The Two Doug Fisters

The big mystery in Thursday night’s Game 2 of the World Series is what the Giants might get from the struggling Madison Bumgarner. Bumgarner posted strong overall numbers this year, but he seemed to wear down. Now the Giants say they’ve worked on a mechanical tweak and he should be more effective. It’s certainly intriguing, although one recalls that the Tigers said they worked on a mechanical tweak with Jose Valverde, and then Valverde did what he did in Game 1. Sometimes it’s nonsense. Sometimes it’s not nonsense, but it doesn’t make much of a difference. It’s a mystery, basically, again.

Less of a mystery is what the Tigers might get from Doug Fister. As Justin Verlander and Barry Zito have established, there’s always mystery when you’re talking about individual starts, but Fister is more of a known entity at the moment than Bumgarner is. Fister’s just a guy who’s quietly become one of the better right-handed starting pitchers in all of baseball. As bad as the Tigers might feel about losing a Verlander start, they have the consolation of knowing the rest of their starting rotation is really good, too.

But I’m not here to talk about the rest of the Tigers’ starters — I’m here to talk about Fister, and about one thing about him in particular. Everybody is familiar with the concept of platoon splits, as players often perform differently against lefties and righties. Fister has shown a platoon split of his own, but his is fairly unusual. Let’s begin by isolating 2012. Here’s Doug Fister in 2012 against right-handed batters, and A.J. Burnett in 2012, overall.

2012 K% BB% GB%
Fister vs. R 20% 8% 61%
A.J. Burnett 21% 7% 57%

Okay, great. Now here’s Doug Fister in 2012 against left-handed batters, and Joe Blanton in 2012, overall.

2012 K% BB% GB%
Fister vs. L 21% 3% 44%
Joe Blanton 21% 4% 45%

Don’t read too much into the difference in walk rates. Single-season splits and small samples, and all that. But that last column is somewhat eye-opening. Against righties this year, Fister was an extreme groundballer, while against lefties, Fister was neutral. And this split has held for Fister’s entire major-league career.

Since Fister broke in in 2009, 323 different pitchers have been credited with at least 100 innings against right-handed bats. Fister’s 55.2-percent groundball rate ranks 33rd out of the pack, around Scott Diamond and Santiago Casilla. Meanwhile, since 2009, 233 different pitchers have been credited with at least 100 innings against left-handed bats. Fister’s 41.6-percent groundball rate ranks 153rd out of the pack, around Jair Jurrjens and Matt Garza. Fister has become more of a groundball pitcher over time, but the lefty/righty split hasn’t shrunk. Righties keep the infield busy, while lefties give the outfielders something to do.

Oftentimes, what you’ll see is that a right-handed pitcher will generate fewer strikeouts and more walks against left-handed batters, and somewhat offset that by generating a higher rate of grounders. For his career, Fister’s walk rates are identical, his strikeout rate is higher against lefties, and his groundball rate is far higher against righties. Fister presumably isn’t the only pitcher like this, but his split strikes me as an uncommon one.

It’s mostly because of Fister’s fastballs. Lefties see more changeups and fewer two-seamers than righties do, but the curve and change are still groundball pitches. Let’s group Fister’s four-seamer, two-seamer, and cutter together. Since 2009, those pitches have generated 56-percent grounders against righties and 37-percent grounders against lefties. Just in 2012, the split was 63 percent and 41 percent. This is the key to the whole thing.

And unsurprisingly, Fister’s usage patterns are different. Fister likes to wear righties out with his fastballs inside, though sometimes he’ll put a cutter over the outer half. But Fister likes to stay away from lefties with his fastballs, though he’ll come in with cutters and two-seamers from time to time. The location patterns probably have something to do with the split, and naturally the pitch movements probably have something to do with the split. Against Fister, righties get jammed. Against lefties, the ball moves toward the end of the bat.

Here are two .gifs to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Fister has generated at least one grounder from a righty and at least one fly ball from a lefty.

Doug Fister is Doug Fister, but against righties, he is a different pitcher from who he is against lefties. Overall, against Fister, righties have posted a .093 isolated slugging, while lefties have posted a .151 isolated slugging. Lefties have hit more than twice as many home runs in just 27 percent more plate appearances. Anybody could conceivably drill an extra-base hit against Doug Fister, but lefties stand a better chance.

