But which Fister: Mister, or Misser?
Nobody likes to hear it, because it’s dull, but the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same—pitching.
– Earl Weaver
The Texas Rangers franchise has been known for many things—some good, many not so.
But never, ever, has this team been known for starting pitching. With two moves this winter, Jon Daniels is trying to reverse that trend; with a third, he might bury it altogether. It all depends on the “breaks of the game”.
At his best, Doug Fister could have helmed a rotation. At his best, Matt Moore brings no-hit stuff and a solid second-starter rep. If Jake Arrieta arrives, best or not, he pushes those first two down a peg, which is what you want.
Unfortunately, none of those three has seen their best stuff since, at best, 2015.
With the Fister signing on November 28 for a “win-win” 1-year, $4 million deal, the Rangers bet that some shade of the Fister of old can re-emerge.
Those two bets will likely make or break 2018; Jake the Snake could be the all-in hand.
We’ll look more at Moore another time, and Arrieta if the situation arises. Let’s first see what we might be getting in Mr. Fister.
Once an ace in training…
The Rangers have seen Doug Fister at his best, in the toughest of games, before. In that fateful 2011 season, Fister started Game 3 of the American League Championship Series for Detroit; he held the Rangers to two runs in 7.1 innings in a 5-2 win for Detroit.
That was in keeping with his season overall: for the year, he put up a 2.83 ERA over 216 innings for his original team, Seattle, and Detroit (who traded for him in a post-waiver deal on August 17th).
With Seattle, despite little run support (his record was 3-12) he put up a solid 3.33 ERA. With the stronger Tigers, he showed the simmering potential of his right arm. In 10 starts down the stretch for the eventual Central Division champs, he went 8-1 with a stellar 1.79 ERA. Over that stretch, his strikeout to walk ratio was an otherworldly 11.40 (70.1 IP, 57 strikeouts against just five—yes, 5—walks.)
His arm, when healthy, was once incredibly effective, and occasionally electric. He tied the AL record (held before by Nolan Ryan and surpassed only by Tom Seaver in the NL) by striking out 9 Royals in a row on September 27, 2012. In his best season, 2014, with the Nationals, he finished 8th in the Cy Young balloting and 4th in ERA, with a 2.41 mark.
Through age 30, Fister was one of the more unheralded arms in baseball, due mostly to a .500 record on poor teams. A look at his key stats through 2014 (his age 30 season), though, shows a budding ace:
That’s #1 Starter-caliber stuff. Literally. For comparison, here’s Yu Darvish’s totals in those categories for his career:
You’re basically trading strikeouts for effectiveness when talking Thru-Age-30 Fister for Thru-Age-30 Darvish.
Fister was basically an even-up fair trade with Darvish, on numbers alone (we’re not talking stuff or pitch variety, now. But effectiveness is effectiveness). Ah, but here’s the rub: Fister turned 30 in 2014.
…Now drawing aces and eights
From 2015 on, Fister has struggled with injuries and inconsistency. His record reflects the change:
That’s a lot closer to Darvish in the World Series stuff. The gamble here is, which Fister are you getting?
His command has slowly eroded, and while his strikeout numbers were up last season, he overall struggled in Boston, and imploded far worse than Darvish in the postseason (1.1IP in one start with 4 hits—including a walk, a wild pitch, and a homer—against a single strikeout, contributing to three runs and a 20.25 ERA) in Boston’s only win against the Astros in the League Division Series.
He’s generally been a decent (not great) pitcher with regards to ground balls. Over his career, he has a 1.54 GB/FB rate, which is what you want in Globe Life.
Based on the FanGraphs data, which you can study for yourself here in full, he’s simply been getting hit harder with age. That suggests a pitcher losing his command, because once someone gets wilder out of the zone, they can get wild IN the zone. His career soft/medium/hard contact ratios bear that out:
What does it all tell us?
