Thursday, October 22, 2015

2015 Season Review: Doug Fister

During the season, we covered how Doug Fister’s pitches were getting less movement and how that was hurting his results. Over the whole season, that lack of movement played out into a disappointing 4.19 ERA and a demotion to the bullpen (where he actually picked up his first career save). Fister is another one of the soon to be free agents who could potentially get a Qualifying Offer (QO) from the Nationals, depending on how Mike Rizzo evaluates Fister’s 2015 season.

Fister is pretty much the real life example of a finesse pitcher. He makes a living throwing a fastball in the upper 80’s by putting a lot of movement on his offerings in order to induce weak contact and groundballs. While groundballs tend to find holes for base hits more often than fly balls, it’s impossible to hit a groundball over the fence for a homerun. Groundballs also have a tendency to result in double plays with runners on base, wiping away any seeing eye hits that sneak through the infield. This approach can be effective and it’s this type of approach that Fister rode to a career year in 2014. 2015, however, was anything but a career year.

While Fister has made a major league living without owning strikeout pitches, his 2015 saw a steep drop off in strikeouts. In a league that averages a 19.5% strikeout rate, Fister’s 14% strikeout rate in 2015 ranks near the bottom for regular starters. In fact, that’s his lowest strikeout rate since 2010. A big reason for Fister’s success in 2014 was tied to his avoidance of issuing free passes to batters. His walk rate of 3.6% in 2014 stands out as an outlier in his career, especially compared to his 2015 walk rate of 5.4% that was nearly double his 2014 rate. It’s a walk rate that was better than league average in 2015 but, combined with his low strikeout rate, meant Fister was at the mercy of batted ball luck a lot of the time.

One way that Fister has been able to survive pitching to such high levels of contact has been by inducing infield pop ups. These are the type of hits that are so easy to field that they are essentially sure outs. For his career, Fister has averaged an infield fly ball rate of about 8%. In 2015, though, he was able to induce infield fly balls at only a 3.4% rate. That’s a big chunk of free outs that Fister got in previous years that he missed out on in 2015.

Unfortunately, those balls that used to be infield fly balls did not end up as easy to field groundballs instead. This past season, Fister posted his lowest groundball rate since his rookie year in 2009. In 2015, he was able to induce groundballs at a rate of only 44.6%, a full four percentage points lower than his groundball rate of 48.9% in 2014. That means Fister gave up more line drives and fly balls in 2015, not a good mix for a pitcher with the stuff and approach of Doug Fister.

Part of the reason for this shift in batted ball type is due to the change in movement on Fister’s pitches, but it’s also linked to his loss of velocity. In 2014, Fister’s fastball averaged 88 MPH. In 2015, that had dropped all the way down to 86 MPH. That’s a loss of 2 MPH on his fastball, which was already on the slower side to begin with. So not only were Fister’s pitches flatter in 2015, they were also slower. That’s not a good combination.

All that bad news doesn’t make Fister a worthless pitcher. In 2015, Fister was paid $11.4 million, not far removed from the $15.8 million attached to the 2016 QO. While it appears that Fister is unlikely to return to the Nationals in 2015, he might offer some value to another team. That team will be taking a chance, though. It would be one thing if Fister is truly a 4.00 ERA type of pitcher going forward if he could eat innings as a #4 or #5 starter. Except Fister hasn’t topped 200 innings since 2013 and has had multiple injuries and DL trips during his time with the Nationals. It appeared he was healthy at the end of the 2015 season, but he’s a pitcher with some good mileage on his arm already, making him far from a sure thing.

While the $15.8 million salary attached to the QO isn’t terribly off Fister’s true market value in 2016, it’s a risk for the Nationals to offer him the QO. If he were to accept, the Nationals don’t appear to even have a rotation spot open for him. As it stands, the Nationals seem likely to go with a starting rotation of Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, Gio Gonzalez, Tanner Roark, and Joe Ross. In fact, the Nationals made this same calculus at the end of the 2015 season and pushed Fister to the bullpen as a result. If the Nationals offer a QO to Fister, they had better be sure he is going to decline. It doesn’t appear that Fister declining the offer is a sure thing. While Fister may earn a long term deal with an annual value high enough to push him to decline the QO on the open market, he won’t actually be on the open market if he gets offered a QO. For a team to sign Fister after he has declined a QO, that team will have to sacrifice their first round draft pick. The math is pretty close, but teams love to dream on their prospects who have yet to fizzle out and inducing them to give up a draft pick for a #4 starter may be a tall task for Fister and his agent. Of the players eligible to receive a QO from the Nationals this offseason, Fister is the hardest call of the bunch. Given the Nationals goals for 2016 and Fister’s 2015 performance, it seems more likely that Fister will not get a QO.

Catch Up on Other Reviews:
Denard Span
Ian Desmond

1 comment:

  1. For me, the disappointing seasons of Fister and Roark compared to 2014 were as much as anything why the Nats did not repeat. (I also feel in light of the Mets we now need to put together a 95-win team, not 90, that can beat NY head-to-head. 90 won't be enough in our division.)