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How long until Julian Fernández is big-league ready?

Colorado Rockies news and links for Tuesday, March 29, 2022

You know what’s awesome to watch? These absolute flames from the pitcher’s mound:

Colorado Rockies fans got a small dose of Julian Fernández in the big leagues last year, and with it came all sorts of head turns at the radar gun board. The results from his 6 2/3-inning body of work were not great, but if velocity is your thing, there was some awesome stuff going on.

Fernández was optioned back to minor league camp over the weekend, so we’ll have to be patient for that cool stuff to return. The Rockies debuted five different relievers in 2021 alone and all five are returning under club control in 2022. There is less room in the bullpen with the pickup of Alex Colomé, and with so many young guys providing immediate depth, that race for the back end of the bullpen gets tough in a hurry.

Fernández had the fewest innings and highest ERA of the five relievers that debuted with the Rockies last year. It made reasonable sense when he was optioned to minor league camp on Sunday, given these figures:

All five of these pitchers were aged either 25 or 26 last year, so there isn’t a clear frontrunner in terms of age projection. Fernández has already picked up two years of service time, however, despite pitching fewer than 10 innings in a big league uniform. This stemmed from his selection in the Rule 5 draft, which was followed by pickups by the Marlins and Rockies.

Service time alone could be reason for the Rockies to expedite Fernández’s timetable, as they have little time to waste with him compared to the other names on this list:

Data courtesy of FanGraphs

Lucas Gilbreath, the 2021 innings leader of this pack of five, has hardly even scratched the service time board. The youngest arms in the bullpen are the longest under club control, but Fernández finds himself in a greater time pinch to earn that coveted paycheck of a tenured player.

The Triple-A Hero: Albuquerque Fernández is a beast

Baseball fans in Albuquerque got a dose of Triple-A Fernández in 2021 and the results were head-turning. The 26-year-old right-hander tore apart the Triple-A West, posting a 1.29 ERA in 26 13 innings and inducing a lot of swings in the process. His 53.4% swing percentage with the Isotopes was the highest among pitchers with at least five innings thrown, and his 2.6 BB/9 suggests it wasn’t from falling behind in counts.

What do you do with a guy posting these figures? You call them up, of course! Fernandez debuted against the Atlanta Braves on September 5, throwing the fastest pitch in Rockies history since the league began tracking the data in 2008.

His 1.29 ERA in Triple-A quickly faded to a 10.80 in the big leagues, however, and while 6 23 MLB innings is admittedly small, it’s (relatively) considerable for an arm that will seldom throw more than one inning per day.

Not all is lost for Fernández starting the year where he found the most success in 2021. All five of those relievers that debuted in 2021 have minor league options remaining, and given how often Justin Lawrence and Ben Bowden alternated from Triple-A to the big leagues last year, it seems relatively clear that this could run its course again soon — and lead us to some more 102 MPH heaters from Fernández in big league ballparks.

2021 Big League Lenses: What We Saw

Again — 6 23 is small — but it’s a better sample for short relievers than it is for starters. Fernandez was bringing the most heat in Rockies history, and it came with the best strike percentage of the young guns:

Data courtesy of FanGraphs

This is misleading, however, because a double-digit ERA suggests a lot of missed pitches and pieced-up swings. Just how much were those swings pieced up?

vFA = average fastball velocity
Data courtesy of FanGraphs

Pull-side contact is not always good, but it has to mean something when the hardest thrower has the highest figure.

It’s far more difficult to turn on 99 than it is 92, and this pull percentage suggests something wasn’t working right for Fernández to yield such a high percentage. It’s extremely hard to pinpoint this without more data, but he could have been hiding the ball poorly, becoming too predictable with a fastball, throwing a flat set of pitches or something similar.

In the home-run-heavy era we currently live in, one could argue that a Coors Field-ready pitcher is not one that risks pull-side damage.

Fernández could have been just gaining his footing, too, and perhaps the cup-of-coffee call-up will give him much-needed affirmation from his organization moving forward — after previously being dismissed by San Francisco and Miami.

How Long Until He’s Back?

It is presumable that at least one option-available reliever will be shaky in the early days of 2021. This isn’t to bash or call out (and it certainly isn’t something that people should cheer for), but it’s often the simple nature of big league bullpens: performance is volatile and options are often exercised for young players.

If the Rockies keep up their 2021 trend of optioning a lot of relievers back and forth from Triple-A, Fernández will make for a reasonable piece to the puzzle. Just because he’s been optioned does not mean he’s been dismissed; he’s here to build on the success he had in Triple-A and transition that dominance to a big league mound.

In an ideal world, Fernández keeps right where he left off in Albuquerque — and he could be called up sooner than many of us think.

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