The Death of José Fernández and the Future of Pitching, Part 2

The New York Mets honor José Fernández with a moment of silence on September 25, 2016. (Photo courtesy of Editosaurus.)

By Derek Rosenfeld

For Part 1 of this series, click HERE

As Major League Baseball (MLB) parks open their gates to a new season as well as a new round of hopes and dreams, it is also a time for those fans, pundits, and armchair managers to put the failures and successes of the previous season to bed and to look forward to the future, albeit one where most of those hopes and dreams will be dashed.  

The year 2016 had been a tough one regarding surprising deaths in the sports and entertainment industries. From David Bowie, Keith Emerson, and Prince in the music business to Garry Shandling, Gene Wilder, and Alan Rickman (among many others) in movies and TV, 2016 will go down as being particularly notorious for its glut of notable, high-profile deaths.

In the sports world, 2016 will be remembered as the year we lost legends such as Muhammed Ali, Arnold Palmer, and Gordie Howe. However, for sheer shock and sadness, nothing came close to the death of rising Miami Marlins star pitcher José Fernández, who died in a boating accident along with two friends off the coast of Miami Beach on September 25. As I discussed in Part 1 of this article, as tragic as the death of the buoyant athlete was, other questions will forever hang over the incident, the most notable being what his career could have been had he lived.

Here are Fernández’s final career numbers:

  • 76 games pitched (GP)
  • 38-17 W-L
  • 2.58 Earned Run Average (ERA)
  • 589 strikeouts (Ks) in 471.1 innings pitched (IP)
  • 1.054 Walk-Hits-Per Innings Pitched (WHIP)
  • 12.5 Ks per 9 IP
  • Two All-Star Game appearances

We know that Fernández had the “stuff” to be a Top-10 pitcher in the major leagues for a long time—had he stayed healthy. It may seem like a fool’s errand trying to figure out what could have been, but when one takes into account his career numbers as well as his violent pitching style and medical history, we can surmise what his career COULD have become had he lived up to his potential by examining the careers of the following current star pitchers who have the same ability, history, and “makeup” as Fernández.

 

Matt Harvey—New York Mets, 2012-2016 (27 years old)

  • 82 GP
  • 29-28 W-L
  • 2.94 ERA
  • 525 Ks in 519.2 IP
  • 1.083 WHIP
  • 9.1 Ks per 9 IP
  • One all-star game appearance

A first-round draft pick out of the University of North Carolina in 2010, “The Dark Knight” became an almost immediate sensation with the Mets after he set a club record with 11 Ks in just 5.1 IP in his debut start on July 26, 2012. Armed with a 99-mile-per-hour (mph) fastball and a knee-buckling curve, Harvey began carving up opposing lineups almost as soon as he got called up to the big club. Despite his pedestrian win-loss record, wherein many times (especially in 2013) he received little to no run support, Harvey was one of the one of the game’s top starters, where in 2013 became the first Met to start an all-star game since Dwight Gooden in 1988. Since then, however, Harvey has battled several arm and shoulder injuries, missing the entire 2014 season because of Tommy John surgery, to then missing most of 2016 with thoracic outlet syndrome after getting pummeled in his 17 starts that season.

Harvey and Fernández shared a lot of similar traits in their pitching game and, as such, generated many of the same results, including trips to the disabled list. After Harvey’s latest setback, some baseball insiders such as Buster Olney believe that Harvey may never be the same pitcher again.

(Photo courtesy of slgckgc.)            

 

Stephen Strasburg—Washington Nationals, 2010-2016 (28 years old)

  • 157 GP
  • 69-41 W-L
  • 3.17 ERA
  • 1087 Ks in 931.1 IP
  • 1.092 WHIP
  • 10.5 Ks per 9 IP
  • Two all-star game appearances

Expected to be the heir apparent to no less than Nolan Ryan even while still a sophomore at San Diego State University (where he was managed by the late Tony Gwynn), Strasburg was seen as the pitching half of the Washington National’s back-to-back 1st-round draft pick cornerstones that would include Outfielder Bryce Harper the following season. He was called “the most-hyped pick in draft history” by ESPN and “the most hyped and closely watched pitching prospect in the history of baseball” by Sports Illustrated. After two short years in the minor leagues in which he pitched only 55 1/3 innings, he made his MLB debut on June 8, 2010, and promptly struck out a franchise record 14 Pittsburgh Pirates.

 

(Photos courtesy of Johnmaxmena2.)

