Marlins ace enters Saturday's start with slight lead on Pedro's 1999 mark
By Andrew Simon
When the Marlins' Jose Fernandez takes the mound on Saturday at Atlanta, it will be one year, to the day, that he returned to the Majors from Tommy John surgery, looking to regain his standing as one of baseball's best pitchers.
There is no shortage of evidence that the 23-year-old right-hander has done just that, as he carries a 2.28 ERA and 1.98 FIP into his 16th start of 2016. Beyond that, consider the history Fernandez is chasing.
Through 94 2/3 innings, his strikeout rate of 37.6 percent is on pace to break the Major League record Pedro Martinez established during his sensational 1999 campaign. No qualified starter besides Martinez and fellow Hall of Famer Randy Johnson has reached 34 percent, though Clayton Kershaw just missed last year (33.8).
There are some important caveats here, besides the fact that the season is only about at its midway point. For one thing, the current National League is not nearly as fearsome an offensive environment as, say, the American League in 1999. In addition, MLB currently has an all-time record strikeout rate of about 21 percent, compared with 16.4 percent in '99.
Fernandez, a potential All-Star Game starter for the NL with Kershaw on the disabled list, has struck out at least eight in 10 of his 15 starts. He has reached double digits six times and 13 or more three times, including last Sunday against the Cubs. Fernandez and Kershaw have combined for nearly as many 13-K games (six) as all other pitchers combined (seven).
Since Fernandez struck out eight over five innings when he made his MLB debut as a 20-year-old in 2013, he has been one the game's more prolific whiff artists. Over his first three seasons -- surrounding his '14 Tommy John surgery -- Fernandez ranked fourth in strikeout rate (29.2 percent), 14th in swinging-strike rate (11.7 percent) and 13th in lowest contact rate (75.3 percent) among those with at least 250 innings.
In 2016, the former first-round pick has taken things to another level. He has backed up his spike in strikeout rate with a 15-percent swinging-strike rate (fourth among qualifiers) and a 66.9-percent contact rate (first). Opponents are making much less contact against Fernandez on pitches inside the strike zone and especially outside the zone, where their rate has dropped from 57.2 percent (2013-15) to an MLB-low 43.6 percent.
Armed with a four-seamer that still averages 96 mph and nasty breaking stuff, Fernandez has held opponents to a .548 OPS, including .468 over his past nine outings.
That dominance has definitively answered the question of whether the post-surgery Fernandez would live up to the pre-surgery version. Now another question emerges: Can Miami's ace stamp his name in the record books?
Andrew Simon is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.