Doug Fister’s Sweet 16

It’s been a few years since Doug Fister was first able to legally drive a car, however 16 still represents a significant number for the right-hander. Last year he accrued 16 wins en route to being ranked as the 19th best starting pitcher, while torpedoing one of my Preseason Bold Predictions. Fister managed to crack the top-20 mark despite a weak 5.38 K/9, the second lowest mark seasonal average of his career, minimum 100 innings pitched.

Fister posted a strong 2014 even though he was limited to 25 starts first due to elbow inflammation, then a lat strain. He didn’t pitch in a big league game until May 9 but still seemed to cruise all season long. Even without the strikeouts Fister’s 2.41 ERA made him plenty useful, though his 3.93 FIP,  3.85 xFIP and 3.93 SIERA thought less of him. The 1.52 gap between Fister’s ERA and FIP was the second largest difference of any starter, minimum 150 IP. A driving part of Fister’s shiny ERA was his exceptionally low .262 batted ball rate, 30 points below his career average. Of course BABIP is a fickle thing, but perhaps he mixed up his pitching style. The table below shows the previous three seasons of his pitch type, broken down by frequency, courtesy of Brooks Baseball.

2012 2013 2014
Four-seam 6.97% 5.68% 5.91%
Sinker 46.33% 45.09% 57.74%
Curve 19.6% 19.93% 8.8%
Cutter 14.27% 14.2% 12.06%
Splitter 12.83% 15.1% 12.84%
Slider XX XX 2.65%

Note the difference between his sinker usage as well as the reluctance to use his curve ball. There are discrepancies between Brooks Baseball and PITCHf/x and Pitch Type here on Fister’s player page and I am inclined to go with the Brooks classification. While Fister heavily relied on his sinker, his 48.9% ground ball rate is a three year low. More fly balls can certainly help a pitcher given their lower BABIP than ground balls, however it surprises me to see an increase of sinker action while also witnessing a decrease in GB%.

While he has never been a huge source of strikeouts — 7.63 K/9, 20.4% K% represent his single season highs — Fister dropped to Jamie Moyer or Brad Radke levels of K’s this past season. He countered a low strikeout rate with the best BB% of his career, 3.6% and a 1.32 BB/9. Despite the lower strikeouts, Fister nonetheless posted a 4.08 K/BB, the best mark of his career and 19th best in baseball last year. Fister’s swinging strike rate plummeted almost two full percentage points from 2013 to 2014, dropping from 8.0% to 6.1%. Relying on his fastball more and his breaking pitches less — even when accounting for the added slider usage — there is no surprise there. If this pitch usage change was planned, something Jeff Sullivan speculated on earlier this year, then count on another low year of strikeouts. Expect more innings from him but don’t expect another sub 3.00-ERA season.

Fister projected as the 18th best starter via the consensus rankings going into 2014 and managed to be a top-20 guy. Unless he goes back to his off-speed pitches more often, once his BABIP and ERA normalize, I don’t see him being a top-20 starter again. Both wins and BABIP (which of course directly affects WHIP and ERA) are largely left up to the team around him, Fister is less enticing next year. He still very clearly has value, however I’d place him in the third tier of national league starters, with a potential to move into second tier territory, pending the return of his whiffs and strikeouts.

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I am very skeptical about the strikeouts rebounding, but I do question why his FIP, xFIP, and SIERA were much higher despite the move to the NL. He has a ton going for him fantasy wise:
1.nationals are a better defense team than the Tigers
2.Bullpen is very strong
3.Great offense for run support
4.The NL East contains very weak offenses