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Fernandez's year might be best by rookie pitcher

Fernandez's year might be best by rookie pitcher

Fernandez's year might be best by rookie pitcher

Whenever Marlins rookie Jose Fernandez pitches, it seems he leaves a vapor trail of praise in his wake.

"Unfortunately for us, that's as good a start as I think we've seen all year," Indians manager Terry Francona said after the right-hander blanked the Tribe through eight innings on three hits while striking out 14 batters on Aug. 2. "He had everything."

"Jose Fernandez might be the best young pitcher I've ever seen, at that age," tweeted Rays manager Joe Maddon after his team faced him on May 27.

"When you make guys look silly up there, almost like they don't want to get in the box their second or third time, it's fun to watch," teammate Giancarlo Stanton said after Fernandez whiffed 13 Pirates on July 28.

The 21-year-old wunderkind has a 2.23 ERA and is 11-6 going into his start Wednesday night against the Braves at Marlins Park. It will be Fernandez's final appearance of the season; the organization decided in Spring Training to limit the workload of a prized arm that had never pitched above Class A before this year. And what a year it's been. Fernandez has allowed 106 hits in 165 2/3 innings. He's struck out 182. His WAR is a lofty 5.9.

So to say that Fernandez had a terrific rookie year is a statement that would go unchallenged. To further propose that he had one of the most historically significant rookie seasons ever by a starter wouldn't bring much argument, either.

But here's an audacious question: Has Fernandez had the best rookie season any pitcher has ever had?

There's no correct answer, of course. That's what makes the question so much fun.

Mark "The Bird" Fidrych created a national frenzy with his effervescent personality and habit of talking to the baseball before he threw it for the Tigers in 1976. He also pitched more than 250 innings, won 19 games and had a WAR of 9.6. Fernando Valenzuela, who glanced at the heavens during his delivery, created the phenomenon known as Fernandomania at Dodger Stadium in 1981.

Dwight Gooden was just 19 when he broke in with the Mets in 1984, also making the jump directly from Class A. He pitched 218 innings, won 17 games and led the National League with 276 strikeouts. Kerry Wood became an instant favorite of Cubs fans in 1998, fanning 233 hitters in 166 2/3 innings.

Hideo Nomo not only won the NL Rookie of the Year Award for the Dodgers in 1995, he was pitching with the expectations of an entire nation on his shoulders. His success opened the door for what would soon become an Asian invasion of Japanese stars.

Pittsburgh's Cy Blanton led the NL in WHIP, ERA and shutouts in 1935. Vean Gregg led the American League in ERA and WHIP for the 1911 Indians. And Russ Ford won 26 games with a 1.65 ERA and an 0.881 WHIP for the 1910 Yankees, then called the Highlanders.

Fidrych, Valenzuela, Gooden, Wood and Nomo were all voted their league's Rookie of the Year. Fernandez may fall short. If he does, though, it will be more about how Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig sparked his team than a reflection on the Marlins phenom.

MLB Network analyst Larry Bowa, one of the keenest baseball minds of his generation, is willing to make the case for Fernandez.

"He reminds me a lot of Doc [Gooden] stuff-wise," Bowa said. "Maturity. The way he's handling everything. That's who came to mind when I saw him pitch. And, to be honest, I think Fernandez has had a better year. That's a bad team he's pitching for. And he's been unbelievable.

"For a guy to go out and dominate like that every fifth day, not only is he pitching well, but obviously, the guys around him are elevating their game. He's got a slider that I don't know how any right-handed hitters ever get a hit off. His velocity is up there. I'm telling you, man, he's got everything going. When you consider everything, he's as good as I've seen in a long time."

Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg won the NL MVP Award with the Cubs the year Gooden arrived. Like Bowa, that's his measuring stick for Fernandez.

"Oh, yeah. I saw him right away," Sandberg said. "Same type of stuff. Dominant. Young. Impressive. Those two guys fit that mold for me."

As Bowa suggested, there's more to look at than just numbers. Fidrych, Valenzuela and Gooden became the focal points of media storms. Fernandez has labored in relative anonymity for a rebuilding franchise. Valenzuela's Dodgers won the World Series in a strike-shortened season, while Gooden's Mets won 90 games. The Marlins have been in last place every day since the first week of the season.

Comparing players from different eras is also difficult. Ford pitched in the dead-ball era. In his rookie year, three players -- Fred Beck, Jake Stahl and Frank Schulte -- tied for the Major League lead in home runs, with 10 each. There were an average of 3.64 runs scored per game. In 2000, that number was 5.30.

Since then, MLB has instituted the most stringent testing for performance-enhancing substances in professional sports, and offensive production had declined dramatically.

Said Phils pitching coach Rich Dubee: "I don't want to take anything away, but he's now coming into an era that's a little bit cleaner game-wise than a lot of other guys came into. ... That takes nothing away from him. He's been absolutely fabulous. But I think if you try to compare guys from the last 10 years, last 15 years, to what he's doing, you have to take that into consideration. But he has been an absolute phenom."

If any team has seen Fernandez at his best, it's the Phillies. He made three starts against them this season and yielded one earned run in 18 innings, good for a 0.50 ERA. Fernandez gave up eight hits, seven of them singles.

Dubee's point of reference for Fernandez is Fidrych.

"One, is [Fernandez's] passion for the game," Dubee said. "This kid has a tremendous amount of fun playing the game. He's energetic. He's got a great demeanor on the mound, along with great stuff. What he's done has been super impressive for a 21-year-old kid. One, he's got stuff and command. He's got great pitchability. He can pitch backwards. He stretches the strike zone really, really well. And again, when you look at this guy, he has had fun doing what he does. He wants to hit. He thinks he can hit. That's all good."

Fernandez clearly has had one of the best seasons a rookie pitcher has ever had. But is it the best ever? Let the debate begin.

Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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