The Rangers Are Adding a Possible Steal

Somewhat quietly, the Rangers have ended up in a difficult situation. We tend to think of the Rangers as perennial contenders, and they’ve established a fairly good record of success, but they could be approaching a cliff. In the same way you see the Orioles as a club that could be rebuilding a year from now, the Rangers aren’t too different, now that Yu Darvish is gone and Cole Hamels has declined. Just like every other club, the Rangers are interested in Shohei Ohtani, but just like every other club, the Rangers have to understand they probably aren’t going to get him. They don’t occupy an enviable spot.

What the Rangers haven’t done, however, is throw in the towel. There is still a path to short-term success, even should Ohtani go somewhere else. It requires the Rangers to be smart with their money, trying to get the most bang for their buck. They’re presently on the verge of signing Doug Fister. Last I heard, all that’s left is a physical. This is a good start. Fister should supply some immediate help.

Even with Fister on board, the Rangers would rank 21st in baseball in projected WAR. Worse than that, only the White Sox and Orioles have inferior projected starting rotations. The Rangers are in desperate need of rotation help, and if they get Fister signed officially, well, that’s only one piece, and they’d still need more. They know they’d still need more. But, Ohtani aside, no front office can solve everything by landing one player. You have to focus on the individual improvements. And Fister is signing to some extremely agreeable terms.

The Rangers are giving Fister a one-year deal with a 2019 club option. The whole thing is worth a minimum of $4 million and a maximum of $11.5 million, and that would be over two years, combined. The Rangers just paid Andrew Cashner $10 million for one year. Fister’s contract has a modest ceiling, and although that might seem suitable, given that he’ll turn 34 in February, last year was a big one. Fister did a lot to turn back his own clock.

As always, there’s something that needs to be said: Doug Fister is not unfamiliar to any major-league front office. He was a free agent, available to anyone and everyone, and it says something that he signed for so little. The market evidently decided that Fister isn’t very exciting. That’s okay. Last year’s market decided that Charlie Morton wasn’t very exciting. The market isn’t right about everybody. Neither am I! Good heavens, neither am I. But let me lay out the case here. The case for why Fister appears to be underappreciated. It helps that I basically wrote this same article in early September.

Fister was at his best some years ago with the Tigers. Then he went to the Nationals, and then he got worse. He signed on with the Astros, but that didn’t go very well. Last year, he didn’t have a team until the Angels signed him in May. Just weeks later, he was selected off waivers by the Red Sox. On the one hand, Fister’s playoff start wasn’t good. On the other hand, Doug Fister made a playoff start last month.

Ideally, the Red Sox wouldn’t have been in that situation in the first place, but David Price wasn’t throwing at 100%. Still, Fister earned the chance. And he earned the chance because he looked like his younger self. Pitching is bad for you. It can be good for your wallet, but it’s bad for your body. Over time, Fister’s stuff gradually deteriorated, and his results went south. Fister was never a guy who could afford to sacrifice much velocity. But then Fister returned to the majors. And his old stuff was all present.

Between the last two years, no starting pitcher had a bigger gain in average fastball velocity than Fister did.

Largest Fastball Improvements
Pitcher 2016 FA 2017 FA Change
Doug Fister 87.8 90.1 2.3
Chad Kuhl 94.0 95.9 1.9
Yovani Gallardo 90.6 92.5 1.9
Michael Wacha 93.7 95.6 1.9
Tyler Chatwood 93.1 95.0 1.9
Raul Alcantara 93.9 95.6 1.7
Jacob deGrom 94.2 95.7 1.5
Chase Anderson 92.0 93.5 1.5
Shelby Miller 94.1 95.5 1.4
Aaron Nola 90.7 92.1 1.4
SOURCE: Brooks Baseball
Four-seamers and two-seamers combined. Starting pitchers only, with a minimum of 10 innings in each season.

Not every pitcher on that list was amazing, and one pitcher on that list is Yovani Gallardo, but each case always has to be examined individually. Doug Fister showed up with his stuff back. Here’s the familiar telling graphic, from Brooks Baseball.

That looks like what you see when an aging, declining starting pitcher gets moved to the bullpen. Fister made no such move. And while that plot is important, and insightful, I’d like to simplify it for you. Back in 2012 and 2013, Fister was basically a four-win starting pitcher. Super good, if short of being ace material. Here’s Fister over his last 11 starts, and Fister from five and six years ago.

Doug Fister Velocities
Time Sinker Cutter Changeup Curveball
2012 – 2013 90 86 82 75
Last 11 starts 90 86 83 74

I chose the last 11 starts because that’s when the Red Sox left Fister in the rotation for good. Earlier, he’d made a few starts, and he’d made a few relief appearances. Fister, before this 11-start stretch, did not pitch well. I don’t want to completely dismiss that performance. But, you know how it is. He didn’t have a real spring training. The Red Sox were having him work on adjustments. Fister was a starter from July 31 on forward. Here is one more table.

Doug Fister vs. Doug Fister
Time IP K-BB% GB% Strike% Contact% ERA- FIP- xFIP-
2012 – 2013 370.1 14% 53% 65% 81% 87 82 84
Last 11 starts 65.0 15% 55% 64% 82% 98 76 80

Some starts were better than others, and Fister didn’t finish on a strong note, but over that combined 11-start stretch, Fister looked basically just like he used to. The grounders were there, and Fister’s strikeouts made a dramatic recovery. From July 31 forward, Fister ranked in the 88th percentile among starters in FIP. He ranked in the 81st percentile in xFIP. He ranked in the 79th percentile in wOBA allowed. And he ranked in the 73rd percentile in expected wOBA allowed. The six names on either side of him: Tanner Roark, Dallas Keuchel, Jimmy Nelson, Julio Teheran, Mike Clevinger, and Chris Archer. Once again, Fister wasn’t so much throwing like an ace, but he looked like a fine No. 2, or a strong No. 3. He looked like Doug Fister.

There’s no such thing as a guarantee for any starting pitcher, and when you have one Fister’s age, you’d be right to be wary. A couple truths here are that Fister is in his mid-30s, and over the past few seasons, on balance, he hasn’t been effective. Most recently, however, Fister has looked a lot like the old Fister again, in terms of both stuff and results. Sure, the game has changed a lot in the half-decade or so, but Fister just demonstrated he can still get strikeouts and grounders. What pitcher wouldn’t want strikeouts and grounders?

For Fister, and for the Rangers, it’s a small sample, and the stuff remains underwhelming as ever. It’s the recovery that’s so encouraging, and when the stuff shows up, I don’t think you always need a large sample to believe. Could this go sideways? Absolutely. But the maximum commitment here — the maximum commitment — is $11.5 million over two years. You always have to evaluate these things by the probabilities. Does Fister seem just as likely to be worth less as he does to be worth more? I don’t think so. I think Fister is a great deal more likely to be worth more. Which makes this a great way for the Rangers to kick off their offseason.

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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.

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Doug Fister. Ryon Healy. Emilio Pagan. Man … