C’mon, Do Something: A’s Sign Mike Fiers to One-Year Deal

It feels like a long time ago that the Oakland A’s won the AL West. Partially, that’s because everything feels like it lasted forever in 2020 — the last year has been the longest decade of our lives. Partially too, though, it’s because the team has spent the vast majority of the offseason doing nothing.

Marcus Semien, Liam Hendriks, Joakim Soria, Yusmeiro Petit, Mike Minor, and Tommy La Stella all left in free agency. On Saturday, the A’s made their first major transaction of the offseason, trading Khris Davis and Jonah Heim for Elvis Andrus. Later that day, they issued their first (!) major league contract of the offseason, signing Mike Fiers to a one-year, $3.5 million deal, as Ken Rosenthal and Alex Coffey first reported.

Fiers was an important but unsung part of a run-prevention monster in 2020. He made 11 starts for the A’s, who reached the playoffs on the back of a simple strategy: prevent some runs with starting pitching, hold some leads with a phenomenal bullpen, and sprinkle excellent defense around it to make it all play up. Fiers wasn’t an ace, and he didn’t need to be.

That appears to be Oakland’s plan again this year. Their projected rotation is close to unchanged (Minor started a handful of games, but the other five top starters are all back):

Oakland A’s, 2021 Rotation
Pitcher 2021 Proj GS 2021 Proj ERA 2020 FIP
Chris Bassitt 28 4.38 3.59
Jesús Luzardo 26 3.82 4.31
Frankie Montas 24 4.13 4.74
Sean Manaea 28 4.22 3.71
Mike Fiers 26 5.16 4.94

Fiers will be the worst everyday starter, like he was last year, but he’ll take the ball every five days, and the A’s would have struggled on that front otherwise. Daulton Jefferies, A.J. Puk, and Grant Holmes are the next three starters up, and all have had serious injury issues in the past few years; the team will likely want to limit all of their innings this year.

It’s convention in an article like this to talk about the pitcher’s arsenal, and so I will, but I have to tell you, Fiers doesn’t really jump off the page. His best pitch, and the one he throws most frequently, is an upper-80s four-seam fastball. If that sounds weird, well, that’s because it is weird! The pitch doesn’t miss many bats, but it does induce a ton of fly balls; 46.4% of the time that opponents put a Fiers four-seamer into play, they hit a fly ball or pop up, the ninth-highest rate in the game.

In 2020, Fiers leaned heavily on a cutter to complement the four-seamer. It’s a slower, bendier pitch, naturally enough, but it’s stylistically similar; it induces fly balls but doesn’t miss many bats. Throwing those two pitches a combined 50.8% of the time explains Fiers’ rock-bottom 6.1% swinging strike rate and 0.81 GB/FB ratio — he was one of the 10 fly-happiest pitchers in baseball last year.

Pitching in this way limits Fiers’ upside considerably. His 14.4% strikeout rate was the lowest of his career, and no one who strikes out batters so infrequently can truly excel; combine his strikeout, walk, and HBP rates with a league average home run rate, and he’d have had a 4.89 FIP last year, well below average. It gets worse — Fiers allows more balls in play than most any other pitcher, and more fly balls out of those balls in play than most any other pitcher, which means that over time he allows more than his share of homers.

In 2020, only 10.6% of the fly balls that opponents hit left the stadium. That wasn’t purely luck — 21.2% of the fly balls he gave up didn’t leave the infield, and Oakland’s park is one of the least homer-friendly in baseball — but the overall package hardly inspires confidence. Fiers had to suppress homers at a near-career-best rate just to get to his 4.58 ERA and 4.94 FIP. That explains the 5.73 xFIP, the fifth-worst mark among starters who threw at least 50 innings in 2020.

If it sounds like I’m unimpressed by Fiers’ pitching, you’re half right. I’m unimpressed by his results — he was below average in 2020, and he projects to be again this year. At 35, he’s unlikely to suddenly take a step forward, and he lost more than a tick on his fastball last year, another worrisome trend. If you’re counting on Mike Fiers at the front of the rotation, something has gone wrong.

On the other hand, I’m impressed that a pitcher who throws in the 80s and doesn’t miss any bats remains playable in this day and age. Look at it this way: it’s easy to be a good pitcher when you strike everyone out. Succeeding without that is significantly harder. Here are the bottom ten pitchers in swinging strike rate in 2020 (minimum 50 IP):

Low-Whiff Pitchers, 2020
Pitcher SwStr% ERA FIP xwOBACON Barrel% Zone%
Erick Fedde 5.8% 4.29 6.15 .354 8.3% 37.5%
Mike Fiers 6.1% 4.58 4.94 .342 7.5% 44.9%
Rick Porcello 6.4% 5.64 3.33 .401 8.4% 43.6%
Jordan Lyles 6.7% 7.02 5.95 .358 7.8% 43.3%
Jon Lester 7.2% 5.16 5.14 .386 12.3% 38.4%
Alec Mills 7.6% 4.48 5.44 .370 9.2% 39.0%
Taijuan Walker 7.8% 2.7 4.56 .377 7.2% 43.9%
Justus Sheffield 8.0% 3.58 3.17 .338 3.7% 43.4%
Antonio Senzatela 8.1% 3.44 4.57 .337 5.4% 42.0%
Johnny Cueto 8.3% 5.4 4.64 .363 5.7% 38.4%

What’s with the arbitrary wall of stats? They show off what Fiers does to set himself apart: he keeps the ball in the strike zone (highest zone rate of the bunch) while limiting hard contact (third-lowest xwOBACON, middling barrel rate). All pitchers who make it to 50 innings pitched without missing bats are doing something right, whether by luck or skill, and Fiers’ plan boils down to that one thing: throw the ball in the zone and survive.

And for $3.5 million, Oakland isn’t hoping for much more than survival out of Fiers this year. That kind of acquisition is the kind that winning teams make; they shore up the back of the rotation as insurance against true worst-case outcomes. Losing wins because of a leak at the back of the rotation is easy to do if you don’t focus on preventing it.

On the other hand, winning teams tend to make more than just that type of acquisition. The Nationals signed Jon Lester, a Fiers-tier pitcher — and they also added Josh Bell, Brad Hand, and Kyle Schwarber. The Angels traded for Alex Cobb — and also added José Quintana, Raisel Iglesias, and José Iglesias. The A’s might have added Andrus, but they’ve net subtracted quite a bit this postseason, and Fiers hardly stems the tide.

That’s not to say that this is a bad signing. I think Fiers is likely to be worth his contract, and playoff teams really do need to get below-average but above-replacement innings from the back end of their rotation. In a vacuum, Fiers and the A’s are a good match, particularly given their homer-suppressing stadium and his contact-happy style.

It feels a little light, though, as the first free agent signing of the offseason. Per our Depth Charts projections, the A’s have fallen to third in the AL West in projected WAR, seven wins behind the Astros and nearly four behind the Angels. Signing Fiers is a bow on top of a season, not a move you make on February 6 after half of your bullpen has left in free agency.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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3 years ago

Mike Fiers: The pitcher all the stats try to hate. And somehow 26-9 (old win stat alert!) and backed into two no-hitters. Fiers was good for 3.0 WAR in 2019 and 0.6 WAR in 11 games in 2020. Not the worst.