If Felix Hernandez is King, Jose Fernandez is his heir to the throne.
After dominating at both Class-A levels in 2012, Fernandez was inserted into the Marlins’ Opening Day rotation after a few last-minute injuries to their starters left the team short-handed.
Naturally, people questioned the Marlins’ decision to rush the then-20-year-old right-hander to the major leagues. After all, he didn’t have a game of experience above High-A. However, Fernandez has silenced the skeptics with his performance this season, as he currently leads all rookie starters in the National League with a 2.54 ERA and 153 ERA+.
With Fernandez’s rise to stardom this season at such a young age, it’s easy to compare him to King Felix, who debuted as a 19-year-old in 2005. However, while it took Felix roughly four seasons before he put everything together, Fernandez seemingly figured things out after only a few months in the major leagues.
While they differ in that regard, the two right-handers do have remarkable similarities, ranging from their body type to mechanics to pitch usage and approach.
So, let’s a take a deeper look at how Jose Fernandez compares to Felix Hernandez.
At 6’3”, 230 pounds, Hernandez is a physically strong right-hander who demonstrates excellent rhythm and strength throughout his delivery.
Starting with his hands at the belt when working from the windup, Hernandez calmly raises his hands and leg in unison. He has a moderate inward turn of his entire left side at the top his windup, which allows him to effectively shift his weight onto his back leg and hip, and it also adds considerable deception to his delivery. As he transitions his energy toward the plate, Hernandez does a nice job of leading with his front hip as he drives off his backside.
Following a smooth hand break, Hernandez features a long and clean arm swing that allows him to tilt his left shoulder upward to create a steep plane toward the plate. For that reason, it will appear as though he’s working from a “lower” arm slot and therefore not getting on top of his pitches. However, if you look at the above video, you’ll see that his arm is actually coming through at close to the ideal 90-degree angle.
As he lands on his front foot, Felix begins to rotate his trunk by pulling down his glove hand to force the elevation of his throwing arm. The exceptional speed and strength of the rotation is what gives him so much arm speed. When he releases the ball, Hernandez’s hips are square to the plate as he gets his head and shoulders out over his front side.
But perhaps what’s most impressive about Felix’s delivery is the finish. While many pitchers tend to lift their back leg off the ground too early, his is still grounded in an ideal position. Hernandez follows through as well as anyone in the game and generates considerable extension toward the plate. More importantly, the deceleration of his arm is completely natural as he clears his left side with his arm and shows his shoulder to the plate.
At first glance, Fernandez bares a striking resemblance to Felix with a similar 6’2”, 240-pound build and thicker lower half. However, he’s far more mechanically efficient than Felix at his age.
Like Felix, Fernandez begins with his hands at his belt when working from the windup. After a calm step back to initiate his delivery, Fernandez demonstrates his athleticism with a high leg kick that brings his left knee parallel to his glove.
From the top of his delivery, Fernandez goes into a balanced drop-and-drive with his lower half while keeping his shoulders and hips closed. He has excellent timing to his foot strike, as it easily allows for significant trunk rotation while creating torque. And even when his foot strike is early, the right-hander has the ability to delay the rotation so as to correct the inefficiency.
As he gains momentum toward the plate, Fernandez begins a smooth arm swing before whipping it through the window. He also gets a lot of extension at the point of release thanks to excellent posture and the positioning of his upper body out in front of his left leg.
Fernandez’s follow-through is a thing of beauty and, in my opinion, better than Felix’s. After releasing the ball, the right-hander’s trunk rotation enables the natural deceleration of his arm as his back leg finally leaves the ground. In fact, when Fernandez completes his delivery, his right hand is almost touching the back of his left leg.
Pitch Types and Usage
Even though Hernandez first debuted with the Mariners in 2005, PITCHf/x data didn’t come into play until the 2007 season. Therefore, the best we can do is look at Fernandez’s current age-20 season compared to Felix’s age-21 campaign in 2007:
In 2007, King Felix was a much different pitcher than he is now. Back then, the right-hander used to throw hard—like, really hard. In fact, according to Brooks Baseball, he averaged 98.63 mph on his four-seam fastball that season with a sinker that averaged 97.63, and he threw those two pitches 55.6 percent of the time.
