July 13, 2012
Making the Most of Mike Fiers
You know what to expect when Mike Fiers is pitching. You expect a lot of puns about his name, which is pronounced “Fires.” First inning: “Mike Fiers on the mound and he is setting the mound on Fire recently.” Second inning: “He is heating up.” Third inning: “A perfect name for a day like this. Mike Fiers.” Actual puns from his actual last start. It was 101 degrees in Milwaukee.
You don’t really know what else to expect, because wait who? Mike Fiers, a guy taken in the 22nd round during his age-24 season. The day he made his pro debut, in short-season ball, he was the same age Clayton Kershaw is now. Three years later, Mike Fiers is in the majors, and in seven starts he has struck out 48 batters and walked nine, in 46 innings. He has a 2.31 ERA and some guy in your fantasy league keeps offering him to you for Adrian Gonzalez. And he is the latest fun story of a guy who did more than he was supposed to do.
The age at which he was drafted can be explained. While he was driving from his home in Florida back to school in Kentucky, he fell asleep and drove off the road. He flew out the back windshield, “suffering four fractures in his back and a dislocated left leg.” He sat out a year and wasn’t drafted until after his senior year, when he led the nation in strikeouts.
Even before the accident, though, he was no top prospect. He went to three different colleges and wasn’t drafted out of high school or his junior year of college. In two significant ways, though, he’s not the same pitcher he was in high school or college. He was drafted in the 22nd round because he was a right-handed pitcher who threw 87 or 88 mph. Those are two things that rarely change, and, with Fiers, they haven't changed. He is still right-handed. He still throws 87 or 88 mph. But there are other things a pitcher can change, and that's part of the Fiers story.
This is Fiers before he was drafted:
And here he is now, with an extreme over-the-top delivery:
When Fiers faced the Marlins recently, the opponents prepared by studying tape of their at-bats against Josh Collmenter, a similarly over-the-top righthander who has had more success than his high-80s stuff had promised.
“Watch how long it takes you to pick up the baseball,” Brewers color commentator Dave Nelson said while watching Fiers’ mechanics. “He throws right over the top and you don’t see it until the last minute. That’s what we’re talking about when we say he’s deceptive. He hides the baseball. Hitters can’t pick it up, and it’s on you very quickly.”
“He gets a lot of swings and misses on average fastballs,” Nelson's partner, Craig Coshun added. “A fastball 89 to 91 mph and he … gets a lot of traveling distance on that fastball.”
He doesn’t actually get a lot of swings and misses on average fastballs, but he gets enough to get by. His fastball is the same velocity as Jered Weaver’s—another pitcher with a disorienting, limbsy delivery—and he gets whiffs a bit more often, just under five percent of pitches. That’s about the same rate as teammate Zack Greinke (who has four extra mph on his) and about the same rate as David Price (who has nearly eight mph more on his). Fastball whiff rate is a terribly limited measure, one that ignores almost everything and can make for some surprising comparisons. Collmenter, for instance, gets more whiffs than all these pitchers with his 87-mph fastball. It's a weird measure, but it—along with Fiers' fastball-strike rate, which is better than anybody named in this paragraph—suggests that Fiers' fastball has been effective enough to set up his stronger secondary pitches.
The other thing about Fiers is his cutter. He didn’t have a cutter, and then he picked up a cutter, and wow that cutter came easily to him, and this is not an unusual story. It's the story of a lot of pitchers in the league over the past five years. But we should stop and appreciate how easily Fiers’ cutter came. I talked to Lee Tunnell, the Brewers' roving pitching instructor, who taught Fiers the cutter before the 2011 season, and he remembers it like this:
“I told him ‘you can learn it in five minutes,’” Tunnell says. “I show him the grip, and I told him throw it like a fastball. And actually within three minutes he figured it out.” Fiers throws it about a quarter of the time and gets strikes with it about 65 percent of the time. It’s not his strikeout pitch, but it’s a good pitch. He's got a few good pitches, and an 88-mph fastball:
Fiers isn’t succeeding exclusively because he has an unusual delivery, or exclusively because he learned an effective cutter in three minutes. He has been effective—if old—at every level he has pitched since being drafted, starting with his 35:1 strikeout/walk ratio in the Pioneer League. He's also probably not going to be exactly this effective forever, unusual deliveries tending to be one of the first magic tricks to be exposed by major-league hitters. But he’s a nice reminder that, no matter the limitations a player has the day he is drafted, there are still tricks he can learn.