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Special Trade Retrospective: Nationals acquire Doug Fister from the Tigers in exchange for Robbie Ray

It did not turn out like either side had hoped, but it worked out for Robbie Ray in the end.

Divisional Round - Arizona Diamondbacks v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Two Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

This year’s slate of playoff teams involve two pitchers who were once traded for each other: Doug Fister and Robbie Ray. They will not be facing each other unless the Red Sox and the Diamondbacks make big comebacks and reach the World Series. Still, it is interesting to see two pitchers involved in the same trade competing in the same postseason, especially since they have gone in opposite directions. Coincidentally, the executive who traded Fister away four years ago is the same one who signed him mid-season: Dave Dombrowski.

The trade

In December 2013, the Tigers traded away Doug Fister to the Nationals in exchange for Steve Lombardozzi, Ian Krol, and Robbie Ray. At the time, Ray was a prospect who had yet to make his major league debut.

Fister never had big velocity, and in fact had a fringe-average fastball, so he never struck out many batters. He succeeded by relying on his two-seamer and excellent command to generate groundballs. He had a 3.74 RA9 and 9.9 bWAR during his time in Detroit, thanks to his 52.5 percent groundball rate and 4.7 percent walk rate. He was also good at keeping the ball in the park, giving up home runs against only 1.8 percent of batters faced (league average tends to be ~2.6 percent). Moreover, since Dombrowski has continually proven himself to be a wizard at trades, Fister was originally acquired from the Mariners for peanuts.

Lombardozzi had been in the league a little over two years at the time he was traded. His career line of .264/.297/.342 made him a sub-replacement level player. The best thing you could say about him is that he could play second base. However, his future as even a utility player was up in the air because it was questionable whether or not he could play shortstop.

Krol came up through the minors as a starter for the Athletics, but they decided to convert him to relief after he struggled in High A in 2012. He debuted with the Nationals in 2013. He did okay that season with a 3.95 RA9 in 32 appearances, but his 18.8 percent strikeout rate and home run rate were big red flags.

Robbie Ray was the best player in the deal, but that was not saying much at the time. The lefty was seen as somebody who could be a back-end starter but would need a lot of work to get there. As a result, he had trouble cracking top-100 prospect lists.

This was seen as a lopsided trade by many, and a huge win for the Nationals. Simply put, it appeared that the Tigers got a poor return for one of the better starting pitchers in baseball who still had two years left on his rookie deal. The fact that the Tigers were still competitive at the time made this trade of present for future value look even worse.

The results

Krol, not surprisingly, was disastrous in Detroit. He had a 6.23 RA9 in two seasons there. Lombardozzi ended up getting traded to the Orioles for Alex González in March 2014 before ever playing a game for the Tigers. He showed no improvement and has barely played in the majors since.

Ray could not have been worse when he debuted with the Tigers in 2014. He made six starts and three relief appearances, and he had a 8.16 RA9 and struck out only 14 percent of hitters faced. Almost a year to the day after they acquired him, the Tigers sent him to the Diamondbacks in a three-way trade that sent Didi Gregorius to the Yankees. The Tigers got Shane Greene in the trade.

In Arizona in 2015, Ray was a serviceable back-end starter with a 3.95 RA9 and a 21.8 K%. That was a huge improvement over his disastrous 2014. Unfortunately, he appeared to struggle mightily in 2016, regressing to a 5.42 RA9. However, the early signs of his breakout 2017 season were there. His strikeout rate jumped up to 28 percent, and he suffered some bad luck with a .352 BABIP and a low strand rate. He had especially bad luck in high leverage situations, with opposing batters hitting .309/.386/.512 with a .421 BABIP. His 4.33 DRA was over a run better than his run average. All signs pointed towards positive regression in 2017, though I doubt anybody could have guessed by how much.

Ray had an outstanding 2017 season. He had a 3.17 RA9 and struck out almost a third of hitters faced! His 5.0 bWAR ranked 11th among all pitchers. Now this does not necessarily mean that the Tigers screwed up. It took Ray a few years to get here, and there is no telling if he would have reached theses heights in Detroit. In other words, one cannot assume that a player would have developed equally in another organization. But he would have made a fantastic trade chit (or young player to build around) for a rebuilding Tigers team.

Arizona Diamondbacks v Washington Nationals
Doug Fister with the Nationals in August of 2015.
Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Fister missed the first month of the 2014 season due to a lat strain, but his 2.85 RA9 over the rest of the year was the lowest of his career. However, there were concerns about his performance. His strikeout rate dropped below 15 percent, and his average velocity dropped by 1 MPH. He also had a .262 BABIP and a high strand rate, two signs of good luck instead of skill. His 4.41 DRA showed that he was very fortunate to allow as few runs as he did.

Fister’s velocity dropped another 2 MPH in 2015, and this time his run average reflected his diminishing skills. He had a 5.02 RA9 before getting demoted to the bullpen. I remember seeing him in person in May at Citi Field and thinking about how bad he looked, despite the fact that he had a good outing that day.

The Nationals understandably had no interest in re-signing Fister when he hit free agency, so he ended up signing with the Astros for just one year and $7 million. He made 32 replacement-level starts.

Then, in late June of this year, the Red Sox signed Fister. It was basically a desperation move. They were dealing with injuries in the starting rotation, so Dombrowski decided to reunite with the durable Fister. Through what I assume were some mechanical changes, Fister added over 2 MPH to his sinker, and it averaged over 90 MPH for the first time since 2011, per Brooks Baseball. That led to Fister’s strikeout rate skyrocketing to 21 percent, but it did not translate into runs allowed. He had a 5.48 RA9 over 90 13 IP, which added up to replacement level play. In his one playoff outing so far, Fister allowed three runs and a home run in just 1 13 IP.

We will never know what was going through Dombrowski’s head when he made this trade, but given his track record with trades, I would not be surprised if he saw Fister’s decline coming. That is the best explanation on why he sold low on him. They certainly could have used his help in 2014, though. All of this led to Robbie Ray’s remarkable 2017 season, because he would not have ended up in Arizona otherwise. The trade certainly worked out best for him and the Diamondbacks.

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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.