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Keep Watching Junior Fernandez

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What’s in store after a stellar 2019?

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Kansas City Royals Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Junior Fernandez had one heck of a year. After beginning the 2019 season in A-Advanced Palm Beach, Fernandez found himself pitching in St. Louis by August after dominating hitters throughout the summer. While he struggled upon reaching the big leagues (5.40 ERA), some of Fernandez’s difficulties were likely overstated as he posted a 3.72 xFIP. So, the 2019 campaign can be regarded as an extremely successful season for Fernandez, whom the Cardinals left exposed to the Rule 5 Draft a season ago. It is remarkable that one season after every team passed on him (likely due to control and injury issues), Fernandez proved that he can handle a bullpen job.

Fernandez tallied a sub-2 ERA at every minor league level at which he played this season. He posted a 1.54 ERA in Palm Beach, a 1.55 ERA in Springfield, and a 1.48 ERA in Memphis. Fernandez’s FIP tells a different story as he was less dominan but still successful at each level with a 3.74 FIP at the A-Advanced level, a 1.80 FIP at AA, and a 3.18 FIP at AAA. Much of Fernandez’s success is based on his high strikeout rate of 11.27 K/9 across all levels. On the flip side, Fernandez struggles with walks, and that was his biggest weakness this year. The right-hander finished the season with a 4.23 BB/9 across all levels, which needs to be improved if he wants to maximize his ability to miss bats. Obviously, saying that he needs to throw more strikes is easier said than done, but Fernandez is a promising 22-year-old with plenty of room to grow. It would not be surprising to see him grow stronger as he keeps logging innings.

Curiously, one of Fernandez’s biggest strengths became a weakness once he reached the majors. He is typically very good at keeping the ball in the park. He did not allow a single home run in 65 minor league innings this year and only six in 121 minor league innings across 2017 and 2018. However, once Fernandez arrived in St. Louis, he surrendered two long balls in just 11 23 innings of work. This screams small sample size and is likely just an anomaly that will fade away once Fernandez receives a larger body of work.

In fact, his some subpar results hid the fact that Fernandez was actually very good last year, at least at some things. Specifically, his secondary offerings were nearly unhittable. Many young pitchers tend to struggle with throwing a changeup. It is usually the least develped pitch in a pitcher’s arsenal when they are in their early twenties. However, this is not the case for Fernandez. In 2019, 31 percent of Fernandez’s pitches were changeups, and they were very effective. He threw 69 total changeups on the season, which is still a small sample, but it is large enough to at least offer some idea as to the quality of the pitch. Opposing hitters swung at his changeup 29 times and missed 16 times (55.2 whiff percentage), while batting just .071 with a measly .204 wOBA.

Fernandez’s slider has been effective as well. Fernandez threw 58 sliders, and the opposition batted just .182 with a .261 wOBA against the pitch. Of the 30 swings generated by his slider, 22 of them were misses, leading to an absurd 73.3 percent whiff rate.

These stats are likely inflated due to the small sample size, but these numbers are still impressive, nonetheless. While Fernandez’s secondary pitches were often unhittable, one of his issues, however, was that he did not throw them for strikes as often as he needed to. Fernandez threw his changeup in the strike zone 39 percent of the time, and his slider crossed the plate just 33 percent of the time. While it is to be expected that Fernandez would throw his offspeed and breaking pitches outside the strike zone more often, he needs to throw them over the plate enough to tempt hitters and avoid walks.

For as dominant as his offspeed pitches were this season, his sinker was the exact opposite. This is the pitch that hurt him the most and contributed to his inflated ERA in the majors. He threw 91 sinkers this season (41.7 percent) and allowed a .316 batting average and a .424 wOBA against the pitch. Fernandez generated only five misses in 40 swings (12.5 whiff percent) despite an average velocity of 96.8 mph.

Once again, this is a small sample size, so maybe this pitch will improve as Fernandez gets more work. However, this is clearly his least effective pitch right now. There is potential for it to improve, especially because of its high velocity, but Fernandez must refine it more in order to prevent solid contact.

Even though Fernandez did not throw a ton this season, the flashes of maturity paired with his notable offspeed pitches give the impression that Fernandez has the potential to develop into a dominant reliever for the Cardinals, possibly as early as next season. As long as he can throw strikes more consistently and continue generating swings-and-misses, Fernandez could be the next surprise star in the St. Louis bullpen.