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What happened to Doug Fister?

Doug Fister went from a good top-of-the-rotation starter to relegated to the absolute back of the Washington Nationals bullpen in only two years. What's the cause behind the sudden and extreme dropoff?

Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

One week ago tonight, Washington Nationals pitcher Doug Fister entered to pitch the bottom of the 11th inning, with his sputtering team holding an 8-7 lead over the hapless Philadelphia Phillies. With the New York Mets then 9.5 games ahead in the National League East standings and the Mets in the midst of yet another late-inning comeback, it was imperative for Fister to do something he’d never done before – earn a save. In what has become a rare break as of late, Fister got the job done and the Nationals won, with Fister earning his first career save.

But that highlight for Fister is the whipped cream and cherry on top of a sundae of a season he would like to forget. In 2015, Fister has gone from being one of the best number-two starters in the game to an afterthought in the beleaguered bullpen of the Nationals. In the four seasons encompassing breakout 2011 season through his first in the nation’s capital in 2014, Fister was worth 16.5 RA9/WAR; now, he's sub-replacement level.

Drafted in the seventh round of the 2006 draft out of Fresno State by the Seattle Mariners, Fister was never a highly thought-of prospect. Neither John Sickels nor Baseball America saw enough from the lanky right-hander to rank him among the Mariners’ top prospects in 2007, 2008 or 2009 (warning to Mariners fans, view lists at your own risk). He had control and could produce groundballs, but with a high-80s fastball and poor strikeout rates, his ceiling looked to be somewhere in the back end of a rotation.

In Fister’s first two years in the big leagues in 2009 and 2010, he looked the part – pitching to the tune of a 4.03 FIP in 232 innings with the Mariners, with a 2.74 K:BB ratio. Things took a turn for him in the 2011 season, as he posted a 3.02 FIP between the Mariners and the Detroit Tigers. He was especially effective for the Tigers during their playoff run that year, striking out 57 and walking just five over 70.1 innings and 11 appearances.

His next two years in the Motor City were good as well, as Fister pitched to a 82 FIP- in both 2012 and 2013. His ERA- those two seasons were 83 and 91, which is made even better considering Miguel Cabrera was the everyday starting third baseman in what was one of the worst defensive infields in recent history. But then Fister, about to head into his age-30 season, was traded for a second time in his career. This time it was to the Washington Nationals for the underwhelming package of Ian Krol, Steve Lombardozzi and Robbie Ray.

By the traditional metrics, Fister dominated in his first year with the Nationals, winning 16 games and finishing the season with a 2.41 ERA.The advanced metrics tell a different story of Fister’s 2014, one where he should have considered himself the beneficiary of good fortune.

Fister’s FIP- ballooned from 82 to 108, despite a 66 ERA-. His strikeout percentage slid from 18.1% to 14.8%, and while he did cut down on walks, his K-BB% dropped from 13.1% to 11.2%. Even worse news for Fister was that his groundball rate dropped nearly six percentage points from 54.3% to 48.9%. Those groundballs were turning into flyballs, which were leaving the park for home runs at a higher rate than was Fister’s career norm. Fister also benefitted from hitters posting only a .262 BABIP against him. As of this writing, Fister’s career BABIP against is .294.

But despite the warning signs that began to emerge for Fister, who then found himself on the wrong side of 30, the Nationals were lauded as having one of the top rotations in baseball entering the 2015 season. Between Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Fister, and the newly-acquired Max Scherzer the Nats were supposed to run wild through the National League East. That, of course, has not happened.

Fister has gone out in 2015 and picked up right where he left off in 2014 in terms of his peripheral numbers regressing. His strikeout, groundball and home run rates all continue to trend in a negative direction, his walk rate has regressed back toward his career norm, and opponents have a .312 BABIP against this year. His FIP- is 121, the worst of his career. Matt Williams – in what might be his best idea of the year – booted Fister from the starting rotation and relegated him to the bullpen.

The reason for Fister’s decline is not difficult to see – he has lost significant chunks of velocity over the past two years. While he was never a guy who was going to blow the fastball by hitters, he was still able to average around 90 mph on his sinker. In 2014, he only averaged 88.6 mph with the offering. Fister has lost two more miles per hour on the pitch this year. He has seen a three-mile per hour drop in velocity across his entire repertoire since 2013, according to the Brooks Baseball data displayed below.

According to research done a few years ago by Mike Fast at The Hardball Times, we know that this three-mile per hour drop alone is responsible for approximately a 0.84 RA gain. Fister’s RA/9 has gone from 3.92 in 2013 to 5.04 in 2015. The rest of the equation can be explained through a myriad of factors ranging from luck to the quality of the defense being played behind him, etc.

Since the move to the bullpen in August, Fister has seen his four-seam and sinker velocities tick up slightly, but hasn’t seen those gains with all his pitches, as illustrated below courtesy of Brooks Baseball.

This is bad news for Fister, who is a free agent at the end of this season and is seeing his chances of landing a big free agent deal wither away, barring a huge turnaround over the season’s final two weeks and an improbable playoff run by the Nats. Healthy pitchers who lose velocity don’t simply gain it back. Mike Mussina did a great job later in his career with the Yankees of finding ways to be successful with lower velocity. CC Sabathia, on the other hand, has not. Fister absolutely needs to find a way to do what Mussina did if he wants to resurrect his career, which is at a crossroads.

Joe Vasile is the Assistant General Manager and radio broadcaster for the Fayetteville SwampDogs of the Coastal Plain League. He also broadcasts UNC-Pembroke football and basketball. Joe enjoys long walks on the beach, pina coladas and getting caught in the rain. Follow him on Twitter @JoeVasilePBP.