Doug Fister Is Starting to Look Like Mike Mussina

When Doug Fister broke into the big leagues, he was a soft-tossing, pitch-to-contact change-up artist, who threw strikes with mediocre stuff and projected as a back-of-the-rotation innings eater or a bullpen guy. He wasn’t bad, but the lack of a quality breaking ball and his reliance on his change as an out-pitch meant that he didn’t have anything to strike out right-handed batters with, and he wasn’t generating as many groundballs as you’d expect from a 6’8 guy with good command. Over his first year and change in the big leagues in 2009-2010, he was basically the definition of average, running a 102 ERA-/99 FIP-/99 xFIP- in 232 innings. He limited walks and avoided home runs, so he looked like any member of the Twins rotation over the prior 10 years. Nothing wrong with that, but certainly not a lot of upside beyond strike-throwing middle-of-the-rotation guy.

Then, last year, Fister began to change. His velocity picked up, and instead of topping out at 91-92, he started hitting 93-94 with regularity. By the end of 2011, his average fastball was over 90 mph, up two full ticks over his 2010 average. At the same time, he began to rely less on his fastball/change-up combo, and increased his breaking ball usage, especially against right-handed batters. The increased velocity and pitch mix led to a spike in his strikeout rate, which jumped from 12.9% to 16.7%. In fact, he ended the year with a 28% strikeout rate in September, looking nothing like the pitch-to-contact guy who showed up a few years earlier.

This year, the velocity has regressed back to previous norms — perhaps due to a costochondral strain that landed him on the DL twice — but the strikeout rate has still taken yet another leap forward. Once again, Fister has reduced his reliance on his fastball, and now he’s featuring his curve ball more than ever before. In his start against the Yankees yesterday, he snapped 25 curveballs, 15 of which went for strikes. This big bending curve has now become his #2 pitch, and its effectiveness has been the driving force beyond his second drastic increase in strikeout rate.

Since he doesn’t throw it much when he’s behind in the count (only 10% of the time with no strikes), we expect it to be a positive outcome pitch simply because of the times he’s choosing to use it. However, even adjusting for the counts he’s throwing it in, his curveball has become extremely effective. 12-6 curves are generally known for freezing hitters, and Fister’s is no exception – opposing batters only swing at 35.2% of his curveballs, even though he’s primarily throwing them when he’s ahead in the count. This isn’t because Fister’s burying it in the dirt, either – his Zone% on curveballs is 48.9%. And when opposing batters do swing at the curve, they whiff 11.9% of the time, and even when they manage to put it in play, the curve has generated 53.8% ground balls.

Basically, Fister’s curve is a pitch that gets called strikes, swinging strikes, and ground balls. He can locate in the strike zone or put it in the dirt, and he varies his locations enough that opposing batters haven’t been able to adjust. This addition of a legitimate out-pitch breaking ball has given Fister another weapon, and one that works against hitters from both sides of the plate.

The results have been tremendous. Over the past calendar year, Fister has thrown 167 innings at premium ace level. His line over the last 365 days:

3.9% BB%, 21.8% K%, 50.4% GB%, .281 BABIP, 10.4% HR/FB, 66 ERA-/69 FIP-/71 xFIP-

That’s a 5.6 K/BB ratio while getting ground balls on half of his balls in play. How impressive is that? Here’s the pitching leaderboard, sorted by xFIP-, over the past calendar year.

1. Stephen Strasburg, 68 xFIP-
2. Doug Fister, 71 xFIP-
3. CC Sabathia, 74 xFIP-
4. Zack Greinke, 75 xFIP-
5. Cliff Lee, 76 xFIP-

Prefer non-normalized home run rates? That’s okay, Strasburg is still the only guy ahead of Fister by FIP-, but instead of having second to himself, he falls into a three way tie with Chris Sale and Clayton Kershaw. Not bad company, I don’t think. Don’t want to judge by peripherals, and would rather just look at run prevention instead? Okay, fine, he falls all the way to sixth, behind Kershaw, Justin Verlander, Sale, David Price, and Jordan Zimmermann.

For the last year, Fister has been one of the elite pitchers in baseball. While his prior history suggests that we expect some regression, a look at Mike Mussina‘s career shows that there’s precedence for this kind of career trajectory.

