The Marlins’ Five Greatest Pitchers
Kevin Brown (1996-97)
The quiet, sometimes surly and lanky right-hander had established himself as a solid pitcher through his first 10 major league seasons in the American League, but he had never gotten his earned run average below 3.30. That all changed when he moved to Florida in 1996 and began a short but highly accomplished two-year run with the Marlins.
In his first year at Miami, Brown dominated opponents with an electrifying, National League-best 1.89 earned run average—ending a three-year run of ERA titles by the incomparable Greg Maddux. Despite the outstanding mark, Brown finished second in the Cy Young vote to Atlanta’s John Smoltz, who benefitted from more wins (24, to Brown’s 17). A year later, Brown’s ERA rose to a still-respectable 2.69 with a 16-8 record, but he threw the majors’ only no-hitter on the year when he shut down San Francisco on June 10; the only baserunner he allowed came with two outs in the eighth when he plunked pinch-hitter Marvin Benard.
During the 1997 postseason—Brown’s last days with the Marlins—he overcame a stomach flu to throw 140 pitches in a complete-game, Game Six victory over the Braves to clinch the NLCS; but he fell flat in his two World Series starts against Cleveland, losing both to the Indians and opposing starter Chad Ogea.
Brown became part of the great Marlins post-championship purge, sent to San Diego and then, a year later, signing what was then the largest contract in baseball with the Los Angeles Dodgers—a deal the Dodgers would later regret as Brown succumbed to constant injuries (which led to a dalliance with steroids, according to the Mitchell Report).
Josh Johnson (2005-12)
The big (6’7”, 240 pounds) right-hander from Minneapolis continually threatened to become one of the top aces in the game with the Marlins—so long as he stayed healthy. And that always seemed to be the hard part.
Johnson was an integral part of the terrific Marlins rookie ensemble (along with Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla) of 2006, and became part of the first rotation in major league history to feature four rookies with 10-plus wins each. But his path to stardom took a detour a year later when he underwent Tommy John surgery for a bad elbow; he fully recovered in 2009, producing a 15-5 record—but really took off in 2010, winning the NL ERA crown with a 2.30 mark while going 12 straight starts in which he allowed three or fewer runs.
With an arsenal of pitches highlighted by a fastball in the mid-90s (if not faster), Johnson was thought highly enough of by Marlins management to be handed a four-year, $39 million deal prior to 2010, a rare high-priced contract given by the team’s outlandishly low-budget owner Jeffrey Loria. That love ended after 2012 when Johnson was sent away with most every other high-priced Marlin to Toronto in a controversial deal that chopped the team’s payroll down by two-thirds.
Jose Fernandez (2013-16)
A flamboyant bright light and an ace on the cusp of emerging as the greatest pitcher in Marlins history, Fernandez became one of baseball’s profound tragic losses when he was killed in a boating accident late in 2016.
Fernandez fled his native Cuba in 2005 and, like most defections from the island nation, his escape didn’t come easy; at one point, the 15-year-old Fernandez had to dive into the Gulf waters to rescue his mother, who had fallen overboard.
With the Marlins, Fernandez first made news early in 2013 by accidentally beaning star hitter Giancarlo Stanton in a spring intrasquad scrimmage; he quickly made bigger (and more positive) news by jumping from A-ball to the parent team to start the year and proving his presence with a terrific Rookie-of-the-Year effort, posting a 12-6 record in 28 starts with a 2.19 ERA second only to Clayton Kershaw. He was off to another dynamic start in 2014 when his elbow broke down, leading to Tommy John surgery and causing him to miss major chunks of the 2014 and 2015 campaigns. Fully healthy in 2016, Fernandez reaffirmed his excellence with a 16-8 record and 2.86 ERA in 29 starts, with 253 strikeouts over just 182.1 innings; no pitcher has ever struck out more in fewer frames. Fernandez was particularly indomitable at Marlins Park, going undefeated through his first 26 starts there; for his career, he was 29-2 with a 1.49 ERA in 42 home outings.
On September 24, 2016, Fernandez and two friends decided to go on a late-night excursion aboard his 32-foot speedboat Kaught Looking; Marlins outfielder Marcell Ozuna had been encouraged to tag along, but declined—suggesting to Fernandez that he, too, should go home. Sometime after midnight, the boat, said to be zooming at a high rate of speed, struck a jetty near Miami Harbor, flipping over and jettisoning Fernandez and his two co-occupants upon the rocks; they all died. A dark postscript emerged a month later when toxicology reports revealed that Fernandez not only had an alcohol-blood level nearly twice the legal limit, but also had cocaine in his system.
The Marlins, along with the rest of baseball, were utterly devastated by the news of Fernandez’s death. They canceled the next scheduled game at home against Atlanta, and held a morning press conference in which players, front office staff and manager Don Mattingly could not hold back tears. A day later they went back to work, all wearing Fernandez’s #16 jersey (which the Marlins would quickly retire) and deeply missing the effervescent personality he brought to the clubhouse every day.
Dontrelle Willis (2003-07)
Like a comet, the career of the flamboyant southpaw from Oakland glowed bright—but all too brief, flickering out before he even turned 30. Still, the accomplishments of the “D-Train” were enough that he remained the all-time franchise leader in wins until Ricky Nolasco passed him up in 2012.
Willis captured the attention of the baseball world in 2003 as a 21-year old when he exploded out to a fast start using a wild leg kick; though his success flattened out in the latter stages of the season (to the point he was used mostly in relief during the Marlins’ second championship run), his 14-6 record and 3.30 ERA still earned him NL honors as Rookie of the Year. After a subpar sophomore effort, Willis appeared to graduate to a big-time ace in 2005, leading the NL with 22 wins (against 10 losses) and five shutouts to become the first and only 20-game winner to date in Marlins history; he finished second in the Cy Young vote to St. Louis’ Chris Carpenter.
Complimenting his pitching success, Willis was respected with a bat in his hands; he hit .234 with eight home runs and five triples in five years at Florida, and once in 2005 was placed seventh in the batting order—the highest such standing for a pitcher since 1973.
After his magnificent 2005 performance, Willis began a decline that accelerated with alarming speed after his trade to Detroit two years later; receiving $10 million a year from the Tigers, all Willis could give during the duration of his three-year deal was a 2-8 record and a 6.86 ERA, further punctuated by a mind-numbing 92 walks in 101 innings. After numerous comeback attempts with multiple organizations fizzled, Willis announced his retirement at age 30.
Josh Beckett (2001-05)
The lean right-hander born outside of Houston possessed a blazing fastball (recorded as high as 98 MPH), but failed to leverage it towards any kind of qualified success until the end of his third season—when the Marlins made their second run at a world title. It was then that Beckett exploded onto the national spotlight; he threw a two-hit shutout against the Cubs in Game Five of the 2003 NLCS, reversing the series’ momentum and launching the Marlins on a three-game rally to overcome the Cubs; and he delivered the franchise’s greatest pitching performance (if certainly not its most memorable) when, in Game Six of the World Series against New York, he threw another shutout on five hits at Yankee Stadium to clinch the Fall Classic against the heavily favored Yankees. Going into the postseason, Beckett had never thrown a shutout at the major league level.
Florida fans, fully expecting an ace-level encore from the brash Beckett in 2004, were disappointed instead to see him finish at just 9-9 as he suffered from frequent blisters. He improved to 15-8 the following year, but as free agent eligibility neared, the cost-conscious Marlins—as they often do—got rid of Beckett, trading him and fellow veterans Mike Lowell and Guillermo Mota to Boston for four relative unknowns (including future stars Hanley Ramirez and Anibal Sanchez).
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