Three walks don’t seem like a big deal. Even if Doug Fister only gave up three walks once all year, you could look at the box score for Game Three of the National League Division Series and think, sure he had a Fisterian game. Nine ground balls to six fly balls, not many walks, a few strikeouts, and you look up and the Nationals have won behind him.
Except it didn’t really play out like that. Fister walked two of those three batters in the first inning. He went to eight pitches to get Joe Panik out. He went to five-plus pitches six more times before he got six outs. This was a man who averaged 3.7 pitches per batter faced during the regular season, averaging 4.8 pitches per batter in the first two innings. A man who once told us that he wants bad contact “in the first three pitches.”
After the game, Fister admitted that there was something going on early.
His manager wouldn’t speak for him, as Matt Williams said after the game that he didn’t think his pitcher was missing — “if he was missing, it was just by a little bit.” But a little bit can make a big difference, even if his pitcher still managed to get strikes on 65% of his pitches, it was clear he wasn’t completely himself early on.
The pitcher himself immediately cleared up the problem. “I had to make some definite adjustments after the first couple innings, I was a little, guess you could say, strong, as far as trying to overthrow it,” Fister said after the game. He added that he had some trouble “Getting away from my plan a little bit and getting the ball up in the zone.”
It’s funny that a postseason veteran like Fister might have trouble like this, and also that it might be the result of overthrowing the ball. He averaged 91.6 mph for his fastballs over the game, and he spent the season average 87.9 mph for his fastballs. Opposing starter Madison Bumgarner cleared 95 three times in his first twenty pitches after throwing 95+ twice all season. It happens to everyone when the lights are brighter, it seems.
In any case, Fister gives us a time frame, saying that he corrected the problem after the first couple innings. He threw 43 pitches in the first two innings. Look at his velocity after the 43rd pitch, courtesy Brooks Baseball:
Oh, right. He averaged 89.5 on fastballs in that first group. He averaged 88.8 on fastballs after the second inning was done. Doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it was closer to his comfort zone. Closer to the 88 he averaged during the season.
The slower speed also allowed Fister to throw lower in the zone. His average fastball crossed the play 2.77 feet above the ground in the first two innings. In the next three innings, it averaged 2.63 feet. Again, seems like a small difference, but in inches, you’re talking almost two inches. Maybe that’s why his manager thought he was fine. But the pitcher knew.
Some parts of his game plan did not change. When I asked Fister if he only threw six curveball because of this mechanical issue, he denied that was the reason. “Early on I didn’t throw too many,” he agreed. But that was just the idea. You have to “try to go through the lineup, and try to minimize” your pitches, Fister said. “I want to hide my cards, I don’t want to show them everything early.”
That part of the plan worked fine. Fister managed eight swinging strikes on 99 pitches, or a little better than his 6.1% swinging strike rate on the year. He got three swinging strikes early — two on fastballs, one on his cutter. And then, late in the game, his curve and change gave him four more swinging strikes, one to get Buster Posey swinging in the sixth.
But all of that wouldn’t have mattered if Fister hadn’t settled his nerves, taken a little bit off the fastball, and found that spot in the zone that he liked — just about two inches lower than where he was sitting early on in the Nationals’ Game Three victory.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.