Retro Mets: There Was No One Like Sid Fernandez

Going into the franchise’s 55th season, the Mets have employed a host of great players. Some have been no-doubt Hall of Famers, performing either in their finest seasons or before or after they hit their stride. Others were solid contributors for years, that earned the love and respect of the fanbase due to their achievements or personality. Others were complete busts, and yes, I’m looking at you, Shawn Green.

Something I like to do from time to time is go back into the archives and re-examine the Mets greats of the past, and re-evaluate their careers knowing what we know now about statistics in the post-sabermetric age. Are the Mets of our memory greater than we remember? Were they worse? What kinds of careers did they have with the benefit of hindsight, and how do the numbers impact their stories?

So, today, I’ll debut Retro Mets, an article where I’ll do just that. We’ll examine the careers of the players that Mets fans remember fondly, and review their careers from where we stand today. And to start, I’d like to review the Mets career of one of the team’s most distinctive starting pitchers: the inimitable Sid Fernandez.

Drafted originally by the Los Angeles Dodgers, Sid was acquired by the Mets after just six innings in Dodger blue. The trade for Fernandez–who came over with Ross Jones in exchange for Bob Bailor and Carlos Diaz–turned out to be one of the most valuable deals in the team’s history, as Sid would go on to be a rotation fixture for the better part of a decade. Although often overshadowed by the dynamism of rotation-mates Dwight Gooden and David Cone, Sid was an elite strikeout pitcher and valuable left-handed weapon.

You wouldn’t exactly know that from his first season with the team, back in 1984. During his age-21 season, he was called up mid-year to slot into the rotation. Leveraging a traditional lefty combo of an upper-zone fastball and curve (a great combo for fooling hitters) and a weirdo delivery, he was … pretty average in his first season. First, he averaged six innings per start, which wasn’t all that deep into games for a young starter in the early 80s. Second, he displayed the high walk rate that would be a hallmark of his career–it sat at 9.2 percent in this first season–without a strikeout rate that would’ve offset his lack of control. The end result was a cFIP of 103. Now, cFIP, which I’ll reference more as we go on, is something of a measure of a pitcher’s true talent level; looking at his peripherals and the context, did he demonstrate better or worse talent than the league average? 103 reads as slightly worse than league average for all pitchers, so Sid was something close to an average starter during that intro to life as a Met.

His second season with the team, 1985, saw a substantive change … one that was all about the strikeout. Instead of a sophomore jinx, Sid ramped up his strikeout rate considerably to 26.3 percent–the highest full-season strikeout rate he’d ever post–and led all of baseball in strikeouts per nine innings with 9.5 punchouts per nine innings. That’s right, during the same season that Doc Gooden reached the dizzying heights of a Cy Young win and 24 wins, Sid quietly racked up more Ks than his much-ballyhooed teammate. El Sid also led all of baseball in hits allowed per nine innings (5.7 hits per nine), a trait that he’d carry with him through his career limiting successful contact. He’d only win nine games this season–of course we know by now that wins aren’t a great judge of pitching efficacy–but his cFIP dipped down to 83, which is a mark much more in line with a No. 2 starter on a good team … Matt Harvey posted an 86 cFIP last season, as a reference point. Fernandez also posted a 2.80 ERA and 3.02 FIP, good stats for any era.

Then came 1986, a special season for the Mets and the first “breakout” year for Fernandez in the popular opinion. He opened the season with three fabulous games in April, then tore off a string of wins to go to 12-2 by the All-Star break. As we now know, pitcher wins aren’t worth much, but at the time it was certainly enough to cement him his first All-Star Game appearance. He faded a bit after a dismal, homer-riddled August, but overall posted a very strong season in the run-up to the Mets’ second World Series win. Though Davey Johnson hesitated to use him in a starting role in the World Series, El Sid came on in relief of Ron Darling in the pivotal Game 7 to stop the bleeding and buy the Mets enough time to reignite the bats and win the game, series, and championship.

1986 also saw the beginning of a trend that would define Fernandez’s career: his home-away splits tilted heavily in favor of pitching at home in Queens. During the 1986 season, Sid’s ERA was almost three runs higher on the road (5.03) than it was at home (2.17). Some of that certainly could be attributed to Shea’s home run-reducing ways and to the league-wide benefit pitchers get from working at home, but this split is extreme even after you take that into account. This was also another year where Fernandez’s ERA (3.52) and FIP (2.98) tell one story, but his Deserved Run Average (3.79) tells a slightly different one. During this season, and many in the future, Fernandez would often post a higher DRA than his ERA and/or FIP–although those two numbers remained fairly close overall over his tenure with the Mets. Thanks to the contextual factors that go into DRA–and eventually WARP–Sid gets a little less credit in those areas than one might expect from a pitcher with his solid ERA and FIP. Of course, he posted 3.7 WARP in his 1986 season, which is hardly chopped liver, DRA gap or no.

