Jose Fernandez just completed his age-20 season, and it's hard to describe how fantastic it was. The numbers are eye-popping, but they don't necessarily do the youthful right-hander justice without the proper context. With that in mind, it's time to jump straight to the meat and wonder: Is Jose Fernandez the greatest rookie pitcher ever?
The game has changed so much over the years that it's difficult to just say yes or no to the above. If you want to look at ERA+, Fernandez's 177 mark is the third-best all-time out of the 766 rookie starters who qualified for the ERA title since 1901, according to Baseball-Reference's Play Index tool. He's behind Ed Reulbach and Vean Gregg, though, two guys that I'm pretty confident saying that, on our staff, only Rob Neyer and Steven Goldman had heard of before I saw them on a list. The reason? Reulbach's rookie campaign came in 1905, while Gregg's inaugural campaign occurred in 1911.
It's tough to compare the inning totals of the trio; a hundred years ago you were literally expected to pitch until your arm fell off. Sometimes, if your designated relief pitcher was too drunk or hungover or meeting with his bookie, and your shoulder exploded, you might just have to switch arms and deal with it.* Otherwise, you could be cut and replaced with someone else who wasn't protected by a union.
*Slight exaggeration, but only slight.
As for Fernandez, his season was cut short rather than his tendons, and while the Marlins didn't baby him, they didn't ease up on the leash entirely, either. He tossed 172 frames, averaging nearly 6-1/3 and 93 pitches per outing. Even with that, though, there's so much here to admire. Fernandez allowed the lowest hit rate in the league, and not entirely because of luck or his park: he also led the NL in strikeout rate with 9.7 per nine, and racked up over six wins above replacement according to Baseball-Reference, despite the relatively limited innings.
Any argument involving pitcher wins above replacement is going to be a lost one for Fernandez, though, simply because of the rules of the day. Example: in 1905, Irv Young posted a 106 ERA+ as a rookie, putting him at 360 out of 766 qualifiers all-time. He threw a league-leading 378 innings, though, more than double what Fernandez accomplished this season, and therefore, he dwarfs Fernandez's WAR.
We can work around that sort of thing, though, as guys like Young often were never the same following those types of campaigns, and those usage patterns went extinct like the dinosaurs who pitched under them. (You know, in case you were wondering just why Fernandez was limited to 170-plus innings instead of 370.) Just on a rate basis, Fernandez had one of the greatest rookie campaigns ever, and while the rules of the game keep him from being unarguably the best ever, in comparison to what pops out in his cable and color-TV time period, he's king. Brandon Webb comes the next closest, with a 165 ERA+ 180-2/3 innings back in 2003, and after that, we're talking Hideo Nomo, Randy Wells, J.A. Happ -- no one that was considered a future great like Fernandez, and no one as precocious. So, at the least, he's the greatest rookie starter in more than just recent memory, and he managed the feat just out of High-A ball to boot.
Speaking of the successful youth, how does Fernandez stack up against history's greatest 20-year-old hurlers? Not as well as you might think, unless the name of Dwight Gooden was on the tip of your tongue just now. While Fernandez's 177 ERA+ is tops among 20-year-old pitchers since Rick Ankiel's 134 mark in 2000, it's minuscule up against Doc's 229. Gooden also threw over 100 more innings than Fernandez, and while standards were more lax back then in terms of protecting your pitchers, we are talking about 1985, not 1885. Gooden led in innings, strikeouts, wins, complete games, ERA, and ERA+, and did it all while as much of a puppy as Fernandez.
Finishing second to Gooden is no small thing, though. Even though his career didn't turn out quite as hoped given its early success, he still threw 2,800 big-league innings, finished in the top five for the Cy Young on five occasions, including one victory, was part of multiple World Series winners, and was at least in the Cooperstown conversation if for nothing else than a peak that burned with a white-hot flame. Fernandez is a long way off from any sort of wrap-up like that, but at least in terms of what other kids have done in this position, he's in about a good of a place as he can be. Especially since, unlike Gooden, he didn't lead the league in innings.