The death on Sunday of José Fernández, one of baseball’s brightest young stars, who was killed in a boating accident off the coast of Miami, came less than two months after his 24th birthday. In his short time on Earth, Fernández had already been through a number of terrifying ordeals in attempting to defect from his native Cuba: three failed attempts (each of which led to imprisonment), and a successful fourth try — at age 15 — that required him to dive overboard at one point to rescue his mother from drowning in stormy waters.
Given a hard-earned chance at a baseball career in the United States, Fernández didn’t disappoint. He won Rookie of the Year with the Marlins in 2013, then battled back from an elbow injury to be the game’s best pitcher this season. He was a monumental talent, the magnitude of which only comes along a few times in a generation, and he played the game with flair and panache.
Major League players rarely die in mid-career, but those who do are usually quite young: more than 60 percent of the active MLB players who died since 2000 were Fernández’s age or younger. We’ll never know if prospects such as the late Oscar Taveras and Nick Adenhart could have gone on to become Hall of Famers someday, because they were lost so early in their careers. The possibilities were there, but they were still mostly unrealized at the time of their passing.
In Fernández’s case, though, we have a pretty good inkling that he was on track for Cooperstown. Only 20 pitchers in modern history produced more wins above replacement than Fernández did through his age-23 season,1 and that’s not even considering the fact that he missed huge chunks of two seasons due to injury. On a rate basis, no pitcher had a better Fielding Independent Pitching mark relative to the league through his age-23 season than Fernández did:
|PER 9 INNINGS|
|Roger Clemens||Red Sox||485.2||12.8||8.1||2.5||0.7||2.87||71|
|Terry Forster||White Sox||493.2||9.7||7.5||4.0||0.3||2.73||74|
|Joe Wood||Red Sox||1147.1||22.0||6.7||2.6||0.1||2.07||76|
According to Bill James’ similarity score system, the Hall of Fame pitcher most analogous to Fernández was a young Tom Seaver, who racked up parallel conventional numbers at the same age. (The two are also very similar by WAR, particularly according to Baseball-Reference’s method:2 it says Fernández had 13.0 WAR through age 23, while Seaver had 12.8.) A two-time all-star by 23, Seaver went on to grab 10 more all-star nods, won 311 career games, made the Hall of Fame with the second-highest percentage of the vote ever, and was somewhere between the fifth- and 10th-most valuable pitcher in baseball history. And this is a pitcher who had only about half as many strikeouts per 9 innings through age 23 as Fernández did.
(Even granting that today’s era is much more strikeout-heavy than Seaver’s, that’s nuts. At the time of his death, Fernández was in the midst of the fifth-best season ever in terms of strikeouts per 9 innings.)
Of course, Fernández had also fought through a significant injury already in his short career, and history tells us that a lot can happen to a pitcher from age 24 onward. Cleveland Indians pitcher Herb Score, for example, began his career in 1955 with dominant statistics very comparable to those of Fernández and Seaver, but a serious injury two years later (he was struck by a line-drive) left most of his potential greatness unrealized. Every pitcher’s career is delicate, constantly on the edge of derailment, and all-time glory is never a given.
But given what we’d seen out of Fernández in his first (and now, astonishingly, only) four MLB seasons, it was clear he was special. Like the deaths of Roberto Clemente and Thurman Munson before him, Fernández’s loss will leave a void not just of personality, but of Hall of Fame-caliber talent. The game only had a small taste of what Fernández could do.