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Last November, when Doug Fister was a year away from free agency, he received four down-ballot votes for the Cy Young Award. It seemed then that all Fister needed to do in order to enter the marketplace on good terms was remain healthy and perform in 2015 as he had in previous seasons. If he could do both, he would secure his place in the second tier of available starters, favorable standing for a pitcher whose “underrated” label was born from a) his inclusion in two one-sided trades and b) statistics that had outrun his stuff at every turn, giving them the feel of unsustainability.

Some nine months later, Fister’s statistics have indeed worsened. His production this season has been so poor—entering the week his adjusted DRA was the 11th-worst among pitchers with 50-plus innings, a smidge better than the likes of Sean O’Sullivan and Jeremy Guthrie—that he is now outside the second tier of perspective free-agent starters; in fact, he’s outside of all the tiers because he’s no longer a starter. Late last week the Nationals officially moved Fister to relief, bumping their old heisted gem in favor of their newest: rookie sensation Joe Ross.

A deeper examination is needed whenever an established pitcher like Fister sees his outlook change in such a quick, dramatic fashion. So what did precipitate Fister’s decline, and can he recover?

In most of these cases, the reason behind the pitcher’s fall contains one or more of the following explanations: 1) the pitcher is injured; 2) the pitcher has lost stuff (perhaps due to an injury); 3) the pitcher has lost command (perhaps due to an injury); 4) the pitcher has suffered bad luck or is regressing toward the mean (perhaps due to an injury). You get the point.

Yet Fister and the Nationals have maintained that he is hearty and hale: “He’s healthy,” manager Matt Williams said after a poor start in late July, the same one that led Fister to tell reporters he was “starting to get back to feeling better and strong.” Still, Fister hasn’t always been healthy or felt strong during his time in Washington. His regular-season debut with the Nationals was delayed by six weeks due to a strained shoulder, and he missed a month earlier this season with an achy flexor tendon.

Maybe it’s a coincidence that Fister has become a different pitcher since he returned from the shoulder strain, but it’s probably not a coincidence that his stock has plummeted alongside the velocity of his sinker and overall strikeout and groundball rates. Given that Fister’s sinker is his primary pitch, it’s no stretch to label it as the key to his success, or, these days, his failure.


Season

ERA+

K/9

GB%

Sinker velo.

Sinker Usage%

2015

83

5

45%

86.6

64%

2014

152

5.4

51%

88.6

58%

2013

113

6.9

56%

89.8

45%


Because Fister had below-average velocity to begin with, it stands to reason that he could be more affected by those mileage losses than the typical right-handed starter. After all, a normal right-hander can lose heat on his fastball and end up where Fister started; Fister, on the other hand, now finds himself with velocity that corresponds to a 35-40 grade on the scouting scale. To put Fister’s lack of oomph into perspective, consider that the only pitchers with slower sinkers than his this season are Jered Weaver and Mark Buehrle, two present-day abnormalities, neither of whom is as fastball-dependent as Fister is. Otherwise Fister’s sinker is in select company, alongside the likes of Dan Haren, Kyle Lobstein, Justin Masterson, and Tim Lincecum, the latter two eerily similar as productive pitchers turned bad around their date with free agency.

Of course velocity is only part of the equation; the sinker’s movement and location matters just as much. Fister and crew have repeatedly talked about how his sinker is running more and sinking less than usual. PITCHf/x data supports that claim, but only to an extent. His sinker has shown an inch less downward movement compared to the 2013 version, yet has also shown 0.7 inches less horizontal movement, according to Brooks Baseball. It’s possible that Fister is using different terminology, or that what he’s talking about isn’t captured in the data. It’s also possible that he’s using movement as an excuse for a bigger issue, like the velocity or location.

Judging velocity or movement across multiple seasons is easier than judging location. So much of evaluating command hinges on knowing the intent. Here, all we can do is look at the results. Nonetheless, the natural inclination with a struggling pitcher—especially one generating fewer grounders—is to assume he must be pitching up in the zone more often with his fastball. That has not been the case with Fister (rounded to the nearest whole percentage):


Zone split

High

Middle

Low

2015

26%

30%

44%

2014

38%

30%

32%

2013

26%

31%

43%


Obviously there’s a chance Fister’s fastballs up in the zone have come at worse times, or have been hit more often than usual—this seems to be the case—but the explanation for Fister’s woes is not as simple as missing up more often, even if he is missing more targets than the norm. How about the other aspect of command: locating horizontally? Pitching coach Steve McCatty said, “Last year, there were a lot of pitches that were in but stayed in, instead of trying to be in and being over the plate.”

Again the intent cannot be sussed out, but here’s a breakdown of where Fister’s fastballs have been located relative to his arm side (rounded to the nearest whole percentage):


Side split

Arm

Middle

Glove

2015

55%

20%

26%

2014

52%

18%

30%

2013

48%

17%

35%


McCatty has a point. Not only has Fister missed over the plate more often—albeit an amount that might be imperceptible without consulting the data—but he’s become more dependent on pitching to his arm side, which could affect the rest of his game in ways beyond our calculating ability.

There are other parts of Fister’s game worth touching on. For example, some might put the blame on the Nationals’ defenders, a unit that ranks 27th in defensive efficiency. But Fister is not getting beat by seeing-eye singles; rather he’s giving up more home runs and extra-base hits than normal while coercing fewer double-play balls and infield pop-ups—a bad combination that boils down to allowing more harmful hits and generating fewer easy outs. There’s also the declining effectiveness of Fister’s secondary stuff, and some negative alterations to his mechanics, per Fister:

Piece it all together and Fister has too many issues to be a successful starting pitcher moving forward. Declining stuff and command is a bad pairing for anyone, but especially someone who relied upon his location to atone for his so-so repertoire all along. Unless Fister is hiding an injury, the best-case scenario sees him become a Weaver- or Buehrle-like anomaly; success is never likely when that’s the upshot. As such, Fister’s odds of returning to his old, mid-rotation standard—or even to the level of a tolerable back-end starter—are slim. It’s a shame for many reasons, but particularly for Fister, who has to feel like he has the worst timing in the world.

Thank you for reading

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lonechicken
8/13
The sample size isn't huge, and I didn't go and look at many other pitchers, but something stands out with Fister when looking at innings splits...

Almost across the board, in innings 1-3 vs. innings 4-6, his numbers are about the same. OBP, SLG, BA, BABIP, BB. It's ERA is 3.89 vs. 5.31 and K/BB is 3.38 vs. 2.71.

Maybe there's something to that decline in his secondary offering, considering second to third time through the lineup, he's not missing bats when in theory mixing in the secondary pitches.

I doubt the Nats would think outside the box on this one and have Ross shadow Fister. Which on paper would keep Fister pitching only during his most effective part of games as well as limit Ross's innings.
GRTrouble
8/13
One of your more interesting points for me is highlighting how much more he's been going to arm side pitches. One of Fister's best weapons last year was the glove side sinker that he would front hip to LH and back door to RH hitters. That pitch has been almost completely MIA this year. It felt like that got him a lot of his looking strikes last year.

This year when he tries to go to that pitch it's either missing in or leaking out over the plate where his diminished velo turns it into a meatball for an XBH.
Michael
8/13
This article's title did make me laugh.
doctawojo
8/13
You're my new best friend.