"I think I can," Fernandez said with an earnestness that was delightful and disarming. His response to his listener's somewhat incredulous reaction was an incredulous reaction of his own, as if to say "What, you don't think I can?"
Clearly, the Marlins' latest wunderkind considers putting up a 1.95 ERA in 2014 -- his second season in the big leagues -- an achievement well within the parameters of plausibility. He said as much -- unsolicited -- twice Sunday and confirmed it Monday. No need to explore it. He said it, he expects to do it. He seemed to think a "Really?" was uncalled for.
And why not? When Fernandez pitched effectively enough to win the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 2013, he produced a 2.19 ERA, a 12-6 record and .667 winning percentage in 28 starts for a team that lost 100 games and produced a .383 percentage. Would an improvement of 24 points in his already low ERA be that much more improbable?
"I expect to be a better pitcher than I was," he said.
Fernandez's ERA was the second lowest in the game, second to a difficult-to-fathom 1.83 mark produced by National League Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw.
"I know it will be hard," Fernandez said. "I like it hard. I don't like easy. ... But I'm going to try. It's my goal."
Hard to do is relative, of course. Fernandez recently disclosed he has been bicycling about 600 miles per week during the offseason. Repeat: Hard to do is relative.
And what if Fernandez falls short, what if he throws another ERA in the low twos, then what? He has no plans for such mediocrity, relative as that might be. Hadn't his rookie ERA compared favorably to what Kershaw produced as a rookie -- 4.26 in 2008? Certainly, Fernandez won't require five seasons in the big leagues to push his ERA lower than 2.00. At least that's the plan -- 1.95 and beyond.
One tactful teammate suggested Fernandez decided on 1.95 because I-95 runs north-south close by the Marlins' complex. "He must have liked the way it sounds," he said. But then he reconsidered. "I wouldn't bet against him. That kid's more than special."
And Wayne Rosenthal, the Marlins' pitching coordinator, had this to say about Fernandez days before the pitcher made public his 1.95 manifesto: "He's confident, he's cocky, but he always backs it up."
But 1.95 is a tough number -- even to approach. No second-year pitcher has produced a sub-2.00 ERA since 1985, when Dwight Gooden produced a 1.53 mark in 276 /2/3 innings. For that matter, since Bob Gibson and Luis Tiant produced "Interstate" ERA's in 1968, the Year of the Pitcher -- Gibson's 1.12 and Tiant's 1.60, ERAs lower than 2.00 by any pitchers have numbered merely 13.
Fernandez was duly impressed when he learned of Gooden's number and borderline amazed when he heard of Gibson's 1.12. That's when he felt obligated to issue his own "Really?" And that's when he became incredulous.
Gibson's seminal season gives Fernandez something to shoot for in 2025 when he's 32, as Gibson was in '68. Truth be told, Gibson's 13 shutouts and 28 complete games that year impressed Fernandez even more than the 1.12. "How did he do that?" he asked.
The 2.19 ERA Fernandez produced in 172 1/3 innings last season was the fourth lowest by a rookie in modern baseball. He was, by far, the youngest of the four.
Stan Bahnsen pitched 10 complete games, though only one shutout in 1968, but his innings exceeded, by 95, Fernandez's total last season. Such a disparity would be difficult to span, not that Fernandez would have to pitch 200-plus innings to put his ERA in the ones. But one bad start -- say, five earned runs in three innings -- would be difficult to offset unless he were to pitch effectively for 200-something innings.
"I know, I know," Fernandez said. "You can't have too many bad innings. But I expect to pitch a lot of good innings. I'm not saying I'm going to get 1.95. But that is my goal. It's what I want to do."