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Fister’s Fast Start

Heading into 2010, Seattle Mariners starter Doug Fister was a relative unknown outside of (and perhaps even in) the Pacific Northwest. The 6-foot-8 beanpole did a decent job in his big league debut last season, posting a 4.50 xFIP with 5.31 K/9 and 2.21 BB in 61 innings. But Fister never cracked Baseball America’s list of Seattle’s top 30 prospects, and neither CHONE (4.86 FIP) nor ZiPS (5.08 FIP) expected much out of the 26 year-old this season.

Yet, following a start last night against the Texas Rangers in which he tossed eight shutout innings, Fister now holds a 1.29 ERA in 35 total frames. Fantasy owners haven’t joined the Fister fan club, however, as the 7th round pick in the 2006 draft is owned in 33 percent of Yahoo leagues and 6.3 percent of ESPN leagues. It appears that many players are justifiably skeptical of Fister’s fast start.

First, the good. Fister has issued just 1.29 BB/9, while locating 53.5 percent of his pitches within the strike zone (the MLB average is 48.2 percent in 2010). That has contributed to an above-average 60 percent rate of first pitch strikes (57.5% MLB average). The righty displayed sharp control throughout his minor league tenure as well, with 2.2 BB/9 overall and just 0.9 BB/9 at Triple-A Tacoma in 2009. A slight groundball pitcher in the minors (47.2 GB%, according to Minor League Splits), Fister has a 51.9 GB% so far this year.

The Bad? Fister isn’t fooling anyone. Utilizing an 88-89 MPH fastball over three-quarters of the time, he has punched out just 4.11 batters per nine innings. His 89.7 percent contact rate is well north of the 80.7 percent MLB average, and Fister’s 4.1 percent swinging strike rate is less than half of the 8.3 percent big league average.

And, as you probably guessed by that ERA, he’s been incredibly lucky. Fister has a .218 BABIP, without surrendering a home run. His rate of stranding runners on base (82.8 percent) will also regress in the months to come. Overall, Fister’s expected FIP, based on K’s, walks and a normalized HR/FB rate, is 3.97.

Fister does boast very good control, and he’s backed by strong defenders: after leading the majors in team Ultimate Zone Rating in 2009, the Mariners rank 5th in 2010. But even so, Fister looks more like a league average starting pitcher than some breakout star. ZiPS projects 4.81 K/9, 2.37 BB/9 and a 4.62 FIP for the rest of the season.

I would say don’t get fooled by the shiny ERA. But, judging from those ownership rates, most fantasy players already know better.