When you think pitching and greatness it’s unlikely you think of Mike Fiers. Well Friday, Mike Fiers threw a no-hitter against the Los Angeles Dodgers, so in your face. Of course, I’m kidding. No-hitters are fluky events by nature, and though the game’s greats have thrown them, so have many of the game’s not-so-greats. For example, the list of pitchers who have thrown no-hitters includes Joe Cowley, Mike Warren, and Jim Colborn, and excludes Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez*, Curt Schilling, Greg Maddux, and Robin Roberts. But still, pitching nine innings of baseball without giving up a single hit is a feat worthy of recognition and by golly we sure are recognizing it.
*Martinez threw nine perfect innings on June 3, 1995, but allowed a lead-off double in the 10th inning.
But there is controversy! You may have heard that Fiers has been accused of cheating while throwing his no-no. Who has made these accusations? The world’s morality police, also known as the internet, of course! So what “evidence” is there that Fiers cheated?
S/o to the pine tar in Fiers' glove pic.twitter.com/5EN63UrOWA
— Casey (@CaseyySheehann) August 22, 2015
So there’s clearly something in that picture. Whether it’s pine tar, sweat, plutonium, or a trick of the camera is unclear, but it sure looks like something. I went back and watched the game and, though it’s difficult to see, you can see that portion of his glove is shiny with something as early as the fourth inning and sporadically on throughout the game. The Dodgers are taking the high road on this, and Fiers isn’t divulging anything so it seems like a dead issue. Still, that doesn’t mean Fiers didn’t break the rules, even if nobody seems interested in legislating it.
If Fiers did have a substance of some sort on his glove, he would have put it there to help him grip the ball better. That could manifest itself in a number of ways including better control and more movement on his off-speed pitches. The way to find out if Fiers’ control improved during his no-hitter is to compare his control that day to his control in past outings and see what, if anything, is different. Except that’s kind of impossible. Swing-and-miss numbers won’t tell the whole story as they’re heavily dependent on the opponent and the vagaries of a small sample size. The same goes for ball/strike percentages, which can fluctuate for all different sorts of reasons, and again, when comparing a single start to another single start, you quickly find yourself trying to pull meaning from meaninglessness. This is a long way of saying that, even if the results were different, I’m not sure that would prove anything.
A possibly useful strategy, however, might be to look at PITCHf/x data and see if Fiers’ pitches moved more than they usually do during his no-hitter and, if so, how he was reacting to that movement. So I did. I broke the data down into three groups: the average movement of Fiers’ pitches during his career, the average movement of his pitches this season, and the average movement of his pitches during his no-hitter. I did it that way to compare the no-hitter to his seasonal and career numbers, which seems like a reasonable way to approach things.
In his career Fiers has thrown six different pitches according to Brooks Baseball. They are a four-seam fastball, a changeup, a curveball, a cutter, a sinker, and a slider. He’s thrown the sinker and slider only about 4% of the time cumulatively this season and didn’t throw them at all last Friday, so we are going to ignore those.
That leaves us with the four-seam fastball, changeup, curveball, and cutter. The four-seam fastball isn’t one that typically moves a ton, at least comparatively, and indeed the horizontal and vertical movement of the pitch on Friday was roughly comparable to his seasonal and career averages. I’m not sure how having sticky fingers would help you improve a four-seam fastball anyway. I can see how maybe it would help you not throw an awful one, but if Fiers was using some foreign substance, this isn’t the pitch that was improved by it.
One thing that stands out while examining Fiers’ start more closely is his changeup. He had a nice change going that evening. Compared to his season averages the changeup was moving slightly more, but not shockingly so. During the ninth inning Astros color commentator Alan Ashby said, “[Fiers’] changeup has played a larger part in tonight’s game than we typically see.” Turns out, that wasn’t quite true. Fiers threw the changeup 14% of the time during his no-hitter compared to 16% on average this season. Still, if Fiers was doing something to get more movement out of his changeup, he didn’t make any more use of the pitch than he typically does.
Next we get to Fiers’ curveball. PITCHf/x data tells us his curve broke vertically more than it typically has this season during the no-hitter. That sounds damning, but when I tell you that difference is 0.6 inches, maybe it’s not so damning after all? I mean, 0.6 isn’t nothing, but it’s hardly conclusive proof of breaking the rules. Fiers could just have had a slightly better curveball that day without getting help gripping the pitch from a foreign substance. Now had the pitch dropped, say, two inches more, then maybe we’d have something.
Which brings us to his cutter. Here is the relevant data in chart form.
|Period||H Mov (In.)||V Mov (In.)|
This is the pitch that, if Fiers was indeed cheating, you’d point to. As you can see, Fiers’ cutter typically moves horizontally about two inches and that’s roughly what it did during the no-hitter. Vertically though was a different story. Fiers’ cutter moved over two inches vertically more (i.e. with extra “rise” relative to a spinless ball) than it has done typically this season. If Fiers was using something to help him throw a better cutter you’d expect him to throw it more frequently than he usually does, too, right? Well, he did. Fiers threw his cutter just over 17% of the time during his no-hitter. Compare that to the 8.9% of the time he’s thrown his cutter otherwise and you have… well, something. Of course, if Fiers weren’t cheating and just had a better cutter that day due to feel or whatever other perfectly legal reason, you’d also expect him to throw it more frequently also.
This brings us to another conundrum. If Fiers were using something illegal to help his pitches move on Friday, who is to say he wasn’t doing it at some point prior to Friday which would affect his seasonal and possibly career numbers as well? Maybe Fiers was using something to help his curveball but has been doing it all season long and intermittently throughout his career? That would really skew the data! We’d all be skewed!
In the end it’s impossible to say if Fiers was using an extra substance on his glove to assist him with his pitches. If he were, his pitches weren’t vastly different for the most part than they typically are. Whether that means he wasn’t cheating or has been cheating forever and ever, well, I’ll leave this one open for you conspiracy theorists. We can say that a part of his glove looked shiny, and it did. We can say his cutter moved more than it typically does, and it did. But none of that makes Mike Fiers anything other than a pitcher who pitched a great game last Friday.