The Death of José Fernández and the Future of Pitching, Part 1

(1) Photo courtesy of Keith Allison

By Derek Rosenfeld

On the morning of Sunday, September 25, 2016, the sports world woke up to news of the most shocking and significant in-season death the game of baseball had suffered since Thurman Munson on August 2, 1979. Miami Marlins All-Star pitcher and Cy Young Award candidate José Fernández and two friends were found dead off the coast of Miami Beach, Florida, after their boat crashed into a jetty in low light during the early morning hours. Gone was one of the best pitchers in the game at the age of 24. Also gone was a young man who had braved three escape attempts from his native Cuba, the near drowning of his mother in the process, and jail time for trying to escape in the first place.

Despite a lot grumblings about Fernández’s “enthusiasm” for the game, which led to several bench-clearing incidents (most notably on the occasion of his first career home run vs. the Atlanta Braves on September 11, 2013), Fernández was simply acting like a kid playing a kid’s game. The reactions to his death from his team and players around the league reflected this newly appreciated passion he carried around, not just for the game but for life itself.

Although Fernández had only 76 career starts, he was so dominating out of the gate in his rookie season in 2013, going 12-6 with a 2.18 earned run average and 187 strikeouts in 172.1 innings pitched while winning National League (NL) Rookie of the Year (ROY), that one only had to look at his electric fastball, his 12-to-six curveball, and his power sinker, all products of a violent, athletic delivery, as a future ticket to the operating table.

And indeed, that operation came to pass on May 12, 2014, as he was shut down after just eight starts and was scheduled for Tommy John surgery to repair damaged elbow ligaments. This surgery restricted him to just 15 appearances in 2015; but by the beginning of 2016, Fernández was back to his dominating self. At the time of his death, he was again in the running for the NL Cy Young Award (he had finished in third place his rookie year).

Heading into October, Fernández was 16-8 with a 2.68 ERA and a gaudy 253 strikeouts in just 182.1 innings pitched (which, at 12.488 strikeouts per nine innings pitched, would go on to lead the NL) as well as an impressive 1.119 WHIP (walk-hits per innings pitched). He was clearly back in top form and, again, was one of the top 10 best pitchers in the game.

Within 48 hours after the accident, Marlins Owner Jeffrey Loria announced that Fernández’s #16 will be retired during the 2017 season, making it the first number of a player retired by the organization.     

Figure courtesy of MB27.

 

In the immediate aftermath of Fernández’s death, the talk around the sports world centered on his talent, the joy he brought to the game, and his ultra-competitive spirit, leading to many tributes across several sports. Accordingly, among the most pressing issues surrounding the tragedy was the many “what-ifs” posited by baseball fans and analysts everywhere. “What if” he fulfilled his potential? “What if” he lived to see his first contract negotiation? “What if he was able to stay healthy?” These questions, and more, will forever swirl around the fallen star, but the most obvious one regards the totality of what his numbers might have been. Was he a potential 300-game winner? How many Cy Young awards would he have won? ERA titles? Strikeout titles?   

The type of pitcher that Fernández was leaves these many questions up in the air. Few, if any, hard-throwing, top-flight pitchers today stay healthy; most will eventually have not one, but two, Tommy John (elbow ligament replacement) surgeries, and Fernández was no different. For two decades now, baseball insiders have been trying to determine, usually fruitlessly, why pitchers now get injured so routinely so often. Even if he had lived, it’s possible that Fernández could have had the same trajectory as many of his injury-plagued peers: dominating when healthy, but rarely being healthy.     

A few years ago, former Houston Astros slugger Jeff Bagwell noted that, when he arrived in the Major Leagues in 1991, only a handful of pitchers threw 95-plus miles per hour (mph), including Nolan Ryan, Norm Charlton, and Rob Dibble. Now, the average Major League team can have up to 50 percent or more of its staff that can hit 95 mph consistently on the radar gun. The increasing commonality of the big league flamethrower has led not only to a major uptick in batter strikeouts but also visits to the disabled list.

For a complete list of MLB players who have gotten Tommy John surgery, click HERE.

Following are several theories as to why hard-throwing pitchers, amateur and professional, now become so injured so often, many times completely derailing promising careers.

  1. Too much pitching during adolescence. Growing up in Oakland, New Jersey, in the early 1980s, a Little League game was an event. I would play 15 to 20 games during a spring, little the worse for wear. Fast forward 20+ years; mega-million-dollar professional contracts, prestige, college scholarships, and the goading of insecure parents have pushed the Little League baseball season to unprecedented lengths. In Florida, for instance, some traveling teams play two to three games in a DAY, while new, state-of-the-art indoor facilities around the country have created year-round training grounds for young aspiring ballplayers. This focus on the game as well as the amount of playing at such an early age has left many arms overworked before they throw their first professional pitch.
  2. The “need for speed.” As steroid-powered home run hitters dominated the game during the 1990s, pro baseball organizations looked for ways to combat the rise in Canseco-inspired mashers. The only antidote to this malady, it seemed, was to employ the hardest throwing arms scouts could find. So, at the turn of the century, the game suddenly, without warning, started churning out a succession of power arms that rivaled the best the game has ever seen, such as Bob Feller, Walter Johnson, and J.R. Richard.

To progress through a minor league system, lighting up the radar gun now seems more important for aspiring pitchers than creating pitch movement, unpredictable pitch selection, and control. As one anonymous major league player noted several years ago, “There’s a light show going on down in the minor leagues.”    

And, low and behold, the strategy seemed to work; before this generation of hitters, a 150-plus-strikeout season for a hitter was a rarity, almost an embarrassment, resigned only to all-or-nothing home run hitters like Dave Kingman, Rob Deer, and Gorman Thomas. Now, they are commonplace. The worst single-season strikeout totals by notorious whiffers such as Hall-of-Famers Mickey Mantle and Reggie Jackson look positively average by today’s standards; now, it is not uncommon to find several players with 175-plus strikeout seasons, with some topping the 200 mark. (Between 2008 and 2016, a total of nine 200-strikeout seasons was recorded by five different players.) Even this year’s playoff hero for the Cubs—Kris Bryant—won the 2015 NL ROY award while striking out 199 times, and he is one of the frontrunners for the 2016 NL Most Valuable Player award despite striking out another 154 times. This can all be pinpointed to the abundance of new power arms and, as a result, has led to an unsurprising number of shredded arm ligaments unable to hold up to the constant abuse required to throw “cheddar” past bigger, stronger sluggers. 

In Part 2, I will focus on several of Fernández’s contemporaries, whose careers are getting cut short by arm injuries and who could foreshadow what the future held for the Marlins pitcher.

(Photo 3 found on Wikimedia Commons courtesy of slgckgc.)

 

Derek Rosenfeld is an associate editor for Fire Engineering. He has coached baseball at the collegiate level for nine seasons, including stints at New Jersey’s Bloomfield College, Bergen Community College, and Ramapo College. He has also been an infielder in several highly competetive semipro baseball leagues throughout the New York tri-state area.

During the mid-90s, Rosenfeld was a three-year starter at second base for the Ramapo College baseball team in Mahwah, New Jersey, where he earned all-New Jersey Athletic Conference honors and was a two-time New Jersey Collegiate Baseball Association (NJCBA) all-star selection. He was named MVP of the 1997 NJCBA All-Star Game. He has a bachelor of art’s degree in communications from Ramapo College.

 

No posts to display