Fister’s Unexpected Great Season

With their backs against the wall, the New York Yankees clobbered the baseball around the diamond for a 10-1 victory and tied up the ALDS with the Detroit Tigers at two games apiece.

The two teams will now head back east to New York for a decisive Game 5. New York will trot out young Ivan Nova, while Detroit counters with right-hander Doug Fister. It will be a rematch of Game 1, in which Fister surrendered six earned runs in 4.2 innings and, ultimately, took the loss. Given that Fister’s dominating second half with the Tigers was so surprising, it’s natural to think that perhaps he was exposed by having to face a good line-up, and that the Tigers are in trouble asking him to try and get the Yankees out again.

After all, it’s become fashionable to point out that Fister didn’t exactly have the hardest road after Detroit picked him up from Seattle in July. This criticism is based in fact – his opponents in August and September, chronologically:

Texas, Cleveland, Baltimore, Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Kansas City, Cleveland, Minnesota, Oakland, Kansas City, Cleveland

Murderer’s row, that is not. And, if you’re looking for an explanation of how a good-but-not-great starter pitched like the Roy Halladay for two months, strength of opponents is a pretty good disclaimer. However, it’s not like Fister was chump change before the trade to Detroit, and it’s not like he’s never faced a good line-up before.

In fact, his last start as a Mariner was against these very same Yankees on July 26th. He went 7 innings, allowed 7 hits, 3 runs, walked 1, and struck out 5. He held opposing Yankee hitters to a .259/.286/.370 mark in that start. He also made two starts against the Rangers this year, and they managed to hit just .250/.262/.339 against him this year.

If we expand our search back to 2010, we find that Fister didn’t face the Yankees last year, but he did draw three starts against the Red Sox, who essentially tied NY for the best offense in baseball a year ago. His 4.34 ERA against them might not seem that hot, but in reality, he held a terrific Boston offense to a .253/.282/.360 mark, and it wasn’t just luck – he walked just three batters in those three starts and racked up 12 strikeouts.

It’s no doubt true that Fister dominated some weak line-ups in the second half of the season, but he’s also done good work against good offenses in the past several years, and we can’t ignore the very real improvements he has made this season. Even with a regression in his HR/FB rate, his 3.61 xFIP on the season puts him squarely between Josh Beckett and Jon Lester on the leaderboard, and I don’t think too many people would be suggesting the Tigers were in trouble if they had either of them on the mound for Game 5.

The Yankees have a good offense, but Doug Fister is a good pitcher, and he’ll give the Tigers a legitimate chance at winning tomorrow night. Don’t let preconceived notions about a guy with a 90 MPH fastball and skepticism about his second half opponents distract you from the fact that Fister has been getting good Major League hitters out for years.

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J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).

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You mean tomorrow night?