 

However, since then, Strasburg’s MLB career has been one of high peaks and low valleys. He was placed on the disabled list with a shoulder injury just than a month after his debut and, despite being an All-Star in 2012 and 2016, he suffered the infamous, ubiquitous “elbow ligament tear” that cost him nearly the entire 2011 season and which required Tommy John surgery, causing the team to limit his innings in 2012. The decision to limit his innings in 2012 stirred a national debate about coddling pitchers and subsequently appeared to cost the team when it reached the playoffs that year as the Nationals were knocked out by the San Francisco Giants in the first round in five games as Strasburg watched from the dugout.

For a pitcher with the arsenal and the pedigree of an ace, Strasburg enters 2017 with just 69 career victories. He will turn 29 on July 20; after signing a seven-year, $175 million extension last season, the Nationals hope that Strasburg’s injuries are behind him. However, innings limits, over-resting, and surgeries do not guarantee long-term health, so it will be interesting to watch one of the best arms of his generation enter his 30s with the expectation that he will fulfill the promise most envisioned for him during his meteoric rise in college.

 

Josh Johnson (Ret.)—Florida/Miami Marlins (2005–2012), Toronto Blue Jays (2013) (33 years old)

  • 170 GP
  • 58-45 W-L
  • 3.40 ERA
  • 915 Ks in 998.0 IP
  • 1.268 WHIP
  • 8.3 Ks per 9 IP
  • Two all-star game appearances

Although José Fernández was riding high at the time of his death, the January 19 retirement of two-time all-star pitcher Josh Johnson at the age of 32 after more than three years of comeback attempts served as a sobering reminder of where a pitcher like Fernandez could conceivably have ended up had his career continued.

The 6’ 7”, 250-pound Johnson made his debut for the Marlins as a 21-year-old reliever in September 2005, and almost immediately began experiencing the injury woes that would keep him in and out the doctor’s office for the entirety of his career.

(Photo courtesy of james_in_to.)     

His career appeared to be on the upswing in 2006 as he worked his way into the Marlins rotation, making 24 starts and posting a 12-7 W-L record with a 3.10 ERA, good for fourth place in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. However, the team’s hopes for Johnson becoming their future #1 were dashed after he landed on the DL early in 2007 with an irritated ulnar nerve. After he returned to the team that June, Johnson then almost immediately suffered elbow tightness, which resulted in (you guessed it) Tommy John surgery just eight weeks later.

Johnson returned the mound relatively quickly, making seven late-season starts the following year. His history of injuries seemed to be behind him as he turned into one of the game’s best pitchers; he was an all-star in 2009 and 2010 as he posted a combined 26-11 W-L record with a 2.80 ERA (his 2.30 ERA in 2010 was second best in MLB) despite pitching for subpar Marlins teams. However, the injury bug struck again in 2011 as Johnson developed shoulder problems, cutting his season short after just nine effective starts in which he seemed to pitch even better than his previous two all-star seasons. Thus began the beginning of the end for the star right-hander.

Despite regaining his spot as the #1 starter in the Marlins rotation and making 31 starts in 2012, Johnson’s injuries had apparently taken their toll as he went 8-14 with a 3.81 ERA, absolutely middling in comparison to his all-star form. The Marlins had taken notice of this decline and shipped Johnson to the Toronto Blue Jays as part of a 12-player deal that also included stars Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle. Hoping to revive his career north of the border, Johnson went into 2013 as the Blue Jays’ #4 starter, but was forced out of the rotation after four starts because of triceps soreness. He would return in that June with decreasing effectiveness and inconsistency, eventually posting six straight losses before going on the DL twice more by the end of the year with bone spurs in his elbow.

After the 2013 season, Johnson would sign an incentive-laden contract with the San Diego Padres. However, after several attempts to get back on the field, the contract expired without Johnson throwing a single pitch for the team. He would eventually sit out the entire 2014, 2015, and 2016 seasons following yet another Tommy John surgery. In November 2016, he signed a minor league deal with the San Francisco Giants. However, that contract also ended in the operating room as Dr. James Andrews performed yet another Tommy John surgery on Johnson (bringing Johnson’s total number of such surgeries to three).

All told, Johnson finished his career at the age of 29 with a record of 58-45 and a 3.40 ERA. He did, however, make more than $50 million for his troubles.

In Part 3 of this series, I will look at why this latest generation of great young baseball arms seems doomed to fail as well as offer some suggestions to avoid these predicaments in the future.

 

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.

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