For most of his career, Doug Fister has been baseball’s version of Rodney Dangerfield. Coming up through the minor leagues, Fister was simply one of a legion of strike-throwing no-stuff guys, and his lack of velocity or anything resembling an out pitch made him more of an afterthought than a prospect. He made it to the majors in the second half of the 2009 season, but his combination of 88 MPH fastballs and a home run problem did nothing to tear down the image of a guy who just threw too many hittable strikes.
But if you look beyond the high-ish HR/FB rate he posted in his rookie year, Fister was actually pretty decent in his first go-around in the Major Leagues. Despite topping out at 90 with his fastball, he got enough leverage on the pitch to generate a decent amount of ground balls. He also threw a well-above average changeup that helped him keep left-handed hitters at bay and generate some swinging strikes, giving him a solid 2.4 K/BB ratio despite pedestrian stuff. It all added up to a 4.43 xFIP, a league average mark for a 2009 AL pitcher.
He pitched well enough to earn a rotation spot in 2010, where he began to show that he might have enough talent to stick as a starter long term. He upped his fastball usage and relied less on his changeup, leading to fewer strikeouts but also even fewer walks. His luck on HR/FB rate swung the other way, helping stave off the idea that he just throws too many strikes. Despite the drop in strikeout rate, the corresponding drop in walks and increase in ground balls gave him a 4.10 xFIP, just slightly better than league average. Rather than being exposed in his first full season, Fister actually improved slightly.
Coming into this year, he still looked like more of a back-end starter than anything else, but Fister decided to change his game up once again. Rather than sitting in the 88-91 range, he started throwing 90-94, adding enough velocity to make a significant difference in the quality of his fastball. He also significantly increased his slider usage, and the result has been that he’s gotten his ability to get strikeouts back without having any negative effect on his crazy low walk rate.
So, now, Fister is settling in as a guy with terrific command of four pitches and a fastball that is quite a bit better than it was earlier in his career. The no-stuff label no longer applies, and while he’s not Justin Verlander, he has the ability to get strikeouts when he needs them. His command and ground ball tendencies allow him to be efficient when he doesn’t need strikeouts, and the still-good changeup gives him a real weapon against left-handed batters.
In short, Doug Fister is now a good starting pitcher. He’s not an overpowering guy, but he’s basically turned himself into the modern version of Brad Radke, and a 3/1 K/BB ratio with the ability to get ground balls is far more than just a generic back-end starter. While the Tigers acquisition of Fister flew under the radar at the trade deadline, he may well have been the best player acquired by any contender, and his presence in their rotation makes them a legitimate threat in the playoffs.
Fister may have come up as a non-prospect, but he’s turned himself into one of the better starting pitchers in the American League. It’s about time he gets the recogntion he deserves.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.