Doug Fister had a bad season in 2015. His 4.19 ERA was half a run higher than in his worst season between 2011 and 2014, and his FIP and xFIP were even higher. His best seasons with the Tigers featured close to seven strikeouts per nine and a groundball rate over 50 percent. Last year, he struck out five and a half batters per nine and induced under 45 percent groundballs. That is why Fister had to sign a one-year, $7 million contract with the Astros.
Jeff Sullivan detailed the concern with Fister’s loss of velocity. While never a hard-thrower, Fister has lost about two and a half mph off of his fastball since 2013 and nearly four mph since his peak velocity in 2011.
No doubt that is a concern, especially for a pitcher that at his best enjoyed just moderate strikeout totals, and so Fister will have a one-year deal to prove to teams that he deserves a long-term contract in 2017. Fortunately for him, he picked the best place to prove it.
According to Baseball Info Solutions’ shift totals in The 2016 Bill James Handbook, the Astros shifted on 1,416 balls in play in 2015, second most behind the Rays in baseball and more than 400 shifts clear of the third-place Rockies. Not surprisingly then, the Astros allowed the third-lowest batting average on groundballs.
The other leaders in batting average allowed on groundballs skewed toward shift-heavy teams, as well. In contrast, the Nationals were tied for 24th with a .249 batting average allowed on groundballs and were 29th in baseball in shifts with 216.
The situation was even worse for Fister, specifically. Of the 141 pitchers who threw at least 100 innings last season, Fister’s .301 batting average allowed on groundballs was second-highest.
Regardless of possible reasons, Fister and Trevor May were borderline outliers. Meanwhile, Fister has allowed a .236 batting average on groundballs for his career, 65 points lower than he did in 2015. He had never previously gone over .276 in a season.
With regression, Fister would likely have enjoyed a bounce-back season had he stayed with the Nationals, but the Astros’ shift tendencies provide him an opportunity for a dramatic improvement. Fister can enhance that benefit even further with a return to a heavier reliance on his slider, which dropped off in 2015 and likely contributed to his decreased groundball rate. Fister does not have the strikeout potential to be a major sleeper, but his command could drive excellent ratios to make up for it in deeper and AL-only formats.
Scott Spratt is a fantasy sports writer for FanGraphs and Pro Football Focus. He is a Sloan Sports Conference Research Paper Competition and FSWA award winner. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @Scott_Spratt