Through age 25, Mussina had very similar walk and strikeout rates to Fister, as he was always a pitch-to-contact strike-thrower. He had significantly more success from a results standpoint, as he was essentially the Matt Cain of his time, limiting hits on balls in play in his first five big league seasons. But, starting in his age 26 season, his strikeout rate took a big jump, just like Fister’s has.


Source: FanGraphsMike Mussina, Doug Fister

Over a four year span, Mussina’s strikeout rate jumped from 14% to 18% to 20% to 24% before settling in around 20%, where he would spend most of the rest of his career. Like Fister, Mussina was not a big time power pitcher, but he featured a top shelf curveball, a really good change-up, and elite command. Once he made the switch from hit preventer to strikeout collector, he never went back, and he had a long run as one of the best pitchers in baseball.

Fister’s only had one year at this level, so I’m not endorsing his Hall of Fame candidacy, but it is worth recognizing that Fister is following the same basic career evolution that Mussina took. The addition of an effective 12-6 curve has taken him out of the pitch-to-contact playbook, and now Fister is simply pitching like a strike-throwing ace.

Can he keep this up? It basically comes down to the strikeouts. We know he can throw strikes and we know he can get ground balls. If his strikeout surge is something he can sustain, then there’s no reason Fister can’t keep pitching at an elite level. We need to see more than 170 innings of excellence before we can put Fister in that kind of consistent ace category, but he’s on the right path. For the last year, Fister has been as good as anyone in baseball, and he’s making adjustments that look like they may help keep him there. If he does keep racking up the strikeouts, acquiring Fister for a pu-pu platter of role players may end up being one of the great steals in baseball history.



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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


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Cole
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Cole
4 years 1 month ago

Why do they always get better!?

Calvin
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Calvin
4 years 1 month ago

The ones who get worse go to the minors and are forgotten about?

Chris Miller
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Chris Miller
4 years 1 month ago

Which is most of them.

Jason
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Jason
4 years 1 month ago

How many above average starting pitchers has Jack Zduriencik just given away with nothing to show for it? Morrow, Washburn, Lee, Fister, Bedard and you want him to trade Felix?

chuckb
Member
chuckb
4 years 1 month ago

Dave doesn’t want them to trade Felix. And Washburn and Bedard are strange comps to put in that group.

Steve
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Steve
4 years 1 month ago

Why DID the Mariners trade Fister? I never understood that, and he didn’t meet any of the criteria usually reserved for trading players (the team is not poor, he was not approaching free agency, they did not get great prospects, etc).

I am not opining on the actual trade, just don’t understand why he was traded at all.

Westside guy
Member
Member
Westside guy
4 years 1 month ago

When Fister was in Seattle, he looked like a good sell-high candidate that probably got some help from pitching in Safeco.

Given that, the Fister trade seemed reasonable at the time.

ThundaPC
Member
4 years 1 month ago

“Why DID the Mariners trade Fister?”

The Mariners had a starting rotation of Felix, Fister, Vargas, Pineda, and Bedard. That rotation was awesome. It was putting up some of the best numbers in baseball in the first half of 2011. Pity the team itself could never get past a .500 record during that stretch. Wonder what was preventing the team from winning a lot of games with that rotation?

Turns out, it’s hard to take advantage of a strong rotation when the team’s offense is posting a .275 wOBA. So Jack Zduriencik, after much prodding from Dave Dombrowski, decided to trade Doug Fister for the best package he could get to increase offense from a position of strength (pitching)

The debate comes from the actual trade package itself which is a mixed bag. It’s not a “nothing” trade but given that it could potentially end up looking like “Mike Mussina reborn” under club control traded for a bunch of role players (and aww…dangit Chance Ruffin) ….well, the trade itself ends up looking very uninspiring.

Stringer Bell
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Stringer Bell
4 years 1 month ago

Pretty close to a nothing return, really. Casper Wells is an average fourth outfielder, Chance Ruffin is a worthless reliever, Furbush is a solid lefty out of the pen but that’s about his ceiling, and Francisco Martinez hasn’t improved at AA in his two years there.

Jeff
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Jeff
4 years 1 month ago

A rotation of Hernandez, Morrow, Fister, Bedard and Vargas pitching in Safeco would be pretty nice for the Mariners. It’s amazing the players (Fister, Adam Jones, Asdrubal Cabrera, Shin-so Choo, etc.) they that organization has simply just given away.

Atari
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Atari
4 years 1 month ago

Mike Morse.