The Giants’ Game 2 lineup will look identical to their Game 1 lineup, with an irrelevant pitcher substitution. Marco Scutaro, Buster Posey, Hunter Pence, and Madison Bumgarner will bat from the right side, leaving Angel Pagan, Pablo Sandoval, Gregor Blanco, Brandon Belt, and Brandon Crawford to bat from the left side. One angle is that Sandoval has a chance to continue his home-run barrage. Another angle is that Blanco or Pagan could find three bases in the outfield vicinity of Delmon Young. Still another angle is that tonight might not be the night that Posey re-discovers his power swing. There are a lot of ways one could go with this. It’s just one game between two teams with two lineups and two starters. But one of those starters is kind of like two starters on his own, even if he doesn’t look it to the eye.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

11 Responses to “The Two Doug Fisters”

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  1. Jaack says:

    Doug Fister and Madison Bumgarner sound more like the main participants in an 80’s adult film rather than starting pitchers in the World Series.

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    • WAR Invitational says:

      Throw in an Aubrey Huff and you’ve got yourself quite a threesome.

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    • Nate says:

      Yeah, imagine the headlines when Fister was traded for Furbush (Charlie). GM Zduriencik probably had to scramble to explain that overheard phone call to his wife.

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  2. Eminor3rd says:

    Man that second GIF makes it look like Fister is doing 360s

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  3. Bob Reed says:

    Nice article. The thing about Fister that’s most interesting to me, is how his curveball pitch values shot up last year. Don’t know whether it was true (about the superb hook) pre-trade, but he’s certainly an elite righty now…and Jack Z. has all the more egg on his face.

    Did that trade make *any* sense, at the time? I’m not trying to be a smart-aleck; I honestly wonder what Mariners fans thought of the deal when it happened.

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    • Lan says:

      I never liked the trade, but I also never thought Fister would be as good as he is now. I do think that pitching with Verlander helped him develop (both are tall, skinny, right handers with a good curve-ball).

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      • Bookbook says:

        Well… M’s fans were desperate for bats. Casper Wells was reckoned a starter by M’s standards (alas, Wedge won’t play him), Francisco Martinez stud 3b prospect (whoops), and Ruffin who was ready to step into a major league setup role (double whoops). The M’s won the trade!

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    • joser says:

      It made some sense, given who Fister was then. It looks like it made no sense now, but that’s because Fister has developed — and he may or may not have developed in the same way in Seattle (Verlander vs Felix? Carl Willis vs Jeff Jones? 27 vs 28? Run support vs no run support?). The M’s had pitching depth, and they traded the starter who arguably benefited least from the Safeco Effect (such as it was). What they got in return was four guys with potential, but nothing more. And that’s exactly what they were giving up, too. It just turns out Fister has reached (or even exceeded) his potential, and those other guys mostly have not.

      I wasn’t a huge fan of the trade, but given the frothing in the Mariners fanbase for offense, it was a defensible trade at the time. Of course it would have been better to wait a year and trade him for one actual bat rather than a couple with mere potential, but again nobody (except maybe Detroit’s FO/pitching staff) saw that coming.

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  4. Balthazar says:

    Doug Fister is the present salient example of how players in general, and pitchers in particular can substantially re-tool their skill set at the major league level. The view of which we’ve heard much is that players are largely set in their attributes by the time they get to MLB. It seems like this shouldn’t be true, but then again how easy is it to add _superior_ skills to what one does while facing the highest level of competition? Still, Doug Fister not only improved he added his BEST pitch at the major league level. It would be intersting to see a study of how many other pitchers this holds true for.

    When Fister came up, he had the same two-seamer he throws now—and nothing else. It was, and remains, a reliable groundball pitch against righties, and Doug locates it in the zone exceptionally well. (Dave Duncan would have loved this guy.) What it wasn’t was a swing-and-a-miss pitch, and Fister’s K rates were below average throughout the minors and his first years. His secondary pitches were show-me level. Hence, Fister was an innings-eater against righties and vulnerable to lefty power. It’s not surprising that Fister pitches lefties away and tries to force them to hit the ball to the big part of the park (and the dead part of Safeco in the past).

    But Fister kept working on his curve, and working on it, and it went from useful, to good, to plus. Even before he was traded to Detroit, the word was the coaching staff were trying to get him to use it more in Seattle by June of ’11. It is his best pitche which regularly generates empty swings with groundballs as well. The cutter was a shrewd addition also in that it has a sharply different break from his two-seamer. That keeps lefties from sitting on location with the fastball. That also generates empty swings from both handed batters is Fister spots it intelligently (and Doug is an intelligent pitcher). The result is that Fister has gained 2 Ks per 9 since the end of the ’10 season. In the process, he’s gone from vulnerable to neutral against lefties, and frustrational to dominant against righties.

    But again, how many pitchers have added their _best_ pitch after reaching the big leagues? That would be an interesting study for anyone who cares to take it up.

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  5. Balthazar says:

    Re: Jack Z’s deal of Fister to Detroit, it is clear that this was a serious undersell. It continues an interesting/troubling pattern in Z’s trading of assets, but I must say I do not trust him to deal away starting pitchers at this point.

    Jack Z has clearly established that he handles pitching assets as fungible. ‘Everyone needs pitching,’ and if a guy has had some success, especially in the Bigs, Jack knows he can find a taker. Zduriencek has shown also that he will deal guys who have been bypassed on his depth chart, and that he will deal guys nearing free agency for whatever comes back. Moreover, he inherited a very poor farm system desertified by desperately poor drafting by the preceding FO, so realistically he was going to need to make a number of quantity-over-quality swaps to throw loose bodies into multiple gaping holes.

    Here’s a quick and dirty (and likely incomplete) accounting of the moves headlined by Jack Z giving up a Seattle pitcher (and one getting a starting pitcher):

    Putz rp + Valubuena inf + Reed of = Guti Gutierrez, Vargas sp, and Cleto rp
    (stuff) = Snell sp + Wilson inf
    Morrow ?sp = League rp + Chavez of
    Aumont ?p + (stuff) = Cliff Leeeeee sp
    Lee sp + Lowe rp = Smoak inf + Beavan sp + Lueke rp + inf
    Cleto rp = Ryan inf
    Fister sp + rp = Wells of + Furbush ?p + Ruffin rp + Martinez inf
    Bedard sp (soon FA) = stuff
    Pineda sp + Campos sp = Montero c
    Lueke rp = Jaso c
    League rp (soon FA) = stuff

    Jack’s averaging two deals a year around moving a pitcher. Hands down, Jack’s best deals have been moving over-desired bullpen velocity for radically undervalued assets elsewhere. Conversely, every deal Jack has made _giving up_ a starting pitcher (or several) grades out as a significant undersell. Not irrational deals, there were valid reasons for the packages, but the starting pitching assets have been in most cases moved at a costly discount over what came back AT THE TIME to say nothing of in retrospect. The fact that Pineda and Campos both suffered season-ending (and even career-threatening) injuries doesn’t change the equation in that reasonable performance at established levels by either of them would make that deal seem like underweight coming back to this point also.

    One could argue also that the starting pitchers coming back in these deals have been misassed also, that is over-priced. Cliff Lee was Cliff Lee; Vargas was and is useful; the other starters coming back have underwhelmed or slid to lesser roles. The number of instances of starters acquired is too small to suggest anything certain, but in light of the larger issue with misassessing starting pitchers doesn’t seem flueky or unlucky. The starters acquired have had little upside, and usually failed to realize even that. It’s Vargas being decent which looks more the fluke, frankly.

    If Jack Z wants to trade a relief pitcher, I’m for letting him. If he wants to move Pryor _or_ Capps, go for it; they’re good and all but the Ms have needs. He’s got that thing down. If Jack Z and his crew want to trade a starting pitcher away, at this point I’m for a short leash and a second opinion. Jack appears to see these arms as ‘readily replaceable’ in part, it’s clear, because he and his crew are consistently undervaluing _their present performance_, let alone their future potential. There are rumors floating around regarding the Mariners trading James Paxton. My response: “No.”

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