On Monday, Marlins right-hander Jose Fernandez made some history by becoming the youngest Opening Day starter in the National League since Doc Gooden in 1985. The 21-year-old was an All-Star last year, winning the Rookie of the Year and finishing third in the Cy Young voting, all deservingly. He was marvelous in his first MLB season despite never pitching in Double-A or Triple-A.
Fernandez, who won't turn 22 until late July, held the Rockies to one run in six innings on Monday, allowing five hits and striking out nine. He didn't just walk no one, he went to only one three-ball count against 23 batters faced. Only six of the 23 saw even a two-ball count. Here's video of the outing because, well, who doesn't want to watch him pitch?
Fernandez is the closest thing we have to a pitcher version of Mike Trout. Whereas Trout took over as the best all-around player in baseball the day he arrived for good in April 2012, Fernandez had to settle for being merely one of the 10 best pitchers in the game. Really more like one of the best five or six pitchers in baseball. He was that good.
At the moment, Dodgers southpaw Clayton Kershaw wears the crown as the best pitcher in baseball and I don't think too many people will argue. He led all of baseball in ERA in 2011, 2012 and 2013, winning two of three NL Cy Young awards along the way. The year he didn't win (2012), he finished second. Kershaw has more than earned the title of baseball's best pitcher but he hasn't held it all that long, all things considered.
Prior to 2013, Justin Verlander was considered the best pitcher in the game. He led baseball in ERA+, which is adjusted for ballpark and stuff like that, in both 2011 and 2012, and of course he was named both the AL Cy Young and MVP award winner in 2011. Throw in an ungodly amount of innings -- 953 2/3 from 2009-12, an average of more than 238 per year -- and there's not much to argue. Verlander was, and still is, a monster.
Do you remember who was considered the best pitcher in the game before Verlander? I didn't at first and I felt like an idiot after a minute or two of digging. It was Roy Halladay. He had some competition from Tim Lincecum, but Doc's peak was off the charts. Baseball's best pitcher before Halladay? It was Johan Santana. Before Johan? Randy Johnson with the Diamondbacks. Before him? Pedro Martinez and his otherworldy 1999-2000 seasons.
The best anything in baseball usually doesn't last very long, and that is especially true for pitchers. The only real recent exceptions are Mariano Rivera and Greg Maddux, the best closer in history and best pitcher of the early-to-mid 1990s. Few guys have that kind of staying power at the top of their craft. Kershaw is as elite as they come and he's at the top of the pitching game right now. History says his stay will be relatively short.
At some point, likely sooner rather than later, someone will replace Kershaw as the best pitcher in baseball. That isn't to say he will crash and be ineffective. I think he'll be very good for a very long time for, but someone will be better. Right now, Jose Fernandez has all the look of being that someone. He has the high-octane fastball, the comically good offspeed stuff, the command, the charisma, the whole nine. I don't see how any baseball fan can not root for the kid, especially given his backstory.
The only reason Fernandez is not challenging Kershaw for the pitcher crown right now is his lack of track record. He hasn't thrown 200+ innings in a season yet -- that has more to do with his age and the Marlins watching his workload than some kind of shortcoming -- and we do still need to see him do it again. Trout's a rare case because he was so good, so soon. Maddux, Pedro, Halladay, Verlander, Kershaw ... all of those guys had to work their way up the pitching ladder. In a year or two, everyone may be looking up at Fernandez based on his career to date.