Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez might lead the league in laughing. He'll yuk it up in the clubhouse hours before the first pitch, and on the field during batting practice, and even in the dugout after a game starts. The rookie hops and hoots, twirls his arms or pounds the railing with a grin whenever a teammate does something good.
The smile disappears when Fernandez takes the mound, and his pitching leaves batters wearing a frown. Strikeouts lately have come at a rate drawing comparisons to Randy Johnson and a young Kerry Wood.
But as soon as Fernandez is removed from a game he's clowning around again, feinting that he's going to sneak back to the mound, or donning a batting helmet as if he expects to hit in a key situation.
"He does that stuff just to irritate me," manager Mike Redmond said with a chuckle. "He wants to see if he can get a reaction."
The reaction to Fernandez has mostly come in the form of rave reviews. For the Marlins he's a badly needed attention-getter, and his golden arm and generous grin might be enough to put baseball back in the good graces of South Florida.
"He loves the stage," teammate Logan Morrison said. "He's not afraid to be great."
The Marlins have the worst record in the National League and the worst home attendance in the majors, but Fernandez is leading them out of the wilderness. He takes an 8-5 record and 2.54 ERA into Thursday's start at Pittsburgh, and since pitching a perfect inning in the All-Star Game he has been spectacular, with 13 and 14 strikeouts in his past two outings while allowing a total of two runs.
The hard-throwing right-hander, who turned 21 last week, became the first pitcher to record at least 13 strikeouts in consecutive games since Johnson in 2004, and the first rookie to do so since Wood in 1998. He's the fifth pitcher younger than 22 to achieve the feat since 1900, and the performances were especially impressive because they came against Pittsburgh and Cleveland, two likely playoff teams.
"It was something I actually enjoyed watching," Indians pitcher Scott Kazmir said after Fernandez beat them 10-0. "He pitched a heck of a game."
Former Marlins manager Jack McKeon's not big on hype after spending 65 years in professional baseball, but he gushes about Fernandez.
"Sensational," McKeon said. "You know you've got something special. He can come at you in so many different ways, it's just nasty. And you have that personality, and his love for the game. He's a winner in my book."
Fernandez is reminiscent of another rookie pitcher a decade ago — Dontrelle Willis, who captivated Marlins fans with his effervescent personality, and confused batters with his quirky delivery. Dontrelle-mania broke out in Miami in the summer of 2003, and Willis remains the only player in the 20-year history of the Marlins to significantly lift their attendance.
Fernandez's storybook background should magnify his celebrity in South Florida. He defected from Cuba on his fourth try after spending time in prison, and rescued his mother from the sea during their successful escape in 2008.
But there's no Jose-mania yet. Attendance for his most recent start Friday was 17,731, the smallest crowd during a 10-game homestand, and the Marlins have resisted the temptation to promote the former first-round draft pick as a box-office star.
Management is well aware Willis went 14-6 in his rookie year and is 58-63 since then.
"Jose has the best personality of a player I've come across in a long, long time," team president David Samson said. "But when he made this team coming out of spring training, we said we weren't going to do anything to make him feel we were counting on him from a marketing standpoint.
"I want him to focus on being on the best major-leaguer he can be. Because I have news for you: There are scores of players who have been great rookies who had no career."
With his excellent mechanics and extraordinary command, Fernandez might have staying power. And while he's the biggest reason the Marlins are optimistic about their future, he's not the only reason.
Outfielders Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich and Jake Marisnick, rookie shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria, and starting pitchers Jacob Turner, Nathan Eovaldi and Henderson Alvarez are all younger than 25. Stanton is already a former NL slugging champion, while the others are all highly regarded.
A disastrous 2012 made the Marlins a national laughingstock, and this season they started 13-41. But they've since gone 30-27 through Tuesday while relying heavily on the youth, and team officials believe the revival will last.
"It was tough in April and May," Samson said. "I don't know that we expected it would turn around this quickly. But every game now is another moment toward being competitive for a full season, which is what we want next year."
The Marlins' 17-month-old stadium remains half empty for most games, partly because it has been four years since they finished above .500 and a decade since they made the playoffs. If they start winning again, the handsome new ballpark might yet fill up, helped by Fernandez's charisma and strikeouts.