Monday, August 3, 2015

What's Eating Doug Fister

Well, that sucked. After getting swept in New York at the hands of the Mets, the Nationals will return to DC to try and turn things around against the Diamondbacks. The series starts with the Nationals sending out Doug Fister to lead the charge in righting the ship.

Coming into the year, I predicted some regression in Fister’s numbers, and that has certainly played out. Compared to last year’s 2.41 ERA, Fister’s current 4.39 ERA is big step back. The fielding independent numbers align almost exactly with with his ERA, as he sports a 4.36 FIP and 4.59 xFIP, so it appears Fister has earned that ERA. So why has Fister struggled so far this year and what does that mean for the rest of the year?

Fister is a pitch to contact pitcher who has never racked up big strikeout numbers. He has succeeded in the majors by inducing weak contact and avoiding walks. While his 5% walk rate this year is yet again better than league average, his strikeout rate has dropped to a career low 12%. His 5.2% swinging strike rate indicates that Fister is just not fooling hitters very often. That means Fister’s success or failure depends almost entirely on what kind of contact he pitches to.

In the past, Fister has succeeded by forcing batters to hit the ball on the ground. Historically, around 50% of batters who faced Fister hit the ball on the ground. As Fister has proved in past seasons, inducing groundballs can be an effective strategy. Groundballs do tend to go for base hits more often than fly balls, as it’s easier for a groundball to find a hole in the infield than it is for a ball that is sitting in the air to avoid outfielders. However, groundballs rarely go for extra base hits, making it hard to drive in runners. Groundballs, of course, also have the added advantage of resulting in double plays, so if hitters do find a hole in the infield defense, there is a chance they get wiped out on a subsequent groundball. Unfortunately for Fister, he’s experiencing the lowest groundball rate of his career this year at 41% coupled with the highest line drive rate of his career at nearly 24%. If groundballs are effective because they rarely go for extra bases and fly balls can be effective because they turn into outs more often, line drives are the worst possible outcome for a pitcher as they turn into base hits at a high rate while also resulting in extra bases more often. It hasn’t been a good batted ball mix for Fister so far in 2015.

So what has changed for Fister that he can’t seem to induce the groundball contact we are used to seeing? For one, he has lost nearly 2 MPH off of his fastball, a fastball that was already on the slower side for major league pitchers. Fister did spend some time on the DL this year with forearm tightness, a fact that shouldn’t be forgotten. Fister is also on the record saying that his pitches aren’t moving the way he wants them to. Fister’s approach to pitching relied on mixing in 5-6 different pitches all with some pretty extreme movement, so if his pitches aren’t moving the way he wants them to, Fister’s arsenal is not so intimidating. Pulling up the numbers, Fister’s pitches really aren’t moving the same way they used to. With PITCHf/x data from FanGraphs we can track just how much horizontal and vertical movement Fister gets on each of his pitches. The following table shows the change in movement on Fister’s four most used pitches in inches (as classified by PITCHf/x) this year versus 2013 and 2014:

Change from 2013 Change from 2014

Horizontal Movement Vertical Movement Horizontal Movement Vertical Movement
Sinker 0.7 1.6 0.6 0.2
Change Up 0.0 2.2 0.3 0.7
Curveball -1.6 1.5 0.4 -0.1
Cutter 0.2 1.2 0.9 3.4

In this context, positive numbers in the horizontal column mean the pitch is moving away from right handed hitters more and negative numbers mean the ball is moving to the inside of the plate for right handed hitters more. In the vertical column, positive numbers mean the pitch is getting less drop and negative numbers mean the ball is dropping more. Fister’s sinker usually cuts in and down to right handed hitters and the same goes for his changeup. The curve obviously drops a lot more than the fastballs, but also sweeps away from right handed hitters. Finally, Fister’s cutter also tends to drop down in the zone but, unlike the sinker, moves away from right handed hitters. What we see in the table is a loss of movement on Fister’s pitches, across the board. All of Fister’s pitches this year are dropping less than they did in previous years and his horizontal movements are trending in the wrong direction. While his sinker is moving into right handed hitters less drastically (as evidenced by the positive horizontal movement numbers), his curveball is also moving away from right handed hitters less drastically. Essentially, Fister’s pitches are getting flatter. His sinker is sinking less and cutting into right handed hitters less. His changeup is experiencing the same changes in movement. His curveball is getting less drop and less sweep. His cutter, while getting significantly less drop, is moving away from right handed hitters more. However, he is throwing the pitch slower so it really has turned into more of a slider than a true cutter. There were some major changes last year that clearly didn’t result in negative consequences for Fister. However, the pitches have continued to flatten out this year, and it’s biting Fister in the rear end. Batters are hitting significantly better this year on those pitches that have seen the biggest changes in movement. Hitters have a batting average 70 points higher on Fister’s go to pitch, the sinker, a 50 point higher average against the changeup, and a 60 point higher average against the cutter.

This isn’t to say that Fister can’t be effective. He allowed only two runs on four hits over six innings against the Marlins in his last outing. It’s not a shutdown, Max Scherzer type of start, but it keeps the team in the game. Fister will try to do that again against the Diamondbacks tonight who, despite their record, still have a dangerous lineup. There hasn’t been any rumblings yet, but if Fister continues to struggle to be effective with his pitches that now have less movement, Joe Ross has certainly proved he is capable of holding his own in the rotation. Might Matt Williams need to make a move down the stretch to keep Ross in the rotation at the expense of Fister?

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