Doug Fister is fresh off seven scoreless innings Monday night against the Braves. Quality starts are pretty much old hat to the Nationals by now, who’re successfully running away with the NL East, but it might be a little bit surprising that Stephen Strasburg hasn’t functioned as the rotation ace. Really, that statement just speaks to the silly amount of awesome depth the Nationals possess, but with his latest outing, Fister ranks eighth in baseball in ERA among starters with 100+ innings. He’s basically even with Jon Lester. He’s slightly ahead of Cole Hamels and Garrett Richards. When Fister has pitched, the Nationals haven’t surrendered many runs, and, isn’t that the whole point?
So, people loved the Fister trade from the Nationals’ end, and clearly it’s worked out very well for them to this point. But there’s another thing that’s a little bit surprising: 2014 Doug Fister hasn’t been 2013 Doug Fister. Usually, when people have thought about the Nationals and pitching to contact, it’s been with regard to Strasburg’s electric right arm. But, Stephen Strasburg’s strikeout rate is as healthy as ever. It’s Doug Fister who’s been pitching to contact, even despite a trade to the league where the pitchers have to hit.
This is pretty easy to observe, and it’s pretty easy, I think, to explain. Steve McCatty is the Nationals’ pitching coach, and his philosophy is to be aggressive within the zone and make the hitter put the bat on the ball. So let’s take a look at how Fister has changed between the last two seasons. There are 126 starting pitchers who have thrown at least 50 innings in both 2013 and 2014. Speaking about Fister:
- Contact rate: Fister has the fourth-greatest increase out of the group
- Zone rate: Fister has the fourth-greatest increase out of the group
- First-pitch strike rate: Fister has the third-greatest increase out of the group
- Fastball rate: Fister has the third-greatest increase out of the group
Fister’s throwing more strikes. He’s throwing more early strikes. He’s throwing more fastballs — specifically, he’s throwing more sinkers — and the result of all this is that hitters are making more frequent contact. That last bit isn’t a shock; that last bit, presumably, is by design. And the Nationals won’t complain as long as Fister’s running a sub-3 ERA. With his efficiency and his quick pace, right now Fister is the very model of the sort of pitcher McCatty wishes he could see every day.
Let’s take a look at two pitches from Monday. Here are swinging strikes against Doug Fister’s curveball, by Mike Minor and by a player who is not a pitcher:
Looks like Doug Fister, all right. To whatever extent Fister was known before, he was known to possess a quality, tight breaking ball. But here’s the thing: against the Braves, Fister threw just six of those, out of more than 100 pitches. Doug Fister’s extra sinkers have had to come from somewhere, and they’ve come at the expense of the curve. It’s practically been one-for-one.
We’ll use data from Brooks Baseball. In 2012, Fister threw 46% sinkers and 20% curves. Last year, he threw 45% sinkers and 20% curves. This year, he’s at 56% sinkers and 9% curves. With the Nationals, Fister’s curveball rate has dropped a little every month. He’s gone from throwing 21% first-pitch curves to 10% first-pitch curves. He’s gone from throwing 28% two-strike curves to 14% two-strike curves. In part because of all this, and in part because of other things, Fister has gone from throwing 62% of pitches below 2.5 feet to 51%. Fister isn’t working down as much, and he isn’t working in the dirt as much. Now he’s more about just mixing speeds and mixing edges. It isn’t common to see a successful pitcher so dramatically change his own profile.
And one is left to wonder about a few things. Like, what’s the root cause, here? Is it as simple as the difference in pitching philosophies between Washington and Detroit? Has Fister just lost the feel for his curveball, to some extent? It was a positive pitch for him with the Tigers; it’s done relative harm to him with the Nationals. Did he lose the feel early, or has he lost the feel as he’s increasingly navigated away from the pitch? You can also wonder, how much of this is Fister’s own idea? Perhaps, in front of the Tigers’ infield, Fister wanted to maximize his own strikeouts. Perhaps, in front of the Nationals’ infield, Fister is more okay with allowing balls to be put in play. Fister participates in team defensive meetings, and the situation in Washington is a little more defensively progressive. In Washington, contact would be a part of the game plan.
So because of all the questions, one has to wonder: what is Doug Fister’s true-talent strikeout rate? That is, how much of this is because of him, and how much of this is more organizational? What would Fister’s strikeout rate be if he were, say, still on the Tigers? The null hypothesis probably has to be that Fister would be about the same, and he hasn’t exactly been a strikeout machine in strikeout situations, but there’s enough there to make me curious. And then that leads to an interesting discussion about how much certain systems might affect player statistics. It would be interesting, basically, if Fister’s contact were way up in large part specifically because he pitches for the team for which he pitches.
The obligatory point of caution is this: Fister has baseball’s third-greatest negative difference between his ERA and his FIP. His ERA right now is a career best; his FIP right now is a career worst. This is Statistics 101, and this is why people aren’t big fans of pitching to contact in the first place. It’s hard to sustain an ERA-FIP gap, and most of the time those gaps tend to be fleeting. Fister’s career ERA is right on his career FIP, so he’ll have to prove that he’s an exception to the rules. But, perhaps, if Fister’s ERA does regress, the strikeouts will come out. Pitching to contact has worked to this point, as a philosophy. If it were to stop working, perhaps it would stop being the philosophy. I’m not sure how to regress numbers to a player profile we can’t easily nail down.
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.