Editor’s note: This story originally ran on Aug. 2, 2016.
For as far back as Jose Fernandez can remember, he was throwing rocks in the streets of Santa Clara, Cuba.
“I’d throw a lot at people’s houses and people’s doors — that wasn’t cool. I got my ass whipped a lot of times for doing that,” Fernandez said.
So his family had no other choice but to let him play baseball — maybe then he would quit throwing rocks.
“I started playing when I was five, and after that I noticed that I was good,” Fernandez said. “My family, a lot of coaches, told me, ‘Hey, he’s very good.’ They’d tell my mom this. I always had a good arm. I used to play forever. In Cuba, you love baseball as soon as you can play.”
Part of his story will always be about a Cuban immigrant coming to America no matter the cost. After three failed attempts to defect from Cuba; after time in jail for trying to defect; after finally making it to Mexico, then Tampa, then Braulio Alonso High School in Tampa; after being drafted in 2011 by the Marlins, he debuted in the majors on April 7, 2013.
In his first season in the majors, he went 12-6, won rookie of the year and had a 2.19 ERA with 187 strikeouts.
The following season a devastating injury forced the 21-year-old to undergo Tommy John surgery on May 19, 2014.
“I always believed,” Fernandez said, then pausing for a minute.
“I’ve been through so much in my life already. I always believed this was just another step, and I just had to follow the process.”
Fernandez never doubted surgery was the right path, but after being in the operating room for two hours, he woke up with a bandage from his upper arm down to his wrist and was in a great deal of pain.
“When somebody like Jose is having an operation to save their career, to get back to doing what they love to do, or do professionally, crossing that bridge and taking the last few steps to having an operation is an emotional thing for most of these guys,” said Dr. Neal ElAttrache, the orthopedic surgeon who performed Fernandez’s surgery.
“So you can imagine what it must be like to face doing this, going under anesthesia and having a two-hour operation, waking up and having pain. Pain enough to think, ‘Wow, I don’t know if I can move my elbow without pain, let alone get back to pitching.'”
Fernandez echoed that sentiment: “It was scary. It was lonely, you know? … It was tough times. The team was playing well and I couldn’t be there to help. It was tough, it was tough.”
In his first full season back since the surgery, Fernandez is making a remarkable comeback. His 2.79 ERA ranks third in the National League and his 184 strikeouts are second.
Part of this success comes from the way Fernandez went about his rehab process.
“Jose was wonderful. I went through a brief process with him of what it means to make a new ligament,” ElAttrache said. “He’s a bright guy, so he got it. … I told him, ‘Keep in mind, you tore the ligament that God gave you by throwing the ball 100 mph. You can definitely tear the one I put in. So please, give me every chance you can give me to let this thing heal and become a living ligament again.’ He got it.”
For an elite athlete like Fernandez, the greatest challenge to full recovery is wanting to do too much too soon.
“You sit down with the player and you begin with, ‘Everybody including you wants you to pitch. You were without this game for over a year and a half. I do not want that to become a permanent dynamic,'” said Scott Boras, Fernandez’s agent.
Part of the plan was occasionally doing a light workout, just enough to wake up his muscles.
“The way we did it, we built in rest during the process that we didn’t need, because why not?” Fernandez said. “Why not take a break? Every month or so we’d just take a week off from throwing. I think that helped a lot.”
After the surgery, Fernandez said he also began to take a closer look at his pitching mechanics.
“I’m really big with mechanics,” said Fernandez. “I know and I feel when I do something wrong. My arm glove was low. It was flying open. So my arm glove was flying open and my elbow was coming lower and I was putting a lot more pressure on my elbow.”
Fernandez is a high-velocity pitcher. This year his average fastball velocity, 95.1 mph, ranks fifth fastest in the majors. But he is learning how to pitch and not just powering through and blowing his fastball by everybody.
J.T. Realmuto, the Marlins catcher who has known Fernandez since 2012 when they were in the minors together, sees this in Fernandez as well. He said Fernandez has been doing a better job with his fastball location the past few months.
“Earlier this season, he was trying to light up the radar gun, throw 98 or 99,” Realmuto said. “But as this season has gone on, he has developed and learned that location is just as important as velocity.”
While Fernandez’s strikeout to innings pitched ratio is 13.18 and leads the majors, Realmuto said Fernandez is no longer trying to just strike people out.
Marlins manager Don Mattingly agreed.
“I think he’s trying to grow up as a pitcher, develop and mature for his long-term development,” Mattingly said. “I think that’s what he knows, that we’re after his long-term health.”
The bigger questions now are about protecting a talented young pitcher. As the Marlins get deeper into the season, at what cost to Fernandez’s long-term health is a win worth? Will fans demand the ace of the pitching staff put his career on the line for a few postseason games? Will Fernandez himself take the time to slow down and develop into a pitcher who will be around in the majors until he’s 35 years old?
On April 29, 2016, Mattingly pulled Fernandez’s teammate, left-hander Adam Conley, out of the game against the Milwaukee Brewers four outs shy of a no-hitter. The 25-year-old’s pitch count was at 116 pitches. After that game, Fernandez spoke to Mattingly.
“So, Jose is like, ‘You couldn’t do that to me,'” Mattingly said. “I said, ‘Why not? How many would you be willing to throw?’ He said, ‘However many it takes.’ So, that’s his thought process, right? And he said, ‘Well, I’d get an extra day the next day out.’ And I said, ‘What about the rest of your career? What if you never pitch again?’ He’s like, ‘I don’t want to think about that.’ So, they don’t think about that. We take it seriously, that we’re trying to help him develop and be good for a long, long time.”
ElAttrache said a pitcher in his first full season back after Tommy John surgery should not be exposed to more innings or more pitches than they had in the year they got injured.
Following the All-Star break, Fernandez skipped a start to help rest his arm and reduce his innings pitched.
“That’s part of the plan where we have a range for him,” said Michael Hill, the Marlins president of baseball operations. “We will continue to follow that and be mindful of his stressful pitches, and his stressful innings, and make sure that we have him for the long haul.”
Teams talk a lot about innings limits and stressful pitches, but the true test of how Fernandez will be handled by the Marlins comes as the postseason approaches. Right now, the Marlins are second in the NL wild-card race. Before the injury, Fernandez had a maximum of 172 2/3 innings pitched. Entering Tuesday’s start against the Chicago Cubs, Fernandez has pitched 125 2/3 innings.
“We get very worried in these high-velocity pitchers whenever their exposure is not only equaling but surpassing their exposure prior to their injury,” ElAttrache said.
But Fernandez said he is sticking to the plan for how his workload would be handled.
“We all understand what’s at stake; it’s a career you’re putting on the line,” Fernandez said.
Fernandez doesn’t want to live with any regrets. He thinks about how many kids in America would love to play in the majors and finds beauty in how hard the game is.
“I compete. I compete like crazy,” Fernandez said. “That is just the person I am. I like to have fun. I want for people to say he was always having fun. I want people to say he was a hard worker, that he’s not going to give up. That’s it. That’s all I can ask.”
Added Boras: “This kid lives on an edge, an absolute edge not knowing. The guy comes here from a foreign country. Everything in his life is around baseball and his career. He’s not made any money at all, really. The security of his family, the well-being of his family are all on the line. His want to play the game is on the line. All these things are there.”
Fernandez’s story will always be about baseball. He will give the game of baseball everything he has. The ending to his story, though, will be determined by how baseball treats Fernandez.
“Baseball is my life,” Fernandez said. “It’s just fun, man, to come out on the field and to do what your dream is. Sometimes we forget that.”