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Jul 24

Remembering Sid Fernandez

I don’t think it’s any great coincidence that growing up my favorite Mets’ pitchers were Dwight Gooden, Sid Fernandez, and David Cone.1  Besides all three being extremely good, all three had distinctive throwing motions that a ten-year old ersatz pitching savant could mimic in daily wiffle-ball sessions.2

Amongst the trio, Fernandez received the least attention.  Part of that comes from Fernandez not carrying with him Doc’s demons with addiction, and his very public stay at the Smithers Institute in 1987 for drug-rehab, or Cone’s fiery personality (who possessed his own love for the New York nightlife), but I think the other part comes from Fernandez never racking up huge strikeout totals or having that one singular season of greatness (think Gooden’s ’85 or Cone’s ’88) that captured fans’ collective imagination and made Fernandez must-see television because this guy, on any given night, could do just about anything.

These are gross generalizations, of course.  In the stands, fans would hang S’s instead of K’s with each Fernandez strikeout, and he went 16-6 in 1986, a critical member of the Mets pitching staff that won 108 games.  He also pitched great in relief during the World Series against Boston, so it’s not as though he wasn’t a beloved member of the team.  He was less world beater than good old lovable Sid, and his pitching motion sort of embodied that.  Fernandez hesitated mid-motion, his right toe barely touching the dirt before him as he gathered his ample physique for its journey onward, and cupping the ball behind his back, he hurled his body toward the plate with his left arm sweeping across his body while the rest of him landed to the third-base side of the mound.  Then, he’d tug on his trouser pants, righting gravity’s pull against a well-stressed belt, and he’d prepare to do it all again.  It had neither the violence of Gooden’s kick and drive nor the poetic variety of Cone’s multitudinous arm-angles, but behind it came a fastball/curve combo that left batters befuddled more often than not.  For his career batters hit a paltry .206 against him and that wasn’t by accident.

In Jeff Pearlman’s The Bad Guys Won, Fernandez was described as a goofy, naïve kid who couldn’t understand concepts like mortgage payments or simple social etiquette:

Fernandez failed to grasp the concept of a mortgage.  This was the same pitcher who was convinced the WWF was 100 percent real.  Who once visited a teammate’s house, spent three hours speaking to his Honolulu-based parents on the telephone, and was shocked when he was angrily handed a bill for $600.  “Imagine someone who doesn’t know what anything outside of the clubhouse is about, and that was Sid,” says Paul Greco, a team batboy.  “Guys were like, ‘Sid, never leave the stadium.”

When he did leave the stadium, he was just a big kid.  Roger Angell, in his book A Pitcher’s Story: Innings with David Cone, wrote this:

Cone takes on a different look whenever he speaks of Sid Fernandez, the baggy-looking, boyish southpaw who was an early roommate of his on the Mets.  At their first spring training together, Fernandez emptied the contents of a large suitcase into the middle of the living room of their condo, and for the rest of the month simply picked out whatever he needed from the pile, one piece at a time.  “Sid was a mama’s boy but a sweetheart,” Cone said to me.

By the time Cone first roomed with Fernandez, Sid was already an All Star and owned a World Series ring.  You might have forgiven him if he viewed the rookie as an inferior, but Sid was just his lovable, youthful self.

Fernandez came to the Mets with Ross Jones in a trade with the Dodgers in December of ’83 for Bob Bailor and Carlos Diaz, and this trade has to rank right up there next to Ed Hearn for Cone as one of Frank Cashen’s finest.  Sid spent 10 years with the Mets, pitching between 1984-93, and he made two All Star teams (‘86 and ’87) and was named NL Pitcher of the Month (April of ‘87) and NL Pitcher of the Week (’89).  It’s odd to look back and think that he ranked in the top three for K/9 in the NL for six of his 10 seasons with the Mets, seeing as he reached 200 strikeouts just once in his career, but getting people to miss his pitches was never his major issue:  staying in the game was.  One of the main reasons why he never strung together huge strikeout numbers is that he had trouble keeping his pitch counts down and pitching deep into games.  Of all the qualified starters in team history, Fernandez sits 29th in innings per start, averaging roughly 6.29 per, nestled neatly between Bobby Jones and Craig Swan.  That figure also sits him just below the median of 6.42.  When he was in the game, Fernandez was extremely difficult to hit (as stated above), and his 8.23 K/9 ranks him fifth for qualified Mets starters, behind Cone and Nolan Ryan and just ahead of Gooden and John Maine.3