He got off to another fast start in ’87, which snagged him his second and final All-Star appearance. However, this season would be a bit of an overall disappointment. His strikeout rate dipped, though he kept both his ERA and FIP under 4.00. His DRA, however, climbed up to 4.65 and perhaps reflected another year where he was heavily benefitting from the friendly confines in New York, where he was far more effective. And at the end of the season, he was slowed by a leg injury, bringing him to only 156 innings on the season. In the end, he allowed an opposing True Average of .246, the highest of any full season during his Mets tenure.

Without much fanfare, Sid started 1988 poorly, but then ripped off a three-season run of success. Over the next three years, Sid posted 11.2 WARP, as well as a 3.09 ERA and 3.21 FIP over that time. He was still overshadowed by his teammates Doc Gooden and David Cone–not to mention pushed aside as the rotation’s top lefty by new acquisition Frank Viola–but few teams could account for such an effective No. 3 starter. Sid was even banished to the bullpen for the start of 1989, but undeterred, he rose back to the rotation and finished that season with a 3.27 DRA, second-best of his career. His ability to get hitters to put the ball in the air over and over again led to precious few singles and many, many fly ball outs. Despite his steady effectiveness, Sid never received a Cy Young vote or All-Star appearance. He merely shouldered on in relative anonymity–as much as could be had while playing for the Amazins.

The 1991 season was a lost year, as Fernandez broke his arm in Spring Training and only made eight effective starts after returning before bowing out again with a knee injury. In 1992, having recovered, Fernandez did the one thing he’d never truly done previously with this Mets team: he cemented himself as the best starter on the staff with a virtuoso season that looked like every other Sid Fernandez campaign, just slightly heightened. He threw 214+ innings to the tune of a 2.73 ERA and 2.70 FIP … and even his nemesis–DRA–gave him credit with a Deserved Run Average of 3.17. He was better than Doc Gooden, better than David Cone and Bret Saberhagen, and even managed to pitch at a better-than-league-average level while on the road, for a change.

Alas, Sid’s last year with the Mets would be something of a disaster. The team was a mess, falling to seventh and last place in the division. He got lucky at times, holding hitters to a .196 batting average on balls in play and a 2.93 ERA, but his 4.45 FIP told the story of a pitcher losing his strikeout ability and giving up too many home runs. Worst of all, El Sid suffered a serious knee injury early in the season that would shelve him for a while, as well as haunt him through the rest of his career. His last game for the Mets was on October 2 against the expansion Florida Marlins, and it was almost a perfect Sid Fernandez start: seven innings, just two hits allowed, five strikeouts, and just two ground balls in play.

Sid would leave the team as a free agent at the end of that season, as the Mets looked to pick up the pieces and rebuild after such a terrible run. He’d go on to pitch for a few more years, drifting to the Orioles, Phillies, Astros, and even an ill-fated comeback attempt with the Yankees four years after his 1997 retirement.

Perhaps Sid’s claim to fame is this: only three other pitchers in baseball history who pitched more than 1500 innings gave up fewer hits than Fernandez. Those three include one former Met (Nolan Ryan) and two pitchers who only ever pitched for the Dodgers (Clayton Kershaw and Sandy Koufax). His mark of 6.85 hits per nine innings is staggering, but his ground ball rate is even moreso. For the years that Baseball Prospectus has groundball rate data, I could only find one pitcher of substantial innings who gave up fewer grounders than he did: former Met and World Series star Chris Young. Only 29.8 percent of Sid’s batted balls were grounders.

The entirety of Sid’s career paints the picture of a very good No. 2 or No. 3 starting pitcher: consistent and reliable for about a decade in orange in blue. And by the standard of today’s pitchers, he’s kind of prototypical in terms of peripherals–Sid was all homers and strikeouts and walks. His career BABIP is the thing of magic, a .247 mark that demonstrates that even when he was hit, those balls didn’t fall for many hits at all. That’s the lowest mark of any qualified Mets pitcher in history.

In the future, I’ll try to use this space at the end of the piece in order to identify the current-day Met that most resembles the legend in question. So is there a modern-day Sid Fernandez lurking around the organization these days? The short answer is no; even with the team’s vaunted collection of aces, no one fits the mold of Hawai’i’s finest pitching product. Everyone on the team who is good and strikes people out also gets ground balls or throws right-handed. The only possibility here is Steven Matz, who has the strikeout rate, repertoire and left arm to do a convincing impersonation. But, of course, he’d have to give up on grounders and stay viable for close to a decade.

No, Fernandez was a unique cat, even among a franchise famous for its myriad excellent hurlers. Not only was he a beacon for Hawai’i in major league baseball and a fascinating and unique type of pitcher, he was also an integral part of the great Mets teams of the 1980s. While history does an excellent job of highlighting the greatness of Doc and Seaver and Koosman and Johan, sometimes a guy like Sid takes a back seat. Sometimes we need to go back and go through the record, and then we can truly appreciate just how unique a guy like El Sid was.

Photo Credit:  Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

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