moment in the spotlight again on Thursday, and many tuned in wondering what we would see. Would there be rust to shake off or will Jose pick up right where he left off? Will he ever be the same? Those questions will be answered in this GIF Breakdown of Jose Fernandez’s 2015 debut featuring 12 HD GIFs.
As always, let’s first look at his strikezone plot for the evening:
Instantly you’ll notice that Fernandez threw only four pitches that were above the strikezone. Often we see pitchers struggle to locate the pitches down, allowing balls to sail arm-side as they pull with their left shoulder towards first-base. Not Fernandez, as his command kept the ball low and pounding the zone. While he certainly grooved some pitches near the heart of the plate – an expected approach for a player who was pitching his first start in over a year – his Curveball was deep in the zone and he attacked batters frequently through the evening. It’s an excellent plot and one of the best we’ve seen this season.
Now let’s take a look at his pitches individually across the debut:
Note: Usage percentages and velocity numbers represent Thursday’s game only and were taken from Brooks Baseball.
Fastball: 58.4% thrown, Average 97.1 MPH, Max 100.2 MPH
From the very pitch of the game, the velocity was there. He averaged 95.1 MPH in 2014, and he blew that out of the water with a 97.1 MPH average tonight. Expect that number to shrink in future outings – we’ve seen many pitchers throw harder in their debuts due to a heavy flow of adrenaline – but his first pitch of the game was a cool 96 MPH for strike one:
While he then gave up a pair of hits off grooved Fastballs early, Jose began acting like a pitcher fast when the time called, as he struck out Matt Duffy in a high leverage situation with this 100.2 MPH Fastball on the outside corner for his first K of the season:
His Fastball command wasn’t phenomenal like in his heyday, but Fernandez attacked hitters early in counts, making it clear that his gameplan was to come out firing strikes. We had glimpses of classic Jose, such as starting off Joe Panik with this heater on the black:
Additionally, it seemed difficult for hitters to square up on his Fastball, often resulting in foul balls even for pitches that missed their locations:
The bottom line is that Jose’s heater was thriving through the game, and while he may not have nibbled around the zone enough, his Fastball was very impressive. Batters had trouble driving the ball with authority even when it got a good amount of the plate, and he has the ability to spot up corners consistently. Some speculated that Fernandez could be wild out of the gate, but this outing has put those concerns to rest.
Curveball: 30.3% thrown, Average 84.0 MPH, Max 86.0 MPH
While Fernandez’s Fastball is an excellent pitch, it’s his Curveball that sets him apart from the crowd. Nicknamed “The Defector”, it’s often referred to as a Slurve given its similarities to Slider with sweeping 1-7 action instead of a traditional north-south drop. As with all breaking pitches, it can be difficult to command it after missing an extended period of time given that it’s more of a feel pitch that a straight Fastball. Jose showed confidence in the pitch right from the first inning, and it was outstanding. He was able to throw it for first pitch strikes:
He trusted it to get him back into counts when behind:
And of course used the hook as his favorite putaway pitch. Take a moment and watch Justin Maxwell Struggle to follow this sweeper as it starts from the inside corner and ends well off the plate:
Gregor Blanco struggled against the pitch as well, whiffing right through this hook as it fell into the dirt for the K:
It’s no secret that Jose has an amazing Curveball as it generated a 21.6% whiff rate in 2014 with batters holding an abysmal .111 batting average and .037 ISO against the pitch. He trusts it in any count, and seeing him rely on it so heavily with identical results in his first start is very encouraging for the future. It’s the pitch that carried him into elite company, and if his Curveball looks like this every start, there’s no reason he won’t join them again in 2015.
Changeup: 11.2% thrown, Average 90.0 MPH, Max 91.7 MPH
Just with his Fastball/Curveball combination Jose Fernandez can be a very deadly pitcher. However, against left-handed batters, Jose can do this:
Yup, that’s a Changeup at 89 MPH that fades down and away just off the plate to collect a well-earned strike two against Brandon Crawford. When you’re gearing up for 97+ and prepping for a big hook, this pitch is the last thing you want to see – especially when he has the ability to command it with a good amount of consistency. Sorry Brandon Belt, but it makes you feel any better, there is no way any of us would have touched this one either:
To be fair, there is still some room for Fernandez to grow with the pitch. The old adage says that if you’re trying to nibble and you miss, miss out of the zone. Fernandez missed on this Changeup and it cruised right down the middle:
Fortunately, Joe Panik wasn’t expecting a Changeup at that point and took the pitch for strike two. However, seeing a mistake like this does show that Fernandez has some work to do on his Changeup. It’s a minor flaw and one of the few that I could find in this game, but it could hurt him if he doesn’t get a better feel for the pitch in future outings.
Final Line: 6.0 IP, 3 ER, 7 Hits, 0 BBs, 6 Ks.
Yep, he’s still the Jose Fernandez you know and love. Outside of a shaky first inning where he was simply trying to throw strikes, Fernandez got into his classic groove and morphed into the pitcher we missed dearly. The growing pains we expected were barely noticeable, though he didn’t have the perfect command that he once had with his Fastball and Changeup. His Curveball was as deadly as ever, generating a whiff rate of 25.9% during the afternoon, and should continue to make batters quiver in the box. There is some room left to grow with the command of his Changeup, but he didn’t throw it all too frequently and saved it exclusively for left-handed batters. His Fastball was also guilty of leaking to the middle of the plate, but he flashed elite locations through the evening and should have few problems moving forward. This is the same guy that was an early Cy Young contender in 2014, and TJS looks to have had very little effect on Jose. There’s no reason he shouldn’t be a Top 15 – if not Top 10 – arm for the rest of the season. It’s great to have him back.
As always, I’ll leave you with a pitch that encapsulates a heavy focus of our featured pitcher. Here Jose Fernandez gets to a quick 0-2 count against Matt Duffy with an excellent Curveball that drops out of the zone: