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System Sundays: Breaking Down Junior Fernandez

Taking a look at some video of one of the Cards’ top pitching prospects.

MLB: NLDS-Chicago Cubs at St. Louis Cardinals Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

I was planning on writing this post a couple months ago, and kept not getting around to it. I’m barely getting around to it this morning, given that I’m supposed to be on my way to an Oktoberfest already; I’m completely discombobulated and disorganised this morning. However, I was debating between taking stock of the farm system from the standpoint of potential trading assets and finally getting this video breakdown written up, and I decided there will be plenty of time to look forward in the near future.

Junior Fernandez is one of my favourite pitching prospects in the whole of the Cardinals’ system. He was one of my favourites coming into the season, and I rated him more highly on the VEB top prospects list than I think any other outlet did in similar rankings, despite having seen very little of Fernandez firsthand.

Well, there are two pieces of good news related to Fernandez since that time: one, he went out and had himself a very strong season in 2016, more than holding his own in Low A as a nineteen year old, then getting bumped up to the High A Florida State League midseason. He struggled upon being promoted, but given that he’s still shy of his twentieth birthday (he doesn’t turn 20 the beginning of March), that’s not shocking. The other good piece of news is that we now have some solid video footage of the young fireballer to look at, and we can start to get an idea of what the repertoire looks like.

via Baseball America:

and a longer clip, via Mauricio Rubio:

Okay, so that second piece is really long; if you don’t want to watch 10+ minutes of silent pitching, I don’t blame you. Just watch up until about the four minute mark, and you should get a solid idea of what the stuff looks like.

First off, we can see that Fernandez doesn’t fit the bill physically of the long, lanky power pitcher prototype; he’s not 6’4” and 180. He’s compact and strong, built more like Carlos Martinez is now, after having added muscle to his frame. It’s closer to a college running back’s body, rather than the willowy build we so often think of for pitchers, but I actually like that. There’s a compact athleticism to Fernandez’s frame I think works very well. It also doesn’t surprise me he’s a former infielder; that’s what second basemen look like more than pitchers.

More importantly, the stuff. We can work mostly from the BA clip, really; there’s enough there to analyse, if not enough to really feel like you know the pitcher all that well. In that clip, he’s facing Trevor Mitsui, a first base prospect in the Diamondbacks’ system. Mitsui was 23 at the time of the clip, so he was ~4 years older than Fernandez, giving some idea of just how wide the variations in age and experience can be at the various minor league levels. Mitsui was a college senior draftee in 2014, and has put up offensive numbers the last two seasons in the neighbourhood of a 110 wRC+, give or take. So that’s the context for the hitter Fernandez is facing.

Even without radar gun readings, it’s obvious Fernandez throws hard. The first pitch he throws to Mitsui is a simple fastball away, outer half of the plate but not too finely located, and Mitsui is late on it. Not only is the pitch obviously hard, but the velocity seems a little sneaky, too; there’s something about Fernandez’s delivery that feels very sudden, for lack of a better word. The heater shows a little tail back toward the arm side, as well, which we can see more of when he’s actually working to the third base side of the plate.

Pitch two, we get our first look at the breaking ball, and unfortunately, it’s not very good. Also unfortunately, I can’t tell you that’s an outlier; Fernandez’s breaker is very much a work in progress. Most of what I’ve seen from Fernandez in terms of a breaking ball has been more of the hard slider, almost cutter variety, but here it actually almost looks like he was trying to throw a curveball. The release looks closer to a curve to me than a slider, but I could be wrong. Regardless, he casts the pitch and never really gets on top of it, losing it up and to the arm side. It’s a common flaw in young pitchers, not finishing off the breaking ball, and it’s the sort of thing that coaching and practice can certainly fix. Fernandez needs to get more out in front and pull down on the pitch, rather than trying to do the work at the top of his arm arc.

I haven’t asked anyone in the organisation if Fernandez is trying to work on throwing a curve, but I hope that’s the case. Maybe tighten the slider up into more of a cut fastball and incorporate a curve as the primary swing and miss breaking ball when he’s up in the count.

Anyhow, moving on we come to pitch three of the at-bat, and pitch three is the money.

Pitch three to Mitsui is a changeup, and that really deserves to be capitalised as Changeup. First off, it’s indistinguishable out of the hand from the fastball. Fernandez doesn’t noticeably slow his arm to throw the pitch, which is obviously huge, and then the ball just....doesn’t get there. Even more impressive is the disappearing act it pulls at the last second; watch the pitch a couple times in a row, and try to predict where you think it’s going to be caught. The catcher actually receives the pitch knee high, while the pitch looks like it should come in about belt high. That’s an outstanding changeup.

