Octavio Antonio Fernandez was a franchise icon both on- and off-the field, as evidenced the outpouring of grief over his passing yesterday. In terms of the former, I thought it would be timely to look back and dig deeper into his place in Blue Jays history.
Appropriately, #1 ranks first in both career games (1,450) and hits (1,583), as well as triples (72) with the Blue Jays. He ranks second in at-bats with 5,335 (135 behind Vernon Wells) and third in plate appearances with an even 5,900 (108 behind Carlos Delgado). Defensively, he stands along at the top with +100 runs (FanGraphs) and +113 (Baseball Reference) of positional value and runs saved.
In terms of overall value by position players, he’s a three way dead heat with Delgado and Jose Bautista for most WAR in franchise history. By bWAR, he edges out Jose Bautista 37.5 to 37.3; by fWAR Bautista has the slim 36.1 to 35.1 edge. Either way, these are rounding errors especially given the rudimentary nature of defensive metrics.
Below is a chart mapping separating out longevity and productivity with Toronto. As a combination of both, Fernandez stands alongside Delgado at the pinnacle.
Offensively, the Fernandez hallmark was an ability to make good contact. With a .297/.353/.412 career triple slash line, he wasn’t an overwhelming force, his 107 wRC+ matching noted franchise icon Teoscar Hernandez. He certainly didn’t set any records for power; his .115 ISO ranks 16th lowest among the 75 players with 1,000 PA for the Jays (18th adjusting for era).
But on the slip side, his .297 batting average is the 5th best; adjusting for era moved him a spot higher. His 8.4% strikeout rate is the fourth lowest in franchise history in absolute terms; adjusted to the league averages in which he moves up to second behind only Bob Bailor at a whopping 44% below average. His job was to set the table at the top of the order, and he was very good at it.
It bear also mentioning his postseason performance. In three years (all four years apart) and four series, he hit better than .300 in each. In all, he appeared in 24 games, and in 98 plate appearances hit .333/.378/.402. Just six doubles, but can’t ask for much more in terms of getting on base on the biggest stage.
In terms of tenure, his over 14 years in the organization ranks fourth all-time, just edged out by eventual teammate Roy Halladay. His over 11 years from signing in April 1979 until the big trade in December 1990 ranks 11th in terms of longest unbroken tenure in the organization. Looking at big league time only, his (by my count) 10 years, 46 days of service time with the Jays ranks sixth, edged out by one day by Halladay’s credited 10 years and 47 days.
Fernandez also has the distinction of being the only player in franchise history to play in four separate stints with the Jays (though two others were acquired four times: Dewayne Wise was a minor league signing in early 2011; Rico Carty was traded a month after being selected in the Expansion Draft, and became a free agent a month after being acquired after the 1978 season before re-signing).
I didn’t get into baseball until 1997, so I missed his best years with the team (and wasn’t around for most of them). Having no idea as to his historical ties and significance to the Blue Jays, I can remember my mom wanting Cleveland to win the 1997 World Series because of him when I was taken by the Marlins.
But I do distinctly remember the last two stints, and being particularly taken by him as he hit .321, .318, and .305 in those last three years with the Jays which was the paramount measure of a hitter then (and I wasn’t aware of his defensive limitations at that point). The one indelible memory for me 20 years later is him showing bunt, pulling back a bit as the third baseman came charging in, and then slashing the pitch over his head for an easy hit.