Just gonna go ahead and borrow from a colleague:
— David Cameron (@DCameronFG) January 28, 2016
Rich Hill signed for a year and a guaranteed $6 million. He’s nearly 36 years old, and he just started all of four games for the Red Sox, and before those, he hadn’t made a start in the majors since 2009. Doug Fister, meanwhile, has now signed for a year and a guaranteed $7 million, with the Astros folding in some additional incentives. He’s nearly 32 years old, and between 2011 – 2014, he had roughly the same RA9-WAR as Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, and Zack Greinke. In this past season, Fister wasn’t terrible, and he didn’t undergo any surgeries.
Compared to Hill, Fister obviously has the track record. He also has age on his side, and more 2015 big-league innings, and yet the market wasn’t excited. We’re left with Fister signing for only an incrementally larger guarantee, and it’s because the market is forward-looking, and Fister is a mighty big question mark.
Not that he projects to be hugely important for the Astros — he lines up as a back-of-the-rotation starter, someone to get in the way of Scott Feldman. The Astros have spent the offseason reportedly looking for rotation help, and they’ve settled now for a bounceback candidate, instead of landing an impact arm. There’s upside to this, for sure, but Fister finished last year working out of the Nationals bullpen. He probably isn’t going to pitch like a No. 2 behind Dallas Keuchel.
I found something interesting about the Fister rumors. This, I think, is a good contract for him, giving him a chance to get right back on the market if he re-establishes himself. By now we’re all familiar with how next year’s free-agent market for pitchers is weak. There was talk, though, that Fister wanted two guaranteed years, at a modest salary, and that seemed a little odd if Fister has actual confidence in himself. Given two years, he wouldn’t hit the market until he was coming up on 34. This is more like what you expect of a pillow contract, and, who knows, maybe this is what Fister came around to preferring.
The setting should be comfortable. Not that anyone particularly enjoys pitching in Houston, because cheap home runs are going to happen, but the Astros aren’t afraid of softer-throwing pitchers. Last year their pitching staff had the lowest average fastball velocity in the American League, and the only hard-throwing projected starter this coming year is Lance McCullers. Maybe this is part preference and part driven by budget concerns, but the Astros are willing to work with someone who throws in the 80s. With Fister, you just wonder where in the 80s he’s going to throw.
Here’s the fact of the matter: as a starting pitcher, between 2014 – 2015, Fister lost 1.9 miles per hour off his fastball. He’d already lost about a mile from the year before, and he’d already lost another mile from his career peak. But, we can focus mostly on the most recent drop, because Fister was effective two years back. An easy explanation is that, last year, Fister struggled with forearm discomfort, that sent him to the disabled list. Injuries generally help explain these velocity drops, but what’s curious is that Fister didn’t actually regain any strength upon his return. Previous to hitting the DL, Fister’s fastball averaged 86. After coming off the DL, as a starter, Fister’s fastball averaged 86. It played up a tiny bit when he moved to relief, but that’s what almost always happens. The fastball left him, and at least last year, it didn’t come back.
Fister has never really been about his velocity, first and foremost, but it’s not like that makes it irrelevant. You always have to think about the margin of error, and last year was the first time Fister didn’t finish with a better-than-average rate of hard contact allowed. The five years before, his hard-contact rate topped out at the 88th percentile, and it bottomed out at the 60th. Last year he was easier to hit hard, and that doesn’t blend well with a dwindling strikeout rate. It’s simple to see why Fister couldn’t land even an eight-figure guarantee, despite a market that’s gone crazy for pitchers.
What can we make of the velocity loss? I went searching for precedent. Between the last two years, Fister’s fastball lost 1.9 ticks, so going back to 2002, I looked for starting pitchers who lost at least 1.5 ticks while throwing at least 50 innings as starters in consecutive seasons. I was left with a pool of 117 pitchers. Of those, in year three, 15 didn’t throw even a single inning as starters. Of the remaining 102, they lost an average of 1.8mph between the first two years, with a median of -1.7. Then, between years two and three, their fastball velocities improved by an average of 0.1mph, with a median of +0.2. There were 22 pitchers who re-gained at least 1mph. As a group, they didn’t budge much. Which makes sense — once velocity goes, it seldom returns. Fister’s fastball, then, is facing long odds. Ryan Vogelsong, at least, presents an encouraging case — he lost 1.8mph between 2012 and 2013, and then between 2013 and 2014, he re-gained 1.5mph. So Fister could get some of the heat back, especially given a strong training program, but the Astros shouldn’t count on it. If you could count on it, Fister wouldn’t have been available for so little.
It is interesting to wonder what Fister could be, even with the reduced velocity, if he mixed things up. When he moved from Detroit to Washington, he started throwing a lot more sinkers and far fewer curveballs. Sinkers are meant to be hit, so the Nationals had Fister pitching to contact for the sake of quick outs. It obviously worked for him to some extent, but if the Astros walked Fister back some, they could squeeze out some more swings and misses. It’s up to them to decide what they want him to be; maybe they want him to continue with the sinkers, or maybe they want him to re-discover his secondary stuff. This’ll be something to keep your eye on in April.
Outside of that, Fister will be carried by his location. The forearm discomfort presumably took its toll on Fister’s command, which he couldn’t afford to sacrifice. If he’s healthier, he should make a lower rate of mistakes, pushing him away from the threshold of uselessness. With perfect command, Fister could be good, even while throwing 86. The more velocity he gets back, the more he can get away with. In an ideal world, for Fister, he gets back everything he lost, and he hits the market again in a year fresh off a mid-3s ERA. Assuming he doesn’t re-capture everything, though, this’ll be more of a challenge, in an unforgiving environment. It would be the greatest challenge yet for Fister’s command, and though that’s not an unwinnable war, you figure the odds are lopsided.
I guess Fister’s odds have always been lopsided, though. He wasn’t thought of much as a prospect, and he’s had to prove himself over and over in the majors. What’s one more test? If nothing else, it probably keeps him motivated.
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