Simply: batters are hitting the ball harder off Fister the last three years than his career average, (and definitely harder off him than in his career-best seasons of 2011 to 2014). Based on his zone numbers, he gets hammered up and away (as well as middle-in) in the zone by lefties and low/ low-and-in by righties.
Courtesy MLB StatCast
That suggests both missing location and no drastic movement low/in, somewhat like we saw with Sam Dyson (in my eyes, Dyson’s problem was movement going from a cutting to a running movement, it seemed, on his two-seam sinker. The movement was there, but it was slow and long, not tight and short. Maybe the same drift vs. snap is happening to Fister?)
Do I see that trend of hard-hit balls improving? Well, it’s probably related to command, because his speed last season on all types of his fastball (four seam, cutter, splitter) and his sinker (50% of his arsenal) were actually over his career average:
(Courtesy MLB StatCast)
He’s abandoned the slider, which was a less-than-effective pitch for him, and throws the curve less than 10% of the time. He’s a fastball-sinker pitcher, relying on movement down plus the ability to surprise someone with a spot four-seamer up in the zone.
One thing that concerns me in the chart above is his velocity is up. That’s not always good with a sinker. I’ve read more than one good sinker-ball pitcher note that the pitch was most effective for them when their arm felt slightly tired, and the ball more naturally moved down with less speed. Fister might be overthrowing and thus losing command and the sharp downward movement on his sinking stuff.
But the Rangers have a desperate need for a starter who can miss bats. With Darvish likely gone, unless he or Arrieta returns, their rotation is a high-contact rotation. Where their command is off (as certain as a hitter slumping), they’ll see a string of rough outings.
For that, I can see the Rangers brass and fans supporting the gamble on Fister; he missed more bats last year than ever before, with 8.3 K per 9 in his career—it was the contact that was made that was the problem. It’s a reverse of his career trend, to be sure, but maybe a new trend and not and aberration.
I can also see, for the same reason, going after Arrieta; when he is on, Jake is among the tougher pitchers to “barrel” in baseball.
The last challenge with Fister is this: we can’t compare one number I’m really interested in—spin rate on his sinker or fastballs—between his early and late years. (Spin rate indicates, generally, how much a pitch is going to move off its initial release path. A higher spin rate is going to be more explosive.)
The guy with the highest spin rate for his cutter, for instance, is the Dodgers’ amazing closer, Kenley Jansen. The ball moves hard and sharp late. But what I can’t do is compare Jansen to, say, Mariano Rivera’s cutter spin rate. Why? The availability of technology.
See, spin rate and other awesome stats from StatCast have only been available since 2015—the start of Fister’s decline.
What I can guess from the above is that Fister’s problem is location. And location in pitching, as in real-estate, is everything if you lack either speed or movement. We know he doesn’t have the former, and the latter tends to trend down with age.
Seaver himself once said pitchers can have three things going for them: location, movement, and speed: if you’re three for three, you’re golden; if you’re two for three, you’re still in good shape; if you’re one for three, you’re gonna get killed.
Last year, Fister was one for three a lot. We need to see more two-for-three games to see the Fister the Rangers and their fans all want to see.
Ace, or bust? Neither
Thus, we’ll probably see something close to the 2016 Doug Fister, hopefully not 2017, and almost certainly not 2014 (that is, the prime of the ground ball machine and soft-contact pitcher that he once was).
Don’t let spring training stats or looks fool you, either. A new pitcher, in a new environment with a new pitching coach—well, even for a well-traveled vet like him, adjustments can take time. With luck, we’ll see command as this spring progresses, with late life, and the rest will come with time.
If we see a reduction in hard contact and an improved BB/SO ratio, that should mean we can hope for 180 innings, getting us to the pen late and close most games, and a sub-4.00 ERA; from present-day Fister, that’s a win. Think Andrew Cashner 2.0, or the kind of battles A.J. Griffin put up in many starts last year. Expect some clunkers, but you might also see flashes of 2011 or 2014 Fister.
If you do, take a snapshot, because it’ll be an artist recapturing the near-height of his craft.