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Jose Fernandez's historic return and the interesting looming decision for Marlins; Canes, Dolphins


Pitchers returning from Tommy John surgery this century, on average, experienced a slight drop in fastball velocity and declines in several other tangible measures. What they don’t typically do is put up historically great strikeout numbers.

But Jose Fernandez is doing just that, which is what makes a remarkable young pitcher all the more remarkable. Consider:

• Fernandez went 16-8 with a 2.25 ERA before the major elbow surgery in May 2014. He’s 15-3 with a 2.58 ERA since. Batters are hitting .204 against him this season, compared with .183 pre-surgery.

•  A 2014 America Journal of Sports Medicine study analyzed 147 of the pitchers who had Tommy John between 1999 and July 2011 and found average fastball velocity (maximum three years before and three years after) fell from 91.2 before to 90.8 after.

But Fernandez, whose fastball averaged 94.7 pre-surgery, is bucking that trend; he averaged 95.9 last season and 94.9 this season, per Fangraphs.com. His curveball velocity also has risen, from 82.5 his last healthy season to 83.2.

• A fangraphs study of pitchers found comparable strikeout numbers before and after major elbow injuries. But Fernandez’s Ks per nine innings have spiked, from 9.7 and 12.2 in 2013 and 2014 to 13.3 this season.

For perspective, that 13.3 is the second-best among qualifying starters in baseball history, behind Randy Johnson’s 13.4 in 2001. In fact, only eight pitchers who qualified for the ERA title have averaged at least 12 strikeouts per game: Johnson six times, Pedro Martinez once and Kerry Wood once.

• Among all pitches swung at (balls and strikes), batters are making contact on only 66 percent of their swings against Fernandez. It was 77.5 and 70.8 in the two seasons before the surgery. And on pitches outside the strike zone, batters are making contact on an absurd 38.3 percent of their swings against Fernandez, compared with 58.6 in 2013 and 51.8 in 2014.

Besides the improved velocity, the other nuance that has made him harder to hit, Mets manager Terry Collins said, is “movement, late movement on his slider” --- which he’s throwing more of.

And one other thing: Fernandez is 8-0 with a 1.38 ERA and 78 strikeouts over his last eight starts. Elias says he’s just the third pitcher to go 8-0 with an ERA that low and that many strikeouts over an eight-start span, since MLB started keeping track of earned runs more than 100 years ago. The others: Randy Johnson in 1999/2000 and Clayton Kershaw (2014).

“I feel better, stronger than [before the surgery],” Fernandez said.

If Fernandez (who says he loves being here with Don Mattingly as the manager) keeps pitching like this the next two years, and if Giancarlo Stanton (hitting .202) doesn’t live up to expectations, this question must be asked after 2017, knowing this ownership likely couldn’t afford both longterm:

Are the Marlins better off trying to re-sign Fernandez (a free agent after 2018) and instead trade Stanton, who is a year-and-half into a 13-year, $325 million contract (opt out after six) and due $25 million, $25 million and $26 million in 2018 through 2020?

The Marlins are pessimistic about keeping Fernandez, 23, long-term and believe he will seek $30 million per year in free agency. As perspective, Stephen Strasburg signed a seven-year, $175 million deal with Washington last month ($25 million per year), six months before free agency.

Keep in mind that Marlins president David Samson has expressed reluctance to commit mega long-term dollars on pitchers because of the risk of injury. Also keep in mind that in the aforementioned AJM study of pitchers who had Tommy John surgery between 1999 and July 2011, 57 percent of those 147 pitchers returned to the disabled list at some point with throwing arm injuries.

But if Fernandez is dominant and healthy the next two years, and if the sides (the Marlins and agent Scott Boras) can agree on a salary, the notion of dealing Stanton for cheap top young talent in 2018 merits consideration.


• The Dolphins aren’t pursuing Houston free agent running back Arian Foster, who visited Dolphins headquarters earlier this spring, but they will consider him if they have an injury or if their young backs falter. Foster is still working his way back from a torn Achilles sustained Oct. 25.

Offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen said rookie Kenyan Drake “has been excellent,” and Drake said he’s more prepared for the NFL after learning different formations and other intricacies from Alabama offensive coordinator and former Raiders coach Lane Kiffin.

Drake remains the front-runner to back up Jay Ajayi. Meanwhile, Christensen said he has been unable to judge Damien Williams because he has been sidelined with an undisclosed injury.

Incidentally, the Dolphins did not offer running back Dan Herron a contract after his Monday workout but he remains on their radar should Miami determine it needs help at the position.

Jamil Douglas said he knows he needs to master backup center to solidify his roster chances. He's also getting snaps in the five-way competition at right guard.

He brushed up his work at center by snapping the ball at least 25 times a day throughout the offseason. Is he tempted to practice snapping in his living room?

"Not really snapping," he said. "I'll line up in my living room and put some hats down and whatnot and make my calls based off where my linebackers are and stuff like that. I don't really have anyone to snap to at home so the best I can do is mirror what I'm going to be doing."

• For a lot more Dolphins nuggets from today, including what the new offense will look like, please click here.

• UM would love 6-5 Lawrence Cager to seize one of the starting receiver jobs, and Mark Richt told him to study elite Cincinnati Bengals receiver AJ Green, who played for Richt at Georgia.

“He wants to see me be consistent and be a dominant big receiver,” Cager said.

Brad Kaaya is encouraged: "He got faster from last year."

• ESPN’s Keith Law has UM catcher Zack Collins going 10th overall to the White Sox in Thursday’s draft, and ESPN’s Jim Bowden also has him as the No. 10 prospect.

“I’ve proven to people I can be a catcher at the next level,” Collins said, adding he has learned to be less anxious with scouts watching him. ESPN said “Collins has the best [hitting] approach in the country, regardless of position.”

He hit .364 with 12 homers and 52 RBI in 54 regular season games, despite being pitched around and walking 66 times.

• As for the Marlins, Law has them drafting Alabama prep left-hander Braxton Garrett (0.56 ERA this season, 131 strikeouts in 65 innings) with the seventh overall pick. The Marlins also have closely watched prep right-handers Riley Pint (Kansas) and Forrest Whitley (San Antonio).

Twitter: @flasportsbuzz