Michael Fiers Versus the Radar Gun: How Is He Winning?

This explains a lot.

Here are two facts about Milwaukee Brewers righthanded starting pitcher Michael Fiers:

1) He has a 2.31 ERA this season, allowing twelve earned runs in 46 2/3 innings across seven starts and one relief appearance. And it looks like a legitimate ERA, since he hasn’t allowed a single unearned run and his FIP is actually even better, at 2.06.

2) His average fastball velocity is 88.1 miles per hour.

The first fact, of course, paints Fiers as a true ace and right up there with any starting pitcher in baseball over the past couple of months. The second fact, however, seems almost completely incongruous. Pitchers that average 88 mph aren’t supposed to be aces. They aren’t supposed to be #2 starters or even #3 starters. Last season, Tom Milone struck out 155 batters while walking only 16, at the highest level of the minors, and no scouting types saw him as more than a fringy 4/5. And Fiers doesn’t even have Milone’s advantage of being lefthanded, and he’s nearly two years older.

We can supplement the two facts with more facts that only make the discrepancy more striking. On the positive side, not only has he pitched well this year, but he carved up the minor leagues in his career, with a 2.80 ERA and 370/91 K/BB in 346 2/3 innings. Last season, he had a 1.11 ERA in the pinball-machine Pacific Coast League.

On the negative side? His fastball isn’t just 88, it’s 88 and straight as a string. It’s not some sort of Trevor Cahill-esque sinker, where the movement makes up for the velocity. Nor does Fiers employ a knuckleball or anything else particularly out of the ordinary. No, he’s just a righthanded pitcher throwing fastball-curve-cutter-change from an overhand arm slot, topping out at 90, yet putting up these numbers.

What on earth is going on here?

I was wondering if there was some other aspect of Fiers that set him apart to scouts, so I consulted the most recent Baseball America Prospect Handbook. Fiers came in as the Brewers’ twelfth-best prospect there, which is serious praise for a soft-tossing then-26-year-old, but then again, it’s not like he was up against a collection of studs in that organization. The paragraph on Fiers doesn’t really add much to what I’ve already established—soft-tosser with an overhand delivery and good command—but one phrase struck me as confirming the scouting community’s lack of faith in Fiers:

Fiers’ 2011 performance has the Brewers projecting him as a back-of-the-rotation starter.

As if that’s some huge accomplishment. Which, I suppose it is—only 150 men get to be MLB starting pitchers at any given time, yet tens of thousands try. Still, though, that phrase implies a strikingly non-intuitive train of thought, something like "This guy just totally dominated the highest level of the minors, in a tough pitching environment to boot. He just might be able to kinda-sorta hang on as one of the worst starting pitchers in the big leagues. Maybe."

So, all indications were he was a #5 type, but he’s pitching like a #1. I’ve now restated this in about six different ways. You get it, and you probably want me to stop saying it. You’re thinking of closing out of this article unless I add something to the discussion fast. So let’s do that.

Here’s a video that shows Fiers at his best, striking out ten Arizona Diamondbacks. You can see all of his pitches here—the cutter at 0:12 and 0:18, the fastball at 0:22 and 0:52, the changeup at 0:35 and 1:12, and the curveball at 0:44, 0:58, and 1:17.

So that’s what he looks like out there, if you’ve never seen him pitch. And let’s focus on that first—what he looks like.

