Doug Fister Is All the Way Back From the Brink

Doug Fister has only made more and more sense. He was most surprising in the early days, the successful days, the days when Fister was a command-first No. 2. He was never considered much of a prospect, because prospect evaluators love them some velocity, but Fister made it work through his pinpoint location. He was, in a sense, in the same mold as Dallas Keuchel and Kyle Hendricks. And then, gradually, Fister got worse, as his repertoire eroded. He lost what speed he had, and he lost his results, having exceeded his own narrow margin of error. Fister joined the Astros in 2016 as a roll of the dice. He wasn’t very good, and then he was a free agent. He didn’t get a job until the desperate Angels signed him in May. He was dropped a month later. Fister became what he was going to become, having gotten to the end of the line.

Yet one last opportunity beckoned, one with the Red Sox. Dave Dombrowski had seen Fister’s best self, and he needed a pitcher. Over Fister’s first month, he allowed nearly a run per inning. A shift to the bullpen ended on July 31 anyway, and Fister has taken off. He’s thrown seven games, and he’s looked like…classic Doug Fister. I mean that. Seemingly out of nowhere, Doug Fister has turned back the clock.

Here is a table of stats. We should begin here. While, obviously, it’s silly to compare a recent stretch to a span of two full seasons, the point is only to draw a parallel. The recent Doug Fister has treated hitters like the old Doug Fister, who was the young Doug Fister. You know what I mean.

Doug Fister Self-Comparison
Split IP Pitches/GS K-BB% GB% ERA- FIP- xFIP- Pace (s)
2012 – 2013 370.1 101 14% 53% 87 82 84 20
Last 7 starts 48.1 103 16% 57% 61 70 80 17

The numbers are there, and they’re eerily similar. And it’s not like Fister has had the good fortune of a slate of easy opponents. He’s had his regular challenges, and still this is what he’s done. Armed only with this information, there’s reason to be encouraged. Fister, if nothing else, has turned into a helpful stopgap for a rotation still missing David Price. Yet this isn’t only a statistical thing. Fister’s arm strength has returned.

Improved Fastballs
Pitcher 2016 Fastball 2017 Fastball Change
Doug Fister 87.8 89.8 2.0
Tyler Chatwood 93.1 95.1 2.0
Yovani Gallardo 90.6 92.5 1.9
Chad Kuhl 94.0 95.9 1.9
Michael Wacha 93.7 95.5 1.8
Chase Anderson 92.0 93.6 1.6
Michael Pineda 92.6 94.1 1.5
Jacob deGrom 94.2 95.7 1.5
Dillon Gee 89.8 91.2 1.4
Aaron Nola 90.7 92.1 1.4
Starting pitchers, minimum 10 innings each season. Four-seamers and sinkers combined.

Out of every major-league starter with at least 10 innings in each of the last two years, no one has gained more average fastball velocity than Fister. This table presents a mixed bag of pitchers, for sure, but more velocity is generally good. And Fister was never a high-velocity pitcher, for sure, but more speed gives him more wiggle room. Every millisecond matters. And improved velocity is simply suggestive of better health and mechanics.

The plot of Fister’s career velocities looks pretty ordinary. That is, until you get to the end. It’s something you might expect from someone who shifted to relief, but that’s not what Fister has done. This is pretty much all Fister as a starter.

I’d like to share an excerpt from this recent article by Scott Lauber. Dombrowski is the guy who brought Fister to the Red Sox, but he had to lean on the word of scout Eddie Bane. Bane’s observations after watching Fister throw in Triple-A:

“Eddie Bane told us when he scouted him, he said, ‘Dave, he looks like maybe he’s not [throwing] quite as hard, but he’s very close,'” Dombrowski said. “It’s the ability to pitch and change speeds. He uses his breaking ball, gets ahead of hitters, commands the strike zone, and he’s not afraid of the competition. I don’t really see a lot of difference in his stuff.”

Emphasis on that last line: “I don’t really see a lot of difference in his stuff.” Fister, with the Tigers in 2012 – 2013, was about an eight-win pitcher. Combined, I mean. Fister was several years younger then, and his recent stuff seemed to be down, so no one would’ve expected Fister to bounce right back. And yet — and yet, this is where we are.

Doug Fister Velocities
Split Sinker Cutter Changeup Slider Curveball
2012 – 2013 90 86 82 85 75
Last 7 starts 90 85 83 85 74

Fister has more or less the same repertoire as he used to. The velocities essentially all line up, and so do the movements. The biggest difference is that Fister now is 33 years old, and he’s more than half of the way to 34. He has less career to go than before. But age, as they say, is just a number, and in terms of how Fister looks, he’s entirely turned back the clock. This isn’t typically something that pitchers do, but Fister is in the process of doing it. The data is all right there. Fister hasn’t had any surgery, but perhaps he’s just back to great health. I don’t know. What I know is he’s throwing pitches like this.

He’s hitting spots like this, at 91 miles per hour.

Now, when Fister was first up with the Red Sox, the stuff was there, and he was bad. That’s not something to simply brush off. Yet it seems like all Fister needed was a mechanical tweak. Here’s Fister in an early appearance.

Here’s Fister in a recent appearance.

And, for comparison, here’s Fister from 2013.

Fister is an unusual one. In the first picture of the three, you see Fister in what seems like fairly good alignment. He’s stepping toward home plate. Scroll down and you see Fister stepping off more to the side, such that he ends up throwing across his body. Most of the time, this is something you’d want to discourage in a pitcher. Many pitchers benefit from efficient alignments. Fister, though, might just be more comfortable going off-center. Think Jake Arrieta. Every pitcher is different, and general rules don’t apply to any entire population. Fister’s altered stride could be better for his command and/or deception. It’s hard to argue with the results.

To boil it all down, Doug Fister has entered his mid-30s, but he’s throwing like he did in his late-20s. His delivery looks the same, and his pitches look the same, so it follows that the recent results look the same, too. We’re to the point now where Fister could even end up starting some games in the playoffs. That’s not only up to him, but he’s certainly making his case. Doug Fister, over the past several weeks, has out-pitched major deadline additions like Sonny Gray and Jose Quintana. The larger point isn’t anything other than, well, pitching is weird. No one’s ever going to have a full understanding. We thought we had a full understanding of the decline of Doug Fister. Turns out he wasn’t quite finished.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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6 years ago

Should Fister continue this stretch through the end of the season, do you start him in the divisional round (assuming they hold onto their current division lead)? As laughable as this may have seen even weeks ago, I think it’s become a serious consideration, especially if they roll with a standard 4 man playoff rotation. Would you trust Rick “HR” Porcello or E-Rod more?

6 years ago
Reply to  ARodTheGOAT

Hell, ignoring a still small sample size, given Price’s playoff track record, they might be inclined to pitch Fister in Game 3 behind Sale and Pomeranz

6 years ago
Reply to  ARodTheGOAT

Don’t count on Price being back by the playoffs. John Farrell has even admitted that he might not be 100% ready in time and could return as a reliever.

Another factor that might lead to Rodriguez ending up in the bullpen for the playoffs is that the Sox have only 1 lefty reliever (Fernando Abad) and he isn’t particularly good.

But, yeah, Doug Fister. I don’t understand it.

6 years ago
Reply to  Yirmiyahu

Robby Scott has been around all year also but he is easy to forget.

6 years ago
Reply to  ARodTheGOAT

Judging from the way they spead they’ve already concluded Fister is #3, barring a regression. They don’t trust E-Rod and E-Rod doesn’t trust his knee. In Fister’s last start, and I’ve seen them all, he picked off spots with all his pitches like prime Maddox. He reminded me of the Fister who threw a game for Detroit in Arlington when Beltre fouled a two-seamer down and in off his front ankle. Fister threw it again and again with two strikes and Beltre fouled several more, at least two more off that ankle. Fister was having more fun beating up Beltre at that point than striking him out. I wonder how many pitchers would benefit from throwing a short season.