In terms of secondary offerings, Hernandez utilized a changeup, curveball and slider in 2007. Looking at the table above, we can see that he was highly effective with the changeup even though it was his least-developed pitch at the time and used sparingly. The right-hander relied on his pair of breaking balls to put hitters away, as they accounted for 60 percent of his strikeouts. The slider was especially nasty, resulting in a 19.57-percent whiff rate and 11.49-percent ball-in-play rate.
Although Fernandez will bump 97 to 98 mph many times in a given start, he’s doesn’t throw quite as hard as King Felix did during his age-21 campaign. However, that’s not a knock on the Marlins phenom; he’s averaged 95.79 mph with his four-seam fastball and 94.09 mph with his sinker this season.
The right-hander’s curveball is a money pitch, as he’s used it to record 89 of his 139 strikeouts this season (not including his start on Thursday afternoon) while posting a 16.3-percent whiff rate. Fernandez’s curveball is also significantly nastier than Felix’s, at least based on PITCHf/x data, with twice as much horizontal movement (9.13 inches compared to 4.48 inches). This explains the ridiculous depth and sharp, two-plane break.
Coming off an inconsistent sophomore campaign in 2006 in which he showed flashes of brilliance, Felix began to put things together in 2007 as he continued to evolve from a thrower with an electric arm into a pitcher with an electric arm. However, what stands out from that season is his lack of fastball command.
Even though Hernandez’s curveball (.291 BAA but .438 BABIP), slider (.157 BAA) and changeup (.191 BAA) were all highly effective, opposing hitters didn’t miss many of his four-seam fastballs (.367 BAA) or sinkers (.324 BAA). (A reminder that major league hitters can turn around the best of velocity.) Fernandez, on the other hand, has shown vastly better fastball command at a similar age and held opposing hitters to a .237 batting average.
In terms of breaking stuff, you can’t go wrong with either Jose’s curveball or Felix’s slider. (Felix has thrown more curves over the last few years, but the slider was his go-to breaking ball in 2007.) Personally, I prefer Fernandez’s breaker because, well, it’s awesome. This season, hitters are batting a paltry .128 against the pitch with six extra-base hits in 188 at-bats.
The curveball is also what has made Fernandez effective against left-handed hitters. With a feel for the pitch that’s beyond his years, he’ll comfortably throw backdoor breaking balls early in the at-bat before attacking the hitter’s back foot with a sharper variation. As a result, lefties have posted a miserable .111 batting average with 47 strikeouts in 90 at-bats this season against the pitch.
For both Felix and Jose, the changeup represents their most underdeveloped offering during their respective season in focus. However, although used sparingly, the pitch was highly effective for both pitchers. Hitters batted .191 with three strikeouts in 42 at-bats against Hernandez’s changeup in 2007, while Fernandez has held opponents to a .171 average in 35 at-bats this season with his.
If you glean anything from this article, it should be that Jose Fernandez should be viewed the same way King Felix was as a rookie in 2005—as an ace in the making.
However, Fernandez has shown more polish this year than Felix did in his age-20 season. And while both pitchers have electric stuff capable of missing bats at the highest level, Fernandez’s advanced command and overall pitchability is light years ahead of the King’s at that age.
As of now, the only thing that seemingly could prevent Fernandez from becoming the next King Felix is his health. Hernandez has logged at least 190 innings in every season dating back to 2006, and has surpassed 230 in each of the last four years.
The Marlins are obviously going to be protective of Fernandez, their ace, as his workload this season is expected to be capped somewhere between 150 and 170 innings. Assuming that the organization has him steadily build his innings total in each subsequent season, the right-hander should be in Felix’s territory of 230-ish innings by 2016.
All statistics via Brooks Baseball.
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