If Jose Fernandez's performance this season was on the stage instead of the mound, everyone watching in the audience would be screaming one word: "Encore!"
In his rookie campaign of 2013, Fernandez was phenomenal in the truest, most basic sense of the word. He was, simply put, a phenom.
To make the Miami Marlins' Opening Day roster—something no one could have expected, including Fernandez himself—at the tender age of 20 without ever having faced even a single batter above A-ball is one thing. To do all that and then proceed to dominate major league hitters and earn the National League Rookie of the Year Award, well, that's something else altogether.
It's only more impressive that Fernandez was able to run away with the honor on Monday night by getting a whopping 26 of a possible 30 first-place votes in a year during which the NL's rookie crop—including the likes of Yasiel Puig, Shelby Miller, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Julio Teheran—was among the best the sport has seen in recent memory.
But then, even a cursory check of Fernandez's statistics is all that was necessary to pick him over any and all of the above. The Cuban-born right-hander went 12-6. More significantly on the win-loss front, the Marlins, who finished 38 games under .500 at 62-100—the second-worst record in baseball—actually went 18-10 in his 28 starts.
Fernandez's ERA of 2.19 was not only second-lowest in baseball to Clayton Kershaw's 1.83, it was also the best by a rookie starter since 1968, when Stan Bahnsen and Jerry Koosman respectively posted ERAs of 2.05 and 2.08 in the final year before the mound was lowered.
Fernandez also ranked among baseball's top five in WHIP (0.98), strikeout rate (9.8 per nine) and batting average against (.182), the latter of which was the best in the sport.
To top it off, Fernandez enjoyed an emotional reunion with his grandmother, who arrived from Cuba, over the weekend, which made this a truly special time for Fernandez.
All of which raises the question, how can he top his magical 2013 next season? That question is meant rhetorically, but let's pretend it was posed literally.
It sounds crazy, but Fernandez was so fantastic this year that perhaps the only way for him to take the next step in 2014 would be to go right ahead and win the NL Cy Young Award.
But could he? Funny enough, Fernandez is up for that very hardware this season, too. He's a finalist, along with Kershaw and the St. Louis Cardinals' Adam Wainwright, for the award, which will be announced Wednesday. So even though he's not expected to beat out Kershaw, who had a season for the ages, the short answer is yes. Yes, the Cy Young is within Fernandez's grasp.
The biggest obstacle to going from ROY to Cy, though, likely will be Kershaw, who has had an incredible three-year stretch in which he essentially could have—maybe even should have—won the Senior Circuit's honors for best pitcher each season.
Kershaw, after all, was better in 2013 than ever before, meaning it's possible the Dodgers ace hasn't yet reached his own peak, especially considering the left-hander will still be all of 26 years old entering next season.
Aside from competition from other arms, Fernandez will have to make some improvements of his own, namely in his control and command. For instance, while his walk rate was extremely impressive for a first-year pitcher with minimal professional experience, it also was slightly below average overall at 3.0 per nine (compared to 2.8 per for all starting pitchers, per FanGraphs).
Fernandez will also have to avoid any fallback or regression if he's going to avoid the oft-cited "sophomore slump." If he does, in fact, "slump," it will likely have something to do with the fact that the now 21-year-old did sport the majors' lowest BABIP among all qualified starters at .240.
He also had one of the 10 highest strand rates, and if either of those underlying metrics takes a noticeable turn in the other direction, Fernandez could actually, you know, struggle at times. Maybe.
Of course, after being limited to 172.2 innings as a rook, Fernandez will benefit greatly from operating sans restrictions in 2014.
In other words, he'll be unleashed upon hitters for upward of 200 frames next season, and if he can come close to replicating his rate stats while gaining on Kershaw, Wainwright and others in the innings department, he'll have a much stronger case.
From Rookie of the Year in one season to Cy Young the next? That's only been done once, by Dwight Gooden of the New York Mets, who turned the trick in 1984 and 1985.
For Jose Fernandez to pull it off, he'll have to have quite an encore.
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