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Michael Fiers is the Fire

Michael Fiers is the fire that the Brewers rotation needed when Shaun Marcum went down. What remains to be seen is if he’s the slow-burning campfire that will keep giving all year or the short-lived snap crackle pop of your average Independence Day firecracker in San Diego.

He wasn’t supposed to be this good. He didn’t even crack Baseball America’s top ten going into the season — his only appearances on the page were a mention for Best Control in the system and a thought by Tom Haudricourt that he might help the team, in some capacity, because he’d proven himself at Triple-A. Our own Marc Hulet put Fiers 15th on the Brewers list, mentioned he was 26 and didn’t have much of a ceiling, and then gave him the “likely swing-man” mark of doom.

Gas is what Fiers is lacking. There’s no more obvious failing on his resume. And yeah, an 88 mph fastball is a bit of a problem, at least long term. It would be the tenth-worst four-seam velocity among qualified starters this year, and since we know fastball velocity tails off from the moment you enter the league and that fastball velocity is intimately tied with strikeout percentage, it doesn’t bode well for his future. Then again, he’s sandwiched in between Jered Weaver (88.2 mph) and Colby Lewis (88.0 mph) on that list. Maybe it’s okay?

Michael Barr found an equation for expected strikeout rate given fastball velocity and swinging strike rate (and last season’s strikeout rate) in this year’s preseason FG+. If we use Fiers’ current numbers to predict an expected future strikeout rate, we get 19.1% as his expected strikeout rate. That’s much worse than his 26.7% rate right now — or a difference of more than a K per inning if you prefer your rate stats in the ‘per-nine’ form.

Then again, he might still be a good pitcher with a 20% strikeout rate and eight or so strikeouts per nine innings. That’s because of his great control (2.22 BB/9 or 6.1% career, 2.4 BB/9, 6.5% MiLB career) mostly. Those numbers would rank in the top third of the qualified starters in the league, or roughly equivalent to a Cole Hamels. Again, we find that Jered Weaver has a 19.7% strikeout rate and a 6.0% walk rate this year, and that sort of comp is enough to fuel some serious waiver wire pickups.

Beyond control, Fiers burns batters first and foremost with his curveball. His 12.9 inches of vertical drop on the pitch are almost twice the average (6.3) and would beat every number on the qualified starters leaderboard for vertical drop on the curve. It’s legitimate. Watch any game that Fiers starts and it’s the pitch that makes you sit up and take notice.

Give a guy great curveball, great control and a mediocre fastball, and he might be… Josh Collmenter. Of course, Collmenter does it with that funky delivery and a changeup instead, but it’s a sobering comp to take some of the Jered Weaver out of the situation.

Then again, Collmenter throws a fastball or a changeup 95% of the time or so. Fiers uses his cutter and changeup at least 20%, maybe as much as 30% of the time depending on your PITCHf/x source. Maybe the comp isn’t fair. The cutter may not be great, but the changeup gets whiffs 17.48% of the time according to Brooks Baseball. Now he’s got at least three pitches, one of which might be great. He probably isn’t just a flash in the pan.

The Brewers righty is striking out more batters than he should. The league hasn’t seen his great curveball very often, so they aren’t sitting on his bad fastball, and that might have something to do with it. On the other hand, he has great control, at least one other pitch that might mitigate increased familiarity with his arsenal, and knows not to use his four-seamer much — he’s already using it less than half the time.

Fiers is on fire right now. How long he’ll burn this bright is still a question, but the flames won’t disappear completely for some time. Consider him a play in all leagues, and just a little bit less interesting in dynasty formats.