None of the elements of Fiers’ delivery are particularly unique in themselves, but they do create a rather interesting motion when combined. First, here is the balance point in his delivery:

Balancepoint_medium

There isn’t a whole lot of exaggerated motion here, but Fiers does employ a rather significant hip turn. It’s not as exaggerated as that of Cory Burns or even Johnny Cueto, but you can see his torso and left leg turned maybe 30 degrees back toward second base. I’ve always been a proponent of hip turns in pitching mechanics (not that I’m any sort of guru in the area), as they are a convenient mechanism to hide the ball—this closes off Fiers’ body to the hitter longer than a more conventional delivery would. And with that advantage come no significant drawbacks—a hip turn should not add any injury risk or repeatability difficulties compared to a more straight-up-and-down motion. So, Fiers is off to a good start—he’s adding deception without sacrificing anything. Next, he propels himself toward the plate, soon reaching this position:

Legextension_medium

It’s quite evident here that Fiers collapses on his back side to one of the more pronounced extents in the majors, somewhat reminiscent of a young Rich Hill. As much as I love hip turns, I loathe backside collapses, as they "shorten" a pitcher and cost him downward angle to the plate. Fiers’ fastball sinks about 1.5 inches less than the average four-seam fastball, and his groundball rate is a paltry 32.9%, and this is a big reason why. We’ll get to how the collapse and flyball rate are linked a bit more directly in a bit.

While the collapse is a negative, there is a positive here, which is that Fiers stays deceptive through the backside of his motion. The ball is extended back below his thigh at an angle that makes it impossible for righthanders to see—perhaps it’s not coincidental that they’re hitting just .178/.228/.253 against Fiers, while lefties at least have a chance, at .289/.314/.386. And his glove is extended skyward out in front of him, giving him a bit of the cliché "He’s all arms and legs out there!"

The backside tilt, lowering of the pitching hand, and skyward pointing of the glove continue as Fiers continues pushing forward toward the plate:

Accel1_medium

There’s only one way to throw a ball from this position, really. Fiers’ shoulders have dramatic tilt, and he’s nearing his landing, so he has to rotate his shoulders very quickly to get to his release point. And that’s what he does:

Accel2_medium

What I love about this picture is that if you had a picture of an outfielder getting ready to uncork a throw to home plate and you Photoshopped him onto a mound, it would look basically exactly like this. Fiers is really springing off the ground with significant momentum generated as he corrects for the shoulder tilt caused by the backside collapse. He’s almost instantly in this position:

Prerelease_medium

Between the backside collapse and the long stride he takes toward the plate, Fiers appears much shorter than his listed 6’3" in this picture. The collapse takes away his downward plane and prevents his fastball from sinking, but given his mechanics, it serves as a vehicle for his deception, with the shoulder tilt hiding the ball until basically this point, which is obviously quite late in the delivery. Furthermore, the length of his stride somewhat makes up for the problem, as it gives him more momentum and time to rotate his shoulders back through release. It also increases his leverage to the plate.

Note that Fiers’ torso is tilted significantly—he’s leaning toward first base. This sets up his arm to release the ball at an almost exaggeratedly high angle:

Release_medium

Not quite Josh Collmenter, but certainly a true overhand arm slot. This also counterbalances the backside collapse, as Fiers releases the ball about six feet off the ground despite the collapse greatly reducing his height. Still, though, he’s releasing the ball "uphill" slightly, as his arm drags behind his body in his motion, with his shoulders clearing out and his body tilting significantly before release. Overall, then, his ability to create downward plane is below-average.

High arm slots tend to beget straight fastballs, as they impart extra backspin on four-seamers, preventing them from sinking. Since Fiers’ fastball gets an extra 1.5 inches of "rise" compared to a normal four-seamer due to that extra backspin, it makes sense that batters swing underneath it, hitting it in the air, a large portion of the time.

So let’s review. The positives of Fiers’ motion: He repeats it well and it hides the ball well. The negatives: His backside collapse and overhand arm slot cost him downward plane and fastball movement, making him prone to leaving pitches flat and up.

Another thing worth mentioning—and something that the stills don’t really capture but the video does—is that Fiers appears to have excellent arm speed on all his pitches. All four offerings generally look the same coming out of his hand. Here’s a look at his release chart:

Releasechart_medium

It looks like he raises his arm slot just a tad on curveballs, but otherwise he repeats his release point very well.