There’s also an interesting wrinkle to the change, in that Fernandez is a right-handed pitcher, throwing it to a right-handed hitter. In the old days, the change was strictly limited to use in attacking opposite handed hitters, but that has changed quite a lot in recent years. The Cardinals I know stress to their minor league pitchers the value of being able to throw the change to both same- and opposite-handed batters, and to see it executed so beautifully by a pitcher as young as Fernandez is very exciting. It takes conviction, courage, and confidence in the pitch to go inside on a power hitter with something soft, but Fernandez did just that, and the execution was picture perfect.

Pitches four and five we go back to fastballs, and the execution here is not as good. Pitch four is a chase heater, up and out of the zone, but it’s so far up and out that Fernandez can’t induce Mitsui to go for it. There’s value in changing the hitter’s eye level — part of that whole pitch-sequencing thing Joe does such a nice job of breaking down here periodically — even if you can’t induce a swing, but if that fastball were closer to the top of the letters and a little less away, rather than shoulder high and outside, Fernandez might very well have gotten Mitsui to chase a pitch he was either going to miss entirely or, at best, pop up weakly.

Pitch five we see the follow up to the high chase heater, a fastball down, but again the execution is not quite there. The pitch should be a little lower and a little more on the corner, but it catches more of the plate than you want to see on a two-strike offering. Then again, it’s a 2-2 pitch, rather than 1-2, so Fernandez maybe couldn’t afford to be quite as fine, preferring not to run the count full. All the same, what we see here is really what differentiates a young minor leaguer with great stuff from a quality major league pitcher: that Bret Hart excellence of execution just isn’t there yet with Fernandez. And that’s not a criticism; this is just what it looks like as a pitcher is developing.

The sixth and final pitch of the at-bat sees Fernandez go back to something offspeed to produce a harmless fly ball. I honestly can’t tell if the pitch is a cutter or a changeup; the speed looks more like a cut fastball to me, but the ball also looks like it might be tailing back slightly in to the hitter when he connects with it. If pressed, I would guess it’s the cutter, thrown right at the hitter and trying to catch the inside corner, but I’m not going to lie and say I’m 100% confident on that point. Regardless of which pitch it is, the location isn’t great. The speed differential is enough to keep Mitsui off of it slightly, and it’s far enough inside he’s jammed just a bit. Still, there are major league hitters who would recognise that pitch, pull their hands in, and line a double down the left field line, rather than flying out harmlessly to left. Not all major leaguers, mind you, but some.

If you want to watch the other clip, you’ll get an even better feel for the electric stuff but erratic execution Fernandez brings to the table right now. He’s certainly not helped by the complete whiff of his center fielder on a routine liner to center, but even ignoring that we can see some struggles to locate. Fernandez seems to be trying harder to work at the bottom of the zone in that longer clip, and that’s not really his strength right now. He pulls a lot of fastballs down and to the glove side, trying to make his misses out of the zone instead of over the plate. The heater also has excellent arm side run, but not a ton of sink. It’s one of the downsides of that lack of height; Fernandez’s release point isn’t high enough to create much in the way of downhill plane on the fastball, and his natural movement on the pitch is more horizontal than vertical.

Overall, this is very much what an electric arm looks like in development. We see great velocity and occasionally very good movement, and one plus or even plus-plus offspeed pitch in the changeup. Certainly the first change to Mitsui would grab a 70 grade from me. We also see a lack of precision in the location of nearly all the pitches Fernandez throws, with the notable exception of that change. The breaking ball is the pitch most in need of development; it’s tough to tell if Fernandez is currently going for a slider that gets big and slurvy at times, or a curveball he overcooks and throws too hard. As I said earlier, I personally hope he’s working on a curve and cutter separately, to give him more variation in his pitches, but it’s tough to say just yet.

I ranked Fernandez aggressively last offseason, and he’s going to move up even higher in my rankings this year. The strikeout numbers as of now are relatively modest for a pitcher with such electric stuff, but that’s the consequence of lacking that precision in location that defines elite level pitchers. The velocity and movement on the fastball, coupled with the changeup, make Fernandez an extremely exciting prospect. What he’s able to do in terms of tightening up his location and developing a dependable breaking ball will go a long way toward determining just how close he can get to his very considerable ceiling.