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Is Marlins Jose Fernandez the Best 21-Year-Old Pitcher We've Ever Seen?

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Joel ReuterFeatured ColumnistApril 22, 2014

Another start, another eye-popping stat line from Jose Fernandez, as he flat-out dominated the Atlanta Braves on Tuesday night to give the Miami Marlins a 1-0 victory, securing their first road win of the season.

The 21-year-old threw 109 pitches over eight innings of work, allowing just three hits and no walks while tying a career-high with 14 strikeouts.

Granted, the Braves are more susceptible to the strikeout than most teams, but that's an awfully impressive line nonetheless. Then you consider the fact that it was Fernandez's 33rd career start and that he won't be 22 years old until July 31, it becomes all the more impressive.

The league has seen an impressive wave of young pitching debut over the past few years, and Fernandez is the youngest and probably the most talented of the group.

It goes beyond comparing Fernandez to his peers at this point, though, as what he has already accomplished at such a young age puts him in rare company.

The question now: Is he the best 21-year-old pitcher the game has ever seen?

Let's start by taking a look at some other greats who made a serious impact on the mound prior to their age-22 seasons.

What follows is a list of every pitcher to make at least 30 starts and post an ERA+ of 130 or better up to and including their age-21 campaigns. Since it was such a different game during the Dead Ball Era, only players from 1920 to present were included

 

Pitchers With 30+ Starts, ERA+ Over 130 Prior to Age-22 Season
PlayerGSW-LERAERA+WHIPKIP
Vida Blue, OAK4927-92.361431.01360392.2
Bob Feller, CLE13582-413.191401.349731105.1
Jose Fernandez, MIA3315-72.161770.97234204.1
Dwight Gooden, NYM9958-192.281551.05744744.2
Gary Nolan, CIN6931-202.741311.14400485.1
Dave Rozema, DET5624-193.111311.17149427.2
Bret Saberhagen, KC5030-173.111311.08231393
Bill Stafford, NYY3317-102.581431.16137255
Fernando Valenzuela, LAD6234-202.621321.10395495
Baseball Reference

It's an impressive list of pitchers, with a number of those guys going on to have lengthy, successful big league careers.

Two names in particular stand out though, aside from Fernandez, in Cleveland Indians Hall of Famer Bob Feller and New York Mets great Dwight Gooden.

Feller broke into the league as a 17-year-old and had 40 games (27 starts) under his belt prior to his age-19 season. He joined the Indians rotation full-time in 1938, going 17-11 with a 4.08 ERA to earn his first All-Star nod.

He took his game to another level from there, going 24-9 with a 2.85 ERA and 246 strikeouts in 1939, leading the AL in wins and strikeouts to finish third in AL MVP voting.

The numbers were even better the following season, as he was 27-11 with a 2.61 ERA and 261 strikeouts to claim the pitching Triple Crown and finish second to Detroit Tigers slugger Hank Greenberg in AL MVP voting.

Despite missing three seasons to military service in the prime of his career, Feller went on to go 266-162 with a 3.25 ERA in his 18 big-league seasons on his way to Cooperstown enshrinement.

Gooden was the No. 5 pick in the 1982 draft, and after just 38 minor league starts, he joined the New York Mets rotation as a 19-year-old to kick off the 1984 season.

He would run away with NL Rookie of the Year honors, going 17-9 with a 2.60 ERA and an NL-best 276 strikeouts to finish second in NL Cy Young voting to Chicago Cubs right-hander Rick Sutcliffe.

He followed that up with one of the best all-around pitching seasons of the past 30 years in 1985, as he went 24-4 with a 1.53 ERA and 268 strikeouts to win his own pitching Triple Crown.

His age-21 season was not quite as dominant, but he was still one of the best in the game, going 17-6 with a 2.84 ERA and 200 strikeouts to finish seventh in NL Cy Young voting and make his third straight All-Star Game appearance.

Drugs would eventually derail what looked to be a career destined for the Hall of Fame, and he finished his 16 big-league seasons with a 194-112 record and a 3.51 ERA.

Those two both have a strong case for the title of best 21-year-old pitcher the game has ever seen, but it's fair to say that Fernandez belongs right along side them in that conversation.

With his devastating fastball/curveball/slider repertoire and big workhorse frame, there's no reason to think Fernandez can't keep it going this season and turn in another Cy Young-caliber campaign. 

It's hard to definitively call Fernandez the best with his age-21 season still in the works, but it's something worth thinking about and perhaps revisiting once the season comes to an end, when we can really stack his numbers up against Feller, Gooden and the rest.

One thing is for sure: He turns a below-average Miami Marlins team into must-see TV every fifth day. The fact that he could actually get better in the years ahead has to be a terrifying thought for the rest of the league.

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