Fernandez ranks fifth for pitchers in Mets team history with 24.6 fWAR for his career, and he comes in at 12th overall, including position players.  Going by individual seasons, Fernandez was remarkably consistent for his career for the seasons where he played their entirety.  Including only seasons where he played their entirety, Fernandez accumulated anywhere between 1.7 to 4.9 fWAR per, which means that he fell neatly in the middle 50% for the Mets starters throughout their history in all but one season.  The table below summarizes Fernandez compared to the Mets all time and a few other Met greats:

Name Min 1st Quartile Median Mean 3rd Quartile Max
Mets -0.600 1.7 2.65 3.03 4.2 9.7
Fernandez 2.9 2.93 3 3.38 3.45 4.9
Gooden 3.5 3.9 4.6 5.46 6.6 8.7
Cone 2.9 4.2 4.9 4.66 4.9 6.4
Tom Seaver 2.4 5.05 6.6 6.42 7.8 9.7
Jon Matlack 2.4 4.38 4.95 4.9 5.38 7.4

Mets fWAR Summary

The astute reader will notice that Fernandez’s minimum fWAR in the table above is listed as 2.9 rather than the 1.7 stated in the preceding paragraph.  That’s because in 1987 Fernandez made 27 starts but pitched only 156 innings, falling six innings short of the minimum of one inning pitched per team game to qualify.

The point here isn’t to suggest Fernandez wasn’t a quality starter because he didn’t match up as favorably against some of the Mets’ greats.  For more recent equivalents, we expand that list to add in Glendon Rusch and R.A. Dickey:

Name Min 1st Quartile Median Mean 3rd Quartile Max
Glendon Rusch 2.9 3.25 3.6 3.6 3.95 4.3
R.A. Dickey 2.1 2.35 2.6 3.07 3.6 4.5

Mets fWAR Summary (by Similarity)

Of course, you can take the similarities for these two with a grain of salt.  Rusch had two seasons that qualified while Dickey pitched only three.4   I could continue to add names here, but the essential point wouldn’t become any clearer:  Fernandez maintained a level of consistent, good but not great, play throughout his 10 years with the Mets.

Continuing a look at Fernandez through the prism of his contemporaries also provides a little insight into his place in the MLB pitching universe.  For the years 1984-93, the average accumulated fWAR by starting pitchers was 3.07 with a median value of 2.9.  Fernandez ranks higher than both of those (3.38 and 3 if you forgot) while each of his “full” seasons (including 1987) would nearly fall within the middle 50% (the first quartile for MLB starters was 2 while the third quartile was 4).

Remember how strong Fernandez’s numbers appeared for K/9 but how weak they were in regards to innings pitched?  Well, looking at those numbers, his average season for K/9 was 8.78 with a median value of 8.9.  The average Major League pitcher struck out 5.64 per nine innings.  That means with a standard deviation of 1.45, Fernandez was three deviations from the mean in regards to K/9.  Here’s a spiffy visual so you can get the full effect of just how dominant Sid could be when he was on the field:

K9_Sid

Fernandez K/9 to MLB Average

For innings pitched, Sid’s average and median (193.9 and 193.6) came in around 9% below the MLB levels (211.8 and 210.1).  Not surprisingly, numbers like FIP (Sid’s median of 3.08 to 3.74 MLB) and ERA (Sid: 2.93 to 3.65) strongly favor Fernandez while BB/9 (Sid: 3.37 to 2.91) and games started (Sid: 31 to 33) work in the opposite direction.  Instead of boring you further with things like WHIP and BABIP, which trust me I have at my laptop loving fingertips, here are a few graphs to show the good and bad from Fernandez:

WHIP_Sid

Fernandez WHIP to MLB Average

And BB/9:

BB9_Sid

Fernandez BB/9 to MLB Average

I’ll just conclude this section by restating my initial assessment:  when he was on the field, Sid Fernandez was one heck of a pitcher.  Keeping him on there for any great length of time, however, was the difficult part.

There’s No Place Like Home

One of the biggest complaints about Fernandez in his career is that he was a much better pitcher at home than he was on the road, and while I’d love to provide some spiffy statistics that proved that this was all overrated, it’s difficult to do so.  First, let’s look at some of the home/road splits for Fernandez over his career:

Split K/9 WHIP ERA BA OPS K/BB
Home 9.0 1.028 2.73 .188 .576 2.8
Away 7.7 1.272 4.05 .232 .699 2.09

Fernandez Home/Road Splits

Just looking at those numbers, it’s easy to make the argument that Fernandez used the pitcher’s park that was Shea Stadium to his advantage, turning himself into an All Star by synchronizing pitches to the takeoffs of Boeings from LaGuardia, but another examination of those numbers shows a pitcher that was still at league average or better on the road.  From the years that Fernandez was in the Majors (1983-1997), the league average for batting average by starters was between .250 and .270, for WHIP between 1.29 and 1.43, for K/9 between 5.17 and 6.35, and for ERA between 3.81 and 4.73.  Oddly enough, the lows and highs for each of those categories were ‘88 and ’96 (K/9 was ‘97).  I include ERA in the stats, but I don’t take too much stock in the number.  What I do see, though, is that even while Fernandez wasn’t the pitcher on the road that he was at home, he was still average to well above average, sometimes significantly so.  While he did have a losing record on the road (47-56) and allowed 17 more home runs in 92 fewer innings, a pitcher that allows batters to hit anywhere between 7-14% below league average is not insignificant.

Individual Games

For a pitcher with such a high K/9 rate (his 8.4 ranks him 38th all time for starters, just ahead of Justin Verlander and David Price for a point of reference), it’s sort of amazing that Fernandez recorded double-digit strikeouts in only 36 of his 300 career starts, or in 12% of games started.  In comparison, Roger Clemens recorded 110 such games in 707 career starts (15.6%), and Clemens’ K/9 came in 8.55 just ahead of Fernandez.  Gooden had 36 double-digit strikeout games in his first four seasons alone, including three 16 strikeout games which was Sid’s career high against the Atlanta Braves.

Speaking of that game, here is the video, and it’s probably one of Fernandez’s most memorable, if not enjoyable games.5

What’s interesting about his 16 strikeout game is that going by a Game Score of 74 sits tied for 36th for his career.  His absolute best game, with a monster score of 93, was a game against Houston in 1988 when he threw a two-hit shutout while striking out 12.  Just for fun, here’s a summary breakdown of Fernandez’s game scores:

Career/Team Starts Min 1st Quartile Median Mean 3rd Quartile Max
Career 300 16 47.75 59 57.22 68 93
Dodgers 1 35 35 35 35 35 35
Mets 250 16 49 59 58.34 69 93
Orioles 26 24 35.25 47 46.81 59.75 72
Phillies 22 23 49 61.5 58 71.75 86
Astros 1 52 52 52 52 52 52

Fernandez Game Score Summary

Game Scores do not account for Fernandez’s most important contributions to the Mets and their fans.  In the 1986 World Series, Fernandez pitched four scoreless innings of relief when Doc faltered in Game 5, allowing three hits while striking out 5.  Then, in Game 7, after Ron Darling had allowed three early runs to the Red Sox, Fernandez came on in the fourth and pitched 2 1/3 innings of hitless relief with a walk and four strikeouts.  Do the Mets win the Series without Fernandez?  It’s tough to say.  They lost Game 5 regardless, but Game 7 was another one of those come from behind affairs that the Mets won 8-5.  They tied it up before he left the game, so really, what else matters?

Not to just point out the good, he also had 11 games where he walked 6+ batters, walking seven batters twice.  He averaged 2.33 walks per outing, with a median of two, and he averaged 5.68 strikeouts per with a median of 5.  He also allowed only 4.58 hits per outing with a median of 5.  Note that I stated outing and not start.  In those numbers there are seven regular season relief appearances included, but with 300 additional starts, they won’t skew the numbers to any noticeable degree.

Yes, There’s S-I-D In Team

In every season where Fernandez was a full time starter (discounting 1984, his first with the club when he was called up in July, ’91 and ’93 because of injuries) the Mets starters ranked first or second in ERA three times, first or second in FIP five times, and were first or second in strikeouts a whopping six times.  These numbers are for all of baseball.  In fact, in 1988, the pitching staff was first in MLB in fWAR, ERA, FIP, and strikeouts.  Fernandez led the team with a 9.1 K/9 though his 187 innings pitched were the fewest for the starters.

Taken as a whole, from 1985 to 1993, the Mets starters ranked third in all of baseball in fWAR (first in the NL), second in ERA, first in FIP, and first in strikeouts.  In fact, the gap between first and second is 758 strikeouts, which made me believe that my search on Fangraphs was completely wrong.  No.  Looking at the individual players during that timeframe makes sense, and Fernandez was second to only Gooden with 1374.  His ERA of 3.13 was third behind Cone and Gooden.

Summary

It’s hard to believe that two decades have passed since Fernandez last wore a Mets uniform.  This post spent a lot of time examining the numbers, placing Fernandez within the context of the Mets historically and MLB as whole during his years, but I think more than that Fernandez was one of the few genuinely good guys on a team that was better known for hard partying and getting into trouble.

Individually, he was part of the last World Series winning team for the Mets, should have been part of a team that with a few breaks could easily have won it all every year from 1985-1988, and definitely should have won it in 1988.  He finished 7th in the Cy Young voting in 1986, but that was it, even though in 1992 he had a fantastic year, finishing 14-11 and with a 2.73 ERA (4.7 fWAR).  Greg Maddux deservedly won the award, but looking back, seeing Lee Smith finishing fourth is . . . odd.  The Mets won 72 games that year, so I don’t believe anyone was lining up to hand out “Atta boys!”

  1. I later became a huge fan of Bobby Jones and fondly remember that one-hit gem against San Francisco in the 2000 NLDS as one of the best games I’ve ever watched.  It will never match this Endy Chavez catch in the 2006 NLCS for how I lost my mind in excitement—the Mets scored two runs in the first and never trailed—but I’m not sure I’ve ever been happier for a pitcher to do so well than I was for Jones.  Speaking of 2000, I’m still haunted by Timo Perez’s lazy jog around second in the Series.
  2. This hasn’t really changed that much in recent years.  Just the other day, trying to teach my two-year old the finer points of hitting off a tee, I pretended to be Will Clark, Ken Griffey, Jr., and Darryl Strawberry.  Please note that I am neither left-handed nor do I bat left-handed.  My daughter, suitably impressed, ran off to pick up fallen sticks and/or water plants with her mom.
  3. Yes, Maine’s 7.75 K/9 outranks Tom Seaver’s 7.51, proving definitively that today’s game isn’t your father’s.  In fact, of the qualified starters, Seaver ranks tenth.
  4. I was really pulling for Dickey to find more success in Toronto.  He seemed like a genuinely good guy, and his NL Cy Young award in 2012 capped off a miraculous run by him where he threw back-to-back one-hitters, didn’t allow an earned run in five straight starts, and struck out 10+ seven times.  I fully supported the trade that sent Dickey on his way from Flushing, but that doesn’t mean I can’t mourn the loss just a little.  To paraphrase school secretary Grace from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off:  I just think he’s a righteous dude.
  5. This had to be one of the most disappointing games I can ever remember watching.  The only other regular season game I can remember being as disappointing for me was a game against San Francisco in 1990.  It’s weird to think that a game in which the Mets won 10-9 (Doc with the win no less) was disappointing, but it was the first time I had seeds of doubt about Gooden being a true ace.  He won 19 games that year and struck out 223, but it didn’t feel like the Doc of old.

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