Between his good arm speed, relatively consistent release point, and deception, it’s very tough for hitters to recognize pitches out of Fiers’ hand. And that leads to our final screencap:

Kubelwayoutinfront_medium

That’s a 79 mph changeup, about 9 mph slower than Fiers’ typical fastball. That means it takes about 10% longer, or about .0435 more seconds, to get to the plate. But for Jason Kubel, that .0435 seconds is an eternity. Clearly, he bit hard on the deception in Fiers’ motion, never picking up the changeup.

Kubel is far from alone. Of the 92 changeups Fiers has tossed this season, seventeen (17.7%) have been swung on and missed. A cool 65 (70.8%) have gone for strikes overall.

That obviously makes it a plus pitch. Or, at least, it has a plus impact, regardless of the pitch’s qualities. It’s a solid offering, though. Compared to Fiers’ very straight four-seamer, the changeup has a good seven inches of sink and three inches of armside run, which makes it slide under bats for whiffs and weakly-hit grounders. Fiers uses it exclusively over the outer half of the plate to lefthanders:

Ch_lhb_medium

A lot of those pitches are outside the zone, and very few of these pitches are "meatballs," yet a full two-thirds of them were swung at. That speaks, again, to the inability of batters to pick up the offspeed offering out of Fiers’ hand thanks to his hip turn, shoulder tilt, and quick, over-the-top arm action.

So that’s one nifty pitch. Fiers’ other change-of-pace offering is his curveball, which he uses ever-so-slightly more than the changeup (105 curves, 92 changeups). If you watched the strikeout reel, you probably noticed that the pitch has exaggerated 12-to-6 break, and indeed, the ball has about a foot of vertical drop relative to a spinless ball. That’s about six inches more than the average curve, and a whopping 23-inch difference in vertical movement from the fastball to the curve. I’m not aware of a more significant difference in V-Mov between two pitches thrown by the same pitcher, excluding eephuses. Christian Friedrich and Travis Blackley come close, but I think Fiers tops them.

Regardless of whether he’s #1 or not, the point is, the curve comes in on a seriously different plane. As you might expect from such a big breaker, it’s pretty slow, as he works it in at 69-74 mph. As you might expect from a pitch with this much movement, Fiers doesn’t keep it in the zone very well, getting strikes only 56.2% of the time with the pitch. However, part of this is that umpires aren’t calling it correctly:

Umpfail_medium

I count at least ten green dots in the zone and only two red ones out of the zone. If the pitch was called a strike properly, its strike rate would be 63.8%, which is quite solid for a curve. But those are the breaks when you throw a pitch that moves this much, especially when umpires haven’t seen you before.

Fiers tends to throw the curve about equally to lefties and righties. As I said earlier, lefties have hit him harder this year, though the presence of the curve and changeup certainly give them plenty to worry about at the plate. Much of Fiers’ platoon split is BABIP-based (.377 for LHB, .246 for RHB), and there’s not a large enough sample to indicate his true-talent BABIP split is significant. His FIP is almost identical (2.08 vs. LHB, 2.04 vs. RHB), and his xFIP actually has a reverse split (2.73, 3.37). So he’s got the delivery that deceives righties and the offspeed pitches to deceive lefties. Perfect.

But, of course, the curve and change only constitute a bit over a quarter of Fiers’ pitches. And it’s certainly not unusual for a 79-83 mph changeup to succeed, nor a 69-74 mph curve—the velocity isn’t really the key aspect of either pitch, after all. An 86-90 mph fastball and an 83-87 mph cutter, however, come across as much more underwhelming.

The cutter accounts for 20% of Fiers’ pitches. It has a surprising amount of sink, moving about five inches down and five inches glove-side relative to his fastball. It’s more effective to lefthanders (66.7% strike, 9.5% swinging strike) than righties (60.6%, 5.1%), though he uses it more to righties (25%) than southpaws (13%). There’s a scary thought—the guy has something left to optimize here. Then again, what pitch should he bench to use to cutter more to lefties? The curve? The change? Should he totally eschew the fastball and go with the cutter as his fastball to lefties? All told, the cutter isn’t a huge bat-misser, but it’s another pitch he can throw for strikes and use to batters from both sides of the plate. If the changeup is plus and the curve borders on plus, the cutter is solid-average.

