One Early-Spring Change to Believe In by Jeff Sullivan March 8, 2016 Every year, we go through spring training, and every year, we mostly ignore it, so, every year, we get asked what, if anything, really matters out of these preseason contests. For me, the answer has remained the same. As hitters go, it’s difficult to find substance, although you might be able to read into any newfound power to the opposite field. That’s what tipped me off a few years ago to the coming emergence by Michael Saunders. It’s a little easier to get into pitchers, and while it can be fun to track any progress by newly-adopted pitches, it mainly comes down to velocity. There’s not really any “faking” velocity. Any velocity spike warrants attention. Any velocity drop warrants different attention. It’s simplistic, sure, and it can be a little annoying, because some pitchers are still building up their arm strength, and spring-training velocities aren’t widely available. If you focus on velocity, though, you have the best chance of keeping signal separated from noise. You have a decent chance of not being deceived, and with all this in mind, I’ve already seen one particularly encouraging note. When the Astros signed Doug Fister, he was something of a reclamation project. He might already be most of the way fixed. It’s pleasing enough to know that Fister just feels healthy. He likes where he is, health-wise and mechanics-wise, but while that’s nice, it’s more useful to have some actual data points. Evan Drellich to the rescue! You know the back story here. Fister was always a command-over-velocity guy, but last year his arm strength really sunk, and he spent time on the disabled list. He finished the year in the bullpen. Fast-forward to Fister’s previous spring-training outing. A Drellich excerpt: In the opening frame, Fister notched the first of his four strikeouts on four pitches to Ryan Howard. They were 88 mph, 88 mph, 89 mph and 81 mph per Bright House Field’s display — the last a breaking ball that Howard whiffed on. Fister topped out at 90 mph, and didn’t wave off his velocity turnout afterward. Fister’s stuff seemingly played up, and Fister himself took notice. Now, he pitched again on Tuesday. Drellich once more: Three straight K’s for Doug Fister, who’s again hitting 90 mph. — Evan Drellich (@EvanDrellich) March 8, 2016 Here’s the one risk of trusting this too much: I don’t know anything about that radar gun. Sometimes they’re unreliable, and sometimes they’re hot, and if that’s the case here, well, crap. But then, the Astros were in their own spring-training ballpark today, so I’m guessing they’ve probably invested in a pretty accurate system. Why wouldn’t they? Let’s just assume the numbers are good. They’re probably good. If Fister is getting back to 90, he’s already better than he was in 2015. I mined through some PITCHf/x data to look at Fister’s fastballs over the years. Below, his year-to-year rates of fastballs thrown at least 89.5 miles per hour, selected because that would round up to 90. Sometimes the PITCHf/x cameras themselves are a little miscalibrated, but the trend visible here is legitimate. Also, by the way, I only considered Fister’s appearances as a starter. 2011: 66.0% fastballs at 89.5+ 2012: 33.2% 2013: 35.3% 2014: 11.8% 2015: 0.3% Fister was already losing velocity before — you can see the drop between 2011 and 2014. Some of that might be aging, and some of that might be swapping more four-seamers for sinkers. But even in 2014, Fister was an effective starting pitcher, and then last year he came apart. He threw just three fastballs that exceeded the threshold, and none of them touched an actual 90. So even though it’s still just March 8, we’re seeing a very positive sign. If Fister is back to reaching 89 – 90, it stands to reason he should improve, and I’d say this is one pitcher projection you can mentally adjust given the early data. Maybe it’s health, maybe it’s a mechanical tweak; Fister seems to have some strength back, and that should work to his advantage. Even as a command pitcher, he can be better with a greater margin of error. So, one good reason to be interested in Fister right now is that he’s throwing harder. It bodes well for the season ahead, and that’s a tough point to argue. A second interesting point is that today’s broadcast talked a lot about Fister’s curveball. In the Drellich article linked above, it was noted that Fister fell a little too in love with his sinker in Washington, and what happened was that his curveball almost got phased out. Where he used to throw a curve once every five pitches or so, last year that dropped to once every 15. Put another way, three years ago, Fister recorded 43% of his strikeouts with his curveball. Last year it came in at less than half that. The Nationals version of Fister pitched to contact, and the Astros want to undo that to some extent. He could be in line for a big change to his pitch mix, the idea being to pick up more whiffs. He topped out striking out a fifth of all batters. It shouldn’t be impossible for him to rebound. One clear Astros effect would be an adjustment to Fister’s approach. They’re already working on that, as Fister wants to eliminate the perception of a “hump” in his breaking ball. That’s something to track, but something more presently encouraging, something more substantial, is that he’s just throwing harder again. Maybe that’s an Astros effect, or maybe this was always going to happen, no matter where Fister went. I don’t know, but what’s important is that in the early going, the fastball has gone back up a tick or two, and that would be critical for anyone and everyone. The Astros signed Fister on the chance he could rediscover some of what he previously was. He apparently already has, and the season hasn’t started. I’m not sure there’ll be any better news coming out of Astros camp.