Detroit Tigers: Will Doug Fister Lead the Tigers to the MLB Playoffs?

Gerard MartinCorrespondent IAugust 2, 2011

SEATTLE - JULY 15:  Starting pitcher Doug Fister #58 of the Seattle Mariners pitches against the Texas Rangers at Safeco Field on July 15, 2011 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Doug Fister will take the mound on Wednesday night against a familiar foe, the Texas Rangers. Facing a team from his former division might make Fister feel at home, but unfortunately for him, his new surroundings will slightly less forgiving than his previous abode.

Without the safety of Safeco Field (and the Mariner’s stellar defense) at his back, can Doug Fister really help the Tigers make a run to the playoffs?


First of all, let’s dissolve this myth that Fister isn’t a talented pitcher. So far this season, he’s posted a 3.33 ERA, good for 18th in the American League as of Tuesday, putting him just ahead of highly-touted former teammates Felix Hernandez and Michael Pineda.

Sure, Seattle’s stellar defense helps, but Fister’s defense-independent stats actually tell a better story than his ERA. His 3.24 FIP ranks 11th in the AL.

He’s certainly been helped by the cavernous confines of Safeco Field, but those type of numbers would play well in any ballpark. Fister’s home and road FIPs are 2.91 and 3.55, respectively, showing that although he certainly derives an advantage from Safeco, he’s no slouch away from home.

So how does he get the job done?

Fister is a prototypical “pitch to contact” guy. His fastball sits right around 90 mph on average, and he complements it with a slider, curveball, and changeup. This season, Fister has improved his results by mixing his pitches more, throwing his fastball just 58 percent of the time, down from 67 percent in 2010.

Still, he lacks the ability to consistently put hitters away. His poor strikeout rate, which has sits at 5.19 K/9 for his career, doesn’t figure to improve overnight. With a repertoire that induces a swing-and-miss just 6.3 percent of the time, which is well below the MLB average of 8.5 percent, it’s clear that Fister is never going to be Justin Verlander.

Instead, Fister succeeds with his control. He walks fewer than two batters per nine innings, and pumps in strike one nearly 65 percent of the time.

When hitters do make contact, and it happens quite often, Fister has been excellent at limiting the damage. Of the 139 hits that Fister has allowed this year, only 41 have gone for extra bases.

Hitters swing at and connect with Fister’s offerings at a below-average rate inside the strike zone, and an above-average rate outside the strike zone. These numbers, odd as they may be, speak to Fister’s ability to deceive hitters and induce weak contact.

His low whiff rate shows that he doesn’t have swing-and-miss stuff, but according to Pitch F/X, he does demonstrate above-average movement on most of his pitches, especially his fastball and changeup.

Having an effective changeup gives Fister a weapon to attack right-handed batters, which explains his fairly even platoon splits.

Additionally, Fister has demonstrated an elite-level ability to keep the ball in the yard. So far in 2011, he’s posted a 4.4 percent HR/FB rate, which translates to only seven homers allowed in 146 innings.

The initial response to this statistic might be that it’s completely Safeco-dependent, but in reality, Fister’s home run rate may actually be helped by his move to Detroit.

According to ESPN’s park factors, Comerica Park actually stifles homers a bit more than Safeco Field.

Seattle is still the better pitcher’s park overall, but given the patterns that have led to Fister’s success, switching ballparks might have less of an impact that many experts are anticipating.

Unless his defense lets him down.

Seattle’s defense has the reputation of being far superior to Detroit’s, but after an examination of a few defensive metrics, (notably Fangraph’s UZR and UZR/150) it turns out that the gap may not be quite as wide as conventional wisdom would dictate.

It’s likely that there will be some regression due to defense, but don’t expect Fister’s production to crater just because he’s losing Brendan Ryan and Franklin Gutierrez.

Overall, there’s no denying that Fister is moving to a less pitcher-friendly situation, but the impact of his move has been a bit overstated. His strand rate and batting average on balls in play are both right in line with MLB averages and his ability to generate weak contact and keep the ball in the park should mitigate the impact of pitching in front of a weaker defense. Fister is by no means a top-of-the-rotation starter, but his poor strikeout rate is his only real weakness. Beyond that, he’s shown excellent control, as well as the ability to generate outs by keeping hitters from both sides of the plate off-balance.

Realistically, Doug Fister is not going to post a 3.33 ERA for the rest of the year in Detroit, but I don’t see any reason why he can’t sustain an ERA in the 3.6-3.7 range.

Assuming that Justin Verlander can maintain his Cy Young form, and Max Scherzer can discover just a bit of the dominance that he displayed in the second half of 2010, that ERA should slot Fister in as the third guy in a solid rotation. Adding that stability in the pitching staff should be enough to help the Tigers hold off the Indians, White Sox, and Twins to win a weak American League Central.

That’s exactly what the Tigers need, and exactly what Tiger fans can expect.


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