And that brings us to the pitch that started the discussion—Fiers’ straight, 86-90 mph, four-seam fastball. Sure, when Fiers goes offspeed, he can find as much success as the next guy. But the fastball is the go-to-pitch for the vast majority of MLB pitchers, and even Fiers turns to it slightly over half the time. It’s not like he can run from his lack of heat forever.

But imagine, for a moment, that you’re about to face Michael Fiers (Imagine you have the talent to hit an MLB pitcher, as well), and you just read this article to this point, or some other scouting report that makes similar points to those I’ve gone over. You know Fiers is going to be tough to pick up. You know that he’s got a changeup that can make you look clueless. You know that he’s got a curveball that’s going to move all over the place. You know he has a cutter he can spot well. You know that he’s not afraid to throw any of these pitches to any batter in any location in any count, save for the fact that he doesn’t work his changeup inside to lefties.

You have to go up there trying to fight against Fiers’ strengths. The last thing you’re worried about is taking advantage of his weakness—the straight 88 mph fastball. Anyone in the major leagues, even many pitchers, can hit one of those.

And that’s exactly why Michael Fiers is able to get away with throwing a straight 88 mph fastball. Well, it’s part of it, anyway.

For one, the guy puts the pitch in the strike zone. As Bartolo Colon’s season has showed us, sometimes just throwing strikes is enough to meet success, and Fiers has gotten strikes on 68.3% of his fastballs, a well-above-average clip. He doesn’t paint the corners expertly, but he does get strikes. Here’s his fastballs to righties:

Fb_rhb_medium

And lefties:

Fb_lhb_medium

So, lots of strikes, but not really a high quality strike-to-meatball ratio. Still, lots of strikes.

A second factor is that he does use the fastball relatively judiciously—48% of the time to lefties and 56% to righties. He starts 56% of at-bats off with the fastball. He only uses it 39% of the time in 1-1 counts, and has gone to it only nine of 24 times on full counts. Batters can’t afford to sit on it except in the odd instance that Fiers falls behind. And he rarely falls behind—he’s only gone 2-0 to 28 of 187 batters, 3-0 on only eight, and 3-1 on just 18. Those are the only counts a batter can really sit on the fastball, and hitters certainly can’t go up against Fiers expecting him to fall behind when he does so at such an infrequent rate.

So, you have the strike-throwing, the fairly light usage, the deception I keep emphasizing, and finally, what I alluded to above, which is that batters simply aren’t thinking about combating the pitch.

That’s a rather striking mental observation on my part, isn’t it? Who am I to assert what batters are collectively thinking against Michael Fiers? Well, I may be a nobody who has never played an organized baseball game in his life, but I’m somebody who is able to go over to Fiers’ Brooks Baseball page and take note of the "28.27%" number in the "Called Strikes" column.

How many of Fiers’ fastballs find the zone? Half? Maybe a bit more? He’s getting called strikes 28.27% of the time with it, which means around half of his fastballs in the zone are being taken. Contrast that to his changeup, which batters are swinging at two-thirds of the time overall.

That’s absurd!

