Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Jose Fernandez Curveball: Baseball’s most unhittable pitch?

Major League Baseball has seen something of a revolution in the last couple of years, with a sizable influx of young pitching making its way to the show. Of these young arms, it’s difficult to identify any of them as more exciting to watch than Jose Fernandez. In fact, it’s damn near impossible. The ace of the Miami Marlins has become required viewing for baseball fans, quickly establishing himself among the league’s elite hurlers and becoming the face of a fast rising Miami ballclub.

What Fernandez has done in such a short period of time really is quite astounding. Having not pitched an inning above Single-A ball prior to 2013, Fernandez burst onto the scene for Miami last year. The result was, for the most part, absolute dominance. Coupling an overpowering fastball with a devastating curveball, Fernandez has mowed down Major League hitters with the greatest of ease.

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Obviously looking at the 2014 numbers, to date, doesn’t indicate much, as Fernandez has just a pair of starts to his credit. Nonetheless, it’s worth mentioning that through those two starts, he’s pitched about a dozen frames, posting a 0.78 ERA, a 1.94 FIP, and has struck out 17 hitters, good for a 12.08 K/9 rate, while walking only 1.42 per nine.

Looking back at his 2013 season, though, it’s not a stretch at all to declare Jose Fernandez as one of the most unhittable pitchers in baseball, perhaps even the most unhittable. That’s thanks to that combination of a fastball that lives in the mid-90s, but can touch 99 MPH on the gun, and a curveball that drops things down to about 81 on average.

His 2013 numbers featured a 2.19 ERA, a 2.73 FIP, and a 9.75 strikeout rate, all of which factored into a 4.2 WAR. Impressively, his splits against lefties and righties were almost identical in many respects. Attacking the inside of the zone against left-handed hitters proved quite fruitful, as he punched out 93 of them against 94 right handers. Lefties went for an average of only .188 off of Fernandez, compared to .171 for right-handed hitters.

The question here isn’t whether Jose Fernandez is elite or a Cy Young contender, or anything of the like. We already know he is. It’s whether or not that curveball allows us to have sufficient evidence in naming him baseball’s most unhittable. At the very least, that pitch alone could be the single toughest pitch to make contact with. It’s a pitch which leads to a swing-and-miss 16 percent of the time, while allowing for a contact rate of just 66.8 percent. Of his 187 strikeouts a season ago, 117 of them came by way of the hook.

Let’s throw out a few names just for comparison’s sake here, coupled with their most effective out pitch. That “most effective” was selected based purely on the percentage of swings and misses that were recorded against that pitch. Pitchers were selected based on strikeout numbers, as the four presented in comparison to Fernandez were last year’s league leaders in punchouts. For Fernandez, it’s obviously the curve. For Clayton Kershaw, it’s his curveball as well, while Yu DarvishChris Sale, and Max Scherzer all generated the highest percentage of swings

  Pitches K BB Z-Swing% O-Swing% Contact% SwStr%
J. Fernandez (CU) 876 117 14 53.2 42.5 66.8 16.0
C. Kershaw (CU) 428 80 0 60.5 35.9 61.3 17.3
Y. Darvish (SL) 1,290 178 27 58.1 41.3 63.7 17.8
C. Sale (SL) 959 115 10 64.8 31.4 68.4 14.1
M. Scherzer (SL) 585 59 6 60.9 42.4 58.1 21.4

Interesting things, here. For one, despite the fact that Kershaw and Scherzer both generate the most swings and misses with the curve and the slide piece, respectively, neither of them use them to the degree that the likes of Fernandez, Darvish, or Sale, use theirs. Scherzer actually records the most strikeouts with his fastball, while Kershaw had pretty even strikeout numbers in using his fastball, his slider, and his curveball.

It’s hard to dismiss others completely when you’re talking about strikeout numbers, as all five of these gentlemen generate swings and misses with the best of ‘em. Especially Yu Darvish, who flirted with 300 strikeouts last year and uses his slider more than almost anyone uses any pitch. At the same time, though, it’s not impossible to look at these numbers and say that Jose Fernandez has the best pitch in baseball.

That curve fooled more hitters into swinging out of the zone than any other pitch represented here. In 2013, opposing hitters slashed just .114/.176/.163/.339 against Fernandez’s curveball. This year, opposing hitters are whiffing at it 25 percent of the time (albeit through just two starts). Oh yeah, he didn’t turn 21 until the end of August.

One could very well make a case for Jose Fernandez as the best pitcher in baseball. While that title may be more likely to go to Darvish or Kershaw, despite the latter having yet to throw a pitch this season, there may not be a single more effective pitch than what Fernandez is able to do with that curveball. It’s a thing of beauty that makes hitter after hitter feel foolish.

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