The first word I think of when I think of Doug Fister’s 2017 season is fluky. When you pick a pitcher up off the scrap heap and he starts putting up results commensurate with a top starter, it’s probably fair to assume it was luck. If he was this good, why didn’t any other teams want him? In Fister’s case, why did at least two other teams actively attempt to get rid of him? Thinking this way is probably a personal failing of mine, on which helps squeeze the joy from baseball, like a boa constrictor squeezing joy from baseball. Still though, Doug Fister. What the heck, right?
History is littered with pitchers who showed up out of nowhere, pitched well for half a season or so, then got shelled so badly their careers were over. But Doug Fister isn’t Kason Gabbard, Aaron Small, or Devern Hansack (seriously, real guy). Fister has had real actual success before in the form of a five win season (2011) and several three win seasons besides. He’s a guy with a legitimate career, who has, in the not distant past, made many hitters out. He’s won many games! He received some Cy Young votes! Three years ago is not that long!
And still, since receiving those Cy votes, Fister has been about as desirable as Gabbard, Small, or Hansack are right now. Last season he posted 4.64 ERA with some subpar strikeout and walk numbers with the Nationals. Couple that with a minor home run issue and *flash forward* you get a guy on his fourth organization in three seasons. Now add in the fact that pitchers at his age (33) don’t tend to suddenly get much better and you get my immediate reaction of “Fluke!” Didn’t the Red Sox just try this exact thing with Kyle Kendrick?
However, as some are quite fond of pointing out, pitchers are human beings and not spreadsheets, so this kind of thing, while not common, has happened. Rich Hill, anyone? Also, not everyone is Kyle Kendrick. This is a researched fact. So Fister. Is he any good?
The first and easiest starting point is to compare his ERA to his FIP. FIP attempts to take the luck of good (or bad) fielders and good (or bad) timing out of ERA. It’s not without its warts, but comparing FIP to ERA is a good quick-’n-dirty way of seeing how lucky a pitcher is. Fister’s ERA is 3.91 and his FIP is 3.99 so by FIP at least, Fister has come by his results honestly.
But we can’t sleep soundly yet because another and slightly different form of this is xFIP which is like FIP but controls for home run rate by ‘fixing’ the number of homers the pitcher ‘should have’ given up. Fister’s xFIP is 4.36, which is to say he’s gotten a bit lucky in terms of allowing home runs. Thing is though, it just so happens that the league wide ERA this season is 4.36, so even that number would be pretty valuable considering where the Red Sox got Fister and what they gave up for him. But if you exclude relievers from the league wide sample, the league wide ERA jumps to 4.49, so even adjusting Fister’s ERA twice has him at better than league average.
So the numbers like him, but what happened to the guy who wasn’t re-signed by Washington, cut by the Astros, and couldn’t reach the majors in the Angels organization?
So the numbers like him, but what happened to the guy who wasn’t re-signed by Washington, cut by the Astros, and couldn’t reach the majors in the Angels organization? It’s hard to say. That’s not that there aren’t differences between the two Fisters. There are, it’s just tough to suss out what is and what isn’t important. But let’s try anyway!
The first thing that jumps out about Fister’s 2017 other than his ERA is his ground ball rate, which sits, tantalizingly like a pie on a counter, at 50.2 percent. Fister is a sinkerball pitcher so perhaps that rate shouldn’t come as a surprise. Indeed it’s not too far off his career ground ball rate of 48.4 percent. But compare it to his last two seasons which were 44.6 percent and 45.3 percent. Those are big differences. He’s getting more grounders this season. So that’s one thing.
Another is how he’s getting that ground ball rate. You might think he would be throwing more sinkers. Sinkers equal ground balls, right? Well, maybe not so much in this case. He’s thrown fewer sinkers compared to last season and the season before that, though those percentages have bounced around during his career. In lieu of some of those sinkers, Fister is throwing a cutter. He’s always thrown the cutter throughout his career, but this is the most he’s ever thrown it as a percentage of his pitching mix. In 2016 and 2015 Fister cut way back on his cutter usage but now it’s back. It’s getting very slightly more horizontal movement but less vertical movement. And he’s throwing it faster (by 1/2 a mph). Is any of that good? Maybe? The fact that he keeps throwing it and that he’s had success probably tells us it’s not bad.
One notable difference between this season and Fister’s recent past is his velocity. Velocity is key for a guy like Fister who depends on movement and location for outs. That’s maybe a strange sentence to read but it’s true. A slight uptick in velocity for Fister could give him new life on his pitches, and that slight uptick is exactly what he’s got. The velocity on Fister’s sinker is up to the highest (89.83 mph) it’s been since his 2011 season when it was 90.68. Admittedly we’re talking about tenths of a mph here so it’s unclear what the actual difference is for hitters, but there’s two things we do know. First is that pitchers Fister’s age typically experience a velocity loss, so anything that isn’t a loss is, in effect, a gain. Second, hitters are telling us about the effectiveness of Fister’s pitches through their inability to repeatedly square them up.
One reason for Fister’s success this season could be if he were to face an inordinate number of lousy hitting teams. Facing bad lineups will make any pitcher look good, or at least better. So I went through his game logs and ranked the teams he’s faced based on their runs scored at the moment of his writing (for example: Angels are 21st in runs scored), then I averaged them out. As it turns out, the average offense Fister has faced is ranked 14th. Almost exactly average. So that’s not it.
If a slight note of caution is to be sounded it’s due to his walks. Fister has walked 9.9 percent of the hitters he’s faced, a number well above any he’s posted in any season in his career. So far it’s been offset by a big jump in strikeout rate to 20.8 percent from last season’s 14 percent. Perhaps that’s the work of the velocity increase coupled with throwing more cutters. In any case, the walk rate itself is fine as long as the strikeouts are there, but if the strikeouts go back to rates resembling last season’s, the walks will become very difficult to overcome.
Through all of this though Doug Fister appears to be the same guy he’s always been. His strikeouts and walks are up a bit, but they’re not way up in a silly way. He’s not generating ridiculous numbers of ground balls or fly balls, nor is he throwing a new pitch or from a different angle. He’s been neither extraordinarily lucky nor unlucky and faced perfectly average competition along the way. He’s not bad nor is he fantastic. He’s just Doug Fister: tall dude in a hat. That’s not bad for the Red Sox though. In fact, it’s pretty fantastic. That’s the word that should come to mind when thinking of Doug Fister’s season.
Photo by Kim Klement – USA TODAY Sports