We’ve already established that Fiers isn’t exactly living on the corners, so the only explanation is that Fiers just keeps surprising batters with the fastball. Let’s go a bit deeper and break this down by count:

0-0: 56% fastball usage, 46.2% of fastballs called strikes (104 fastballs)
1-0: 66% fastball usage, 38.8% of fastballs called strikes (49)
2-0: 75% fastball usage, 9.5% of fastballs called strikes (21)
3-0: 88% fastball usage, 85.7% of fastballs called strikes (7)
0-1: 39% fastball usage, 22.2% of fastballs called strikes (36)
1-1: 39% fastball usage, 35.7% of fastballs called strikes (28)
2-1: 57% fastball usage, 9.1% of fastballs called strikes (22)
3-1: 78% fastball usage, 21.4% of fastballs called strikes (14)
0-2: 65% fastball usage, 9.1% of fastballs called strikes (33)
1-2: 38% fastball usage, 0% of fastballs called strikes (28)
2-2: 52% fastball usage, 16.7% of fastballs called strikes (24)
3-2: 36% fastball usage, 11.1% of fastballs called strikes (9)

Some of these counts are small-sample, but the two numbers that jump out are the two at the top, which have the largest samples. Michael Fiers has started 104 plate appearances with fastballs this season. Only sixteen have been swung at. Of the rest, 38 were taken for balls and 48 for strikes.

Fiers doesn’t let batters get comfortable by always going fastball early—he goes offspeed 44% of the time to start batters out. He’s started 32 guys out with the big curve, and only one batter has even offered at it.

It seems that hitters just don’t go up against Fiers in attack mode, which is really costing them. If he gets ahead 0-1, there’s no telling what the batter will see the rest of the at-bat, as Fiers dials his fastball usage down dramatically, throwing it under 40% of the time on 0-1, 1-1, 1-2, and 3-2 counts. At that point, the at-bat becomes a four-pitch deception guessing game.

How should batters adjust to this? One thought is to go up aggressive, looking for the first-pitch fastball to drive. He’s not precise in his location in the zone with it, so the batter might as well jump on the pitch while he has a chance, rather than taking strike one and putting himself in a position where he may not see another fastball.

On the other hand, when batters take those first-pitch fastballs, they’ve gotten a ball 38 of 86 times, or 44.1% of the time. And if you get ahead 1-0 on Fiers, then you get into a count where you can sit on the fastball with a bit more confidence, as he gets up to 66% usage with it. And that’s not to mention the general benefits of a more patient approach, like getting to see what the pitcher has, getting him to throw more pitches, increasing the likelihood he’ll make a mistake, etc.

So there’s no cut-and-dried "Here’s how to adapt to Fiers" solution, which means there’s no obvious reason he won’t continue to pitch at a high level. It does seem that he has a vulnerability with the fastball, but his judicious use of the pitch, when combined with the prospect of looking foolish flailing at one of his potent offspeed offerings, seems to make batters struggle to pull the trigger on it when the time is right.

Is Michael Fiers an ace? Probably not. Plenty of pitchers have ripped through the league in their first dozen or so starts, and some of them are similarly underpowering. A.J. Griffin seems to be on his way to a Fiers-esque run over in Oakland, Ryan Vogelsong was magical last year, we all remember Zach Duke’s 2005, and those are just a few examples. History suggests that batters will adjust in some fashion as the scouting reports proliferate.

Even so, with his deception, command, movement, and pitch sequencing, Fiers has plenty in his bag of tricks, and his success is a good reminder that we shouldn’t put "absolute ceilings" on players. Just because a guy throws 87 mph doesn’t give him a zero percent chance of being better than a #5 starter. A low chance, to be sure, but there have been enough Madduxes and Glavines and Moyers and Buehrles and Harens and Weavers and Fierses that we should really know better by now, the same way Jose Bautista and Ben Zobrist taught us that we should never count any hitter out of suddenly becoming a star, or Jose Altuve taught us you don’t have to stand even five and a half feet tall to be an All-Star.

It’s always exciting and inspiring to see a player succeed despite lacking attributes that pique the interest of the scouting community, and it’s certainly a joy to see Fiers breaking through in this fashion. With the Brewers desperate for young talent to keep the franchise successful in the coming years, he figures to play a big role going forward even if he does regress to more of a mid-rotation level. It’s certainly time to admit that, at least to a large extent, Fiers is for real.

And given the indications he gave in his minor league career, perhaps we should’ve seen this coming.

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