IVIisfits138
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IVIisfits138
4 years 1 month ago

Interesting how one of the players you listed in the rotation that would be “pretty nice for the M’s” was acquired for one of the players that they “simply gave away.”

Mike P
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Mike P
4 years 1 month ago

Thanks for an informative article. As a Tiger fan in Kentucky, I have followed him through the box scores since he was acquired and noticed the high strikeout totals He is kind of the anti-Porcello. Porcello throws harder but can barely average 4.5 to 5 strikeouts per nine. It really seems it started as soon as he came to Detroit, like someone flipped a switch. It be interesting to learn if there was some adjustment he made or did he just suddenly get it?

mscharer
Member
mscharer
4 years 1 month ago

When DC started talking about Mussina’s age 25 progression, I immediately thought of Porcello. When/If his breaking ball becomes a consistent strikeout pitch, do we see a similar step up in performance (like Fister) from Kid Rick too?

average_Casey
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average_Casey
4 years 1 month ago

Jason,
Washburn wasn’t any good and was at the end of his contract. Lee was at the end of his contract and wanted to be a free agent to test the market and the Mariners got a good return at the time for him. Bedard was not great, injury prone and thus unreliable. You can take GMZ to task about Morrow and Fister, but not the others.

Westside guy
Member
Member
Westside guy
4 years 1 month ago

The Cliff Lee trade doesn’t hurt so much when you look at what the Mariners gave up for Lee in the first place. And, at the time, people seemed to think pretty highly of Smoak.

That said, I have an unreasonable man-crush on Cliff Lee and wish he were still pitching for the Mariners. The guy’s an artist. I still remember after one game, when he’d struck out nine or ten and walked one guy… all he wanted to talk about was the one guy he walked.

Marc
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Marc
4 years 1 month ago

It doesn’t really matter what people/the general public thought about Smoak. Zduriencik is/was the one getting paid 7-figures to run the team and make sound decisions. He failed in valuing Smoak too highly and he has failed time and time again. He needs to go.

Jason H
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Jason H
4 years 1 month ago

Marc,

The narrative is that it is not about results, it’s about process. It doesn’t matter that Jack Z’s results suggest he’s the worst GM in baseball. His process is spot on.

chuckb
Member
chuckb
4 years 1 month ago

I’m wondering how you found Mussina as such a good comp. The other stuff makes sense. As much as you follow baseball and its players, I could see you noticing how good Pfister has gotten despite so little attention from the mainstream media. But how did that lead you to Mussina? I guess you started by looking at players whose K rate jumped pretty dramatically in their mid-to-late 20s but I’m not even sure how you did that.

Good work. Like many others, I’m sure, I wouldn’t have noticed how good Pfister has gotten without this.

chuckb
Member
chuckb
4 years 1 month ago

*Fister.

I don’t know where I got Pfister from.

Westside guy
Member
Member
Westside guy
4 years 1 month ago

Pfister manufactures pfaucets.

Jason B
Guest
Jason B
4 years 1 month ago

From Price Pfister perhaps? I remember their old TV commercials billed them as “The pfabulous pfaucet with the pfunny name.” Not sure if that brand even exists anymore…

James Gentile
Member
4 years 1 month ago

Oh, I love this comparison. Thumbs up, Dave.

Jack
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Jack
4 years 1 month ago

Mussina? I hardly know her….

Eh, doesn’t work quite as well.

John
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John
4 years 1 month ago

i laughed

steve-o
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steve-o
4 years 1 month ago

I’m scared to hear what you think about Asians.

Against the grain
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Against the grain
4 years 1 month ago

Their women? Excellent drivers.

mscharer
Member
mscharer
4 years 1 month ago

Nice article. As a Tiger fan, all I have seen of Fister is the ace type performance. Didn’t really pay much attention to him prior. This article backs up what we have been seeing, he has been that good. It also gives some evidence as to how in the heck he was traded, although I still don’t think it excuses the trade from a Mariner perspective.

Marc
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Marc
4 years 1 month ago

Yeah, man, he has been excellent. K/BB slightly over 4 with a low home run rate. He has easily been a top 15 pitcher in the game over the last 2 years. He is on the verge of becoming a bonafide ace if he can increase his strikeouts a bit.

Marc
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Marc
4 years 1 month ago

btw IMO there are about 10-12 true aces out there, not 30, 1 per team. Fister is inching into the category of legit #1s.

