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Marlins prodigy Jose Fernandez speaks volumes with season that's in class of Doc Gooden

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

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Marlins ace Jose Fernandez is having one of MLB's best seasons for a 20-year-old. (Getty Images)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Because he is making history with every start and turning in the best age-20 season since Doc Gooden and still figuring out this crazy life of his after spending the first 15 years of it shackled to an island that just as soon would've kept him prisoner forever, Jose Fernandez usually gets a pass from his Miami Marlins teammates. There are exceptions, and what he did Tuesday happened to qualify.

Following his latest episode of brilliance – seven shutout innings against a Kansas City Royals team that had won 17 of 20 games – Fernandez glanced at a TV playing highlights of the Marlins' 1-0 victory that had ended about 30 minutes earlier. He booked toward the flat screen and grabbed the remote. He watched in silence as Royals starter Bruce Chen mowed down Marlins hitters. When his name flashed across the screen, Fernandez started pressing the + volume button to awaken the muted TV.

1 … 2 … 3 … 4 … 5 …

"Jesus, Hosey," one teammate barked across the clubhouse. "Are you gonna be that guy?"

6 … 7 … 8 … 9 …

"He's gonna be that guy," another teammate said.

Fernandez settled on 10 and stared at himself. Sometimes he still doesn't believe it's him. Inside the clubhouse, Fernandez wore a cut-sleeve T-shirt featuring Canelo Alvarez – he's friends with the young boxer through Under Armour – and a goofy grin. He might be the last innocent left in professional sports, the mound bulldog belying a golden retriever puppy everywhere else.

"They always show the prodigy," Marlins closer Steve Cishek said.

"Huh?" Fernandez said.

"The prodigy," Cishek said.

"What does that mean?" Fernandez said.

"The future," Cishek said.

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Before this devolves into one of those convoluted time-travel movies, understand this: The future is the present. Fernandez is today, he is tomorrow, he is next year and he is well beyond. He is a fastball that reaches 98 mph, a curve ball-slider marriage that dances between 79 mph and 85, a changeup that was his best pitch on this particular evening but is usually a distant third. He is a kid who left Cuba on a boat less than six years ago, learned English on the fly and still craves new vocabulary like prodigy, went 14th overall in the draft to the Marlins in 2011, arrived this year despite not pitching an inning above Class A and now sports a 2.45 ERA – and 1.65 since the beginning of June, better than anybody in the National League, Clayton Kershaw and Matt Harvey included.

"He's going out there saying, 'I want to be the best pitcher in the league,' " Marlins manager Mike Redmond said. "And you know what? He's making a case."

Redmond spent 13 years in the major leagues as a catcher. He does not idly shovel compliments players' way, particularly rookies'. He understands what he's seeing. In an NL East with Harvey, Stephen Strasburg, Mike Minor, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez and Julio Teheran, the best young arm may well belong to Fernandez.

"It reminds me a lot of [Justin] Verlander's first year," Marlins third baseman Placido Polanco said. "He's got a lot of good pitches, and it seems like every time he goes out there he just gets better. The changeup was going. The filthy curve ball. The fastball was explosive. And he's 21."

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Jose Fernandez, left, gets a hug from Henderson Alvarez. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Even among prodigies, Fernandez has separated himself. It wasn't just the back-to-back 13- and 14-strikeout games. Only Kerry Wood and Hideo Nomo had more of those in their rookie seasons. Nor was it the way he keeps getting better, when the rookie narrative says he's supposed to be tiring in these dog days. It's the names he's passing with every shutout inning, the century of history he's blowing by with impunity.

Among 20-year-olds who qualified for the ERA title, Gooden is the unquestioned king. He went 24-4, and his ERA+ – 100 is league average – was 229, more than twice as good as the rest of baseball. Since 1910, the rest of the top 5 in ERA+ are as follows: Jose Fernandez, Bob Feller, Don Drysdale, Smoky Joe Wood. That's Fernandez, Hall of Famer, Hall of Famer and woulda-been Hall of Famer had arm trouble not intervened.

The manner with which Fernandez deconstructed the Royals on Tuesday was as clinical as it was powerful. For all of the pitchability shown by his counterpart – Chen threw a pitch at every velocity between 72 mph and 88 mph, except for 79, and shut out the Marlins for seven innings – Fernandez matched him. Inside, outside, up, down. Even balls in the middle of the strike zone sizzled with enough late life to flummox the Royals.

"I feel like I'm pitching," Fernandez said. "Like I had an idea of what I'm doing out there. And that feels amazing."

That he's just starting to get it is the most frightening thing. One major league pitcher called him Felix Hernandez 2.0. A longtime scout said he can't remember a kid this young and this good – not even Felix. The only thing that can curtail Fernandez, at least this year, is an innings limit that will prompt his shutdown in four or five starts.

Until then, he is going to savor it as he does everything. He is not shy in telling people his story about how he defected from Cuba because that moment places in proper context everything today. Before his start Tuesday, he was talking about it with Cullen McRae, the Marlins' video coordinator, and he marveled at it all.

"Where I was then. Where I am now," he said. "It's pretty amazing."

And the best part: There's more, so much more, all of it there for him to see on a giant flat screen, the prodigy who is perfectly OK being that guy.

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