On Thursday the Houston Astros clinched their spot in the 2016 World Series. OK, so maybe that's an exaggeration, but nevertheless they did agree to terms with noted-sinkerballer Doug Fister. While I do feel this signing is an absolute perfect fit for both sides, to say Fister's 2015 season was a letdown would not do it justice. ‘Implosion' might be more fitting, as he struggled during his second season with the Washington Nationals.
Maybe you forgot what happened, in which case I can provide you with a general refresher. Fister posted a 4.19 ERA across 103 IP, and his FIP wasn't any better. Digging deeper as to why Fister struggled, look no further than breakdowns from our very own Joe Vasile and Matt Goldman. Joe took a broad approach at searching for what happened to Fister's game as a whole, while Matt tried to answer the question of what happened to his two-seam fastball. One common theme that resonates after reading both articles is that Fister lost a noticeable amount of velocity over the last few seasons, making him more susceptible to a decline.
Joe really does a good job of discussing why this is bad, citing a Mike Fast article in saying:
"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."
Although some of that might be attributed to a forearm flexor tendon strain that caused Fister to miss a month last year, in general he was pretty bad. Yet, despite all that, this is a great signing for the Astros. Why? It provides the short-term depth they could use in their starting rotation. This type of deal is enticing to Fister for obvious reasons, as the righty now has the opportunity to regain some of the value he so quickly lost and re-enter a weak free agent market for starting pitchers next offseason. What about for the Astros?
Think of it this way; although Houston's rotation seemed set on the outside, it still had a couple question marks. How will Scott Feldman pitch coming off of a shoulder strain that ended his season around mid-September? How effective will Mike Fiers be in his first full season in Houston? What type of workload do the Astros have in mind for Lance McCullers?
Signing Fister doesn't answer all of these questions. Instead, what it does do is help ease some of the burden they could potentially bring. It's a pre-emptive protection plan against any type of havoc Murphy's Law can wreak to Houston's rotation. The Astros are fully aware that Fister is no longer in his prime, and they don't expect that type of output from him. The way this contract works for both sides is that the Astros get a player who is cheap and facing a crossroads in his career. At this point, Fister's only option is adapting to where his abilities lie as he ages. Pitching up in the zone might've worked when he sat closer to 90 mph, but ask Jered Weaver how easy it is to blow an 85 mph fastball by a hitter up there. Should Fister be unable to adjust to his aging repertoire, he might be a lot closer out the door and to retirement than he realizes.
Yes, there is a certain amount of risk associated with this signing. This type of deal is done typically by teams who aren't contending and have the ability to play the risk/reward game with short-term upside deals to players they can then flip for prospects at the trade deadline. Think earlier this offseason with Rich Hill and the Oakland Athletics. Both Hill and Fister cost about the same amount (before incentives Fister actually cost one million dollars more), but it makes more sense for the reigning last-place AL West team to make this move than the reigning AL West champion. Why is that? If Hill flops it doesn't hurt the A's near as much as it would hurt if Fister flopped for the looking-to-contend Astros.
Then again, from the Astros perspective, how much can it truly backfire if he is unable to adjust? Say Fister comes out and continues to struggle, there isn't any real tie to keeping him around. Should his first half just be horrendous, paying whatever is left out of the $7 million they signed him to and releasing him after he clears DFA limbo is something they can handle budget-wise. Not to mention that the more the season progresses the better the feel Jeff Luhnow and co. will have on the trade market for starting pitching. Which means that, should one of their starters succumb to injury, they could deal from the depth of their farm system for a replacement/rental as opposed to being attached to any long-term commitment that leaves them stuck with a struggling Fister.
On the other hand, should Fister thrive and find success in Houston, then that is something they would also welcome. Not only would it give them the flexibility to lighten McCullers workload, but there isn't a team in baseball that can't find a use for an effective starting pitcher. If Fister pitches great and the Astros have no use for him any longer, they could deal him at the trade deadline.
The last hypothetical I want to discuss goes like this. Say Fister struggles through his first 3 or 4 starts and A.J. Hinch opts to move him to the bullpen. Is this really that bad of an option? Check out his numbers out of the 'pen last season:
In many respects, the role that best suits Doug Fister is a reliever/swingman. This allows him to remain effective out of the bullpen, while also having the ability to start whenever he is needed. OK, I understand that 17 innings is too small of a sample size to draw conclusions from --even for a reliever. My point is that he did find some success--albeit mild short-lived and mild--as a reliever last season. Granted he is on record saying that he would like to start 32-33 games (who wouldn't! That's what gets you paid!), so I doubt he'll be down to permanently join Ken Giles in the bullpen where they ponder their experiences playing with Jonathan Papelbon. Splitting time seems like a happy middle-ground where all parties involved can maximize this deal.
Having stood pat through most of free agency thus far, the Astros signed the best available player who fills one of their immediate needs. Yovani Gallardo would've required a longer commitment, while Fister is likely a safer bet than Mat Latos. There were much better fits for them earlier in the offseason, however it doesn't appear that there was one at this stage of free agency. The Astros took an upside-gamble on Doug Fister with a deal that could max out at $12 million, and it seems like a great match. Will it look as good in reality as it does on paper? We'll just have to wait until baseball returns to find the answer.
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Shawn Brody is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score as well as a sophomore pitcher at Howard Payne University majoring in Business Management. If you would like to get a hold of him, please feel free to email him at Shawnbrody9@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @ShawnBrody.