Marc
Guest
Marc
4 years 1 month ago

Ignore the last post. Wow, I thought Mister Fister’s K/9 this year was about 6.5. It’s actually 7.5. Given the overall elite K/BB and the great HR-rate, coupled with the great ground ball numbers, and the legit 4-pitch mix, I think Fister may have vaulted himself into bona fide ace/#1 status.

Klatz
Member
Klatz
4 years 1 month ago

The Fister trade was a bit of a scratcher. There’s still a glimmer of hope that Francisco Martinez lives up to the potential and Furbush can (perhaps, although not likely) become a #4 starter. But Fister would really have settled the current rotation and would have become a nice complement to the future Hernandez, Hultzen, Walker, Paxton quadrumvirate.

The Fister and Morrow did not seem like good decisions at the time and may become much worse overtime if Fister and Morrow both retain their improvements.

John
Guest
John
4 years 1 month ago

Maybe an Old Mussina.

Mussina could throw gas when he was in his 20’s. He truly had three plus pitches (fastball, curve, change) and plus command/control.

As he aged he became more about movement; sliders, cutters, sinkers. Velo dropped from 93 to 88 (Pfister range).

tmorgan1970
Member
tmorgan1970
4 years 1 month ago

Except Fister can throw 91. He doesn’t live in the 90’s, but he can visit.

JinManc
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JinManc
4 years 1 month ago

The legend of Jackie Zed lives on.

Scott
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Scott
4 years 1 month ago

35. Seven-letter word for underappreciated, should-be no doubt Hall of Famer…

Jason B
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Jason B
4 years 1 month ago

BAGWELL for the win!

Scott
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Scott
4 years 1 month ago

Nicely played. We’ll accept multiple answers.

Steve
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Steve
4 years 1 month ago

Perhaps it was the Mariners’ MLB-revolutionizing weightroom that allowed Fister to add velocity?

Chris
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Chris
4 years 1 month ago

Fister? I hardly know her

yefrem
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yefrem
4 years 1 month ago

that poor horse…

John
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John
4 years 1 month ago

On the point of poor Mariners trades over the last few years, lets not forget the infamous Ryan Langerhans for Michael Morse trade in 2009.

Ryan who?, you might ask. I’ll have you know that he has had exactly one at bat with the Angels this year, and struck out.

Steve
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Steve
4 years 1 month ago

The funny thing is that Morse is exactly the type of offensive-first player the Mariners were so desperate to acquire this offseason (hence the Montero trade).

ThirteenOfTwo
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ThirteenOfTwo
4 years 1 month ago

Yeah, except at the time pretty much no one thought that Morse would amount to anything and it was considered a fairly equal garbage-for-garbage swap. Most teams in baseball would probably make that deal.

Daven
Guest
4 years 1 month ago

I wouldn’t say “no one”. There were a ton of “typical idiot” baseball fans who, while their reasoning was baseless, were in love with Mike Morse because of his hot start when first coming to the big leagues and that he was passing “the eye test” where he kind of looked like he knew what he was doing, even with the outs, which is rare for Mariner rookies…

Fister and Morse are poster players for people who try to use absolutes when saying “That player won’t ever amount to anything special.” One of the great things about baseball is you just never know, not the most experienced scouts nor sabermatricians (I remember many a day Mr. Cameron here on USSMariner gave the “Fister/Morse won’t amount to anything” speeches to the Typical Idiot Fans who loved them. :-) Granted, the TIF’s had no basis for their projections, but still. You should never word things that you’re 100% sure when projecting a baseball player.

Barry377
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Barry377
4 years 1 month ago

What?! Even the fangraphs community whiffed on this one?

What it comes down to is that the M’s have dealt a worthless player – worthless to them, at least – in exchange for an awesome outfield gloveman with a career batting line of .233/.335/.378. It’s like bringing in another Endy Chavez, except this one comes with more upside, given that Langerhans has a good idea of the zone, decent lefty power, and a track record of producing in AAA. He probably won’t be quite as good as Chavez in the field, but few people are, and he swings a better bat. – Jeff Sullivan 6/28/09

He’s absolutely perfect for what the M’s need. His preseason ZIPS projection had him as a .239/.341/.375 hitter, which would make him about the fourth best hitter on the M’s right now. ZIPS doesn’t know that he’s gone down to Triple-A and started whacking the baseball this year, hitting .279/.383/.508 and showing the best power of his career. He’s drawn 30 walks and has 23 extra base hits in 216 plate appearances for Syracuse, and those secondary skills combined with his range in the outfield make him a very useful role player – Dave Cameron 6/22/09

Nathaniel Dawson
Guest
Nathaniel Dawson
4 years 1 month ago

Langerhans was a very useful role player for the M’s — exactly as he was billed. The sticking point with most people is that Mike Morse became a legitimate power hitter in the Majors.

Could that have been foreseen? Maybe some people have better insight than others and would have projected that for Morse, but that’s something that most people wouldn’t have expected for him. He’s made himself into a good productive player, kudo’s for him.

J6takish
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J6takish
4 years 1 month ago

Teach me how to Dougie

BronxBomber
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BronxBomber
4 years 1 month ago

Don’t know how to Dougie but I know how to Diddi…

BigSteve
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BigSteve
4 years 1 month ago

Fister?!!!! Hardly knew Her!!!!!

yefrem
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yefrem
4 years 1 month ago

joke is so played out, BIGsteve

jim
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jim
4 years 1 month ago

really, 9 exclamation points?

AJ
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AJ
4 years 1 month ago

#6org

Drew
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Drew
4 years 1 month ago

PEDs most likely.

Jack be Nimble
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Jack be Nimble
4 years 1 month ago

Amongst RHs without elite fastballs at any point in their career, Fister is probably my favorite of the newcomers. He threw really well last year and is in a good park for a pitcher. Haven’t seen as much of him this year, but already right so who cares.

Definitely a good read, but Mussina probably had a better fastball early on. The player that most reminds me of Mussina is Greinke, but probably for different reasons. Both with standoffish reputations, former high first round picks, that “is he an elite pitcher” question, the “can he handle a big city?” question, size, athleticism, experimental in his pitching style. Greinke’s got a little bit of David Cone in him as well with the whole traveling ace for hire thing.

Feeding the Abscess
Guest
Feeding the Abscess
4 years 1 month ago

How about Weaver as a comp? Weaver is 6’7″, Fister is 6’8″, they both stride to the right side of the mound, both have fastballs in the 87-91 range, both have big hooking curves, similar K and BB rates.

Weaver throws more stuff out of the zone while Fister is more of a strike thrower, Weaver is a flyball and Fister a groundball pitcher, but the results are fairly similar.

Dale
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Dale
4 years 1 month ago

I love the Weaver comp. Fister has become that good and is glaringly similar.

Chris
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Chris
4 years 1 month ago

Look at Weaver’s and Fister’s FIPs over the last few seasons – almost identical – http://www.fangraphs.com/comparison.aspx?playerid=9425&position=P&page=9&players=4235,8700

hmk
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hmk
4 years 1 month ago

mike mussina had the filthiest knuckle-curve. lets see some more guys try to throw that pitch… just nasty

RJS
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RJS
4 years 1 month ago

I’m just glad to have Fister on my team. I had eyed him on another team’s roster when that owner inexplicably dropped him so I snatched him. His loss is my gain.

gareth
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gareth
4 years 1 month ago

Most unintentionally rude trade of all time. Fister for Furbush.

Matty Brown
Member
Member
Matty Brown
4 years 1 month ago

Fister? I barely know her!
#6 Org
Must be PED’s

….there, that should illicit 35 thumbs down.

tmorgan1970
Member
tmorgan1970
4 years 1 month ago

You can’t ask for them, you dip. I upped you just for fun.

BronxBomber
Guest
BronxBomber
4 years 1 month ago

And for what it’s worth, that’s elicit. Unless of course those thumbs are down somewhere very naughty.

tmorgan1970
Member
tmorgan1970
4 years 1 month ago

By the way, there are some fellow Tigers fans getting a little too giddy here. Fister’s good, no doubt, and was really hot late last season, but he’s not a legit #1 nor is he close.

He’s too hittable. Great control, but not great stuff. Fun to watch, but prone to explosions of singles. A more than solid #2, however. When I see him, I think Tewksbury (33 lifetime WAR, 3.65 lifetime FIP), not Mussina.

hernandez17
Member
hernandez17
4 years 1 month ago

Those explosions of singles have a lot to do with the defense behind him though. Based on what I’ve seen from him this year, he seems to give up an awful lot of hits on weakly hit balls. A team with better infield defense would do wonders for him. But if he continues to up his K rate then it’ll matter less, and he could be scary good.

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