The playoffs are barely behind us, but already a lot has been written about this year’s free agent class. The consensus: it’s bad. There just aren’t many players that teams would actually want to pay large sums of money in exchange for their baseball skills. While the lack of players whose contracts are expiring means there also aren’t that many teams looking for replacements, the clubs that do have holes to fill are faced with a dearth of good options.
As a result, players that might go unheralded most years are getting a bit more attention this offseason, and one of those players is Doug Fister. The 32-year-old righty has undergone a turbulent few years. After coming up with the Mariners and being traded to the Tigers, he acquired a reputation among the sabermetrically inclined as an underrated pitcher, whose subpar strikeout numbers were more than made up for by his ability to control the strike zone and limit his walks.
Then, between the 2013 and 2014 offseasons, Fister was traded to the Nationals, bringing back two 22-year-old lefthanded pitchers (Robbie Ray and Ian Krol) and a 25-year-old utility infielder (Steve Lombardozzi). At the time, Ray was seen as the headliner (though not a very promising one) and Krol and Lombardozzi as filler, so it was a shocking trade. Dave Cameron at FanGraphs summed up the consensus with an article titled “Nationals Steal Doug Fister From Tigers.” Fister was a great pitcher with two years of team control left at relatively cheap arbitration prices, and it was a perplexing move at the time.
In hindsight, however, it looks like the Tigers might have known something we didn’t. Fister had a fine first year with the Nationals, though he missed some time to injury, and behind his glittering ERA of 2.41 lay a mediocre FIP of 3.93, and a similar DRA of 3.59. Then, in 2015, the wheels came off. He strikeout rate stayed low, his walk rate jumped, and the Nationals actually moved him to the bullpen to close out the season. He finished the year with a 4.19 ERA, a 4.55 FIP, and a 5.88 DRA. The former quasi-ace ended up signing a one-year, $7 million contract with the Astros.
2016 proved little better. His walk rate ballooned to a career high by a huge margin, and while he managed to put in a full season of work for the first time in a few years, it wasn’t exactly inspiring work. With a 4.64 ERA, a 4.75 FIP, and a 5.34 DRA, it was no surprise that the Astros declined to offer him a qualifying offer, letting him hit the free market as an unrestricted, but unappealing, free agent. Last year was supposed to be the bounce back; now Fister is left to hope someone anticipates a bounce back from the bounce back.
Jeff Sullivan identified one of the big issues Fister had undergone prior to last year: his two-seamer velocity had begun to evaporate, down to 87 in 2015 from a peak of 91 in 2011. If that trend had continued in 2016, this would be a short article, but via Brooks Baseball, we find our first reason for optimism:
His velocity last year was closer to his career norms, if not at the levels it was during his best stretches. If you think much of Fister’s 2015 struggles had to do with the nagging forearm injury he sustained early in that season, this is an appealing sign; maybe he just needs to be fully healthy to be effective. On the other hand, this indicates that he was a lot closer to healthy last year, and he still put up terrible numbers. If anything, this might remove the simplest reason for a team to take a gamble on him.
Additionally, for a 32-year-old pitcher, the question is not whether the velocity will go away, but when, and what he’ll do when it happens. Fister’s not likely to see that graph turn upward again in the near future, so any salvation will have to come from elsewhere.
Here’s another chart, of Fister’s walk and strikeout rates by season:
Here we see the clearest indication of Fister’s issues. While he’s never been a high-strikeout pitcher, his peak came when he was able to push it up to the high-teens or even low-twenties, and losing those gains sent him down one tier. In 2016, he encountered a totally different issue, as his walk rate spiked from a career figure of 4.7% to a whopping (by his standards) 8.0%. There were successful pitchers in 2016 with walk rates at or above that level – Jake Arrieta, Drew Pomeranz, Marco Estrada, and Tanner Roark, to name a few – but they all struck out at least 20% of batters, as well. If Fister can’t move either of those trends in the right direction, he’s unlikely to recover from his recent struggles. I’m going to focus on his walk rate, since a) it was more recently and consistently at a workable level, and b) it seems easier to correct than his strikeout rate, given his velocity and general profile.
Control is a difficult thing to measure, but in 2016 Fister threw only 41.2% of his pitches in the strike zone, 7th-lowest among qualified pitchers and way down from his pre-2016 career average of 46.4%. It’s not clear this means Fister couldn’t throw strikes, however; it’s also possible his strikes were more of a liability than they had been in the past. The rate at which batters made contact on Fister’s pitches inside the zone rose from a career rate of 90.3% to 93.3% in 2016, and their slugging percentage on those pitches was .605, up from a pre-2016 slugging of .536. Fister used to be able to pound the zone constantly because he wouldn’t get punished for it, and instead would generate ground balls and weak contact.
While the righty isn’t quite a one-pitch pitcher, he threw his two-seamer 60% of the time in 2016, and it was his most-used pitch by a huge margin, so if Fister is having trouble generating weak contact for a reason, it’s natural to expect it to have something to do with this pitch. But it’s horizontal and vertical movement haven’t changed much over the course of his career, and as we saw earlier, the velocity ticked up last year. For that reason, I’m inclined to think this might have more to do with Fister’s control than his reluctance to groove a pitch. Here’s a zone plot of Fister’s two-seamer to right-handed batters, with 2014 on the left (his last full season prior to 2016) and 2016 on the right:
I insert this less to show a given tendency on the part of Fister, but just how much more spread out the hot zones are. It’s possible this is a strategy choice, and that Fister suddenly decided in 2016 that he wanted to start throwing his two-seamer on the outside half of the plate to righties, but it seems far more likely that this is an indication of eroding control over where that pitch ends up.
Ultimately, there’s only so much diagnosing we can do without knowing more. Maybe there’s a team that’s interested in him, and they’ve identified some small, easily fixable bad habit he’s fallen into and that’s driving his apparent control issues. From this perspective, however, it looks like Fister is just not as sharp with his location as he used to be. If that’s the case, it severely limits his potential for a recovery, and likely means he won’t be getting a big payday this offseason.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the Tigers received Robbie Ross in the Fister trade. These lefties all look alike to me.
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Henry Druschel is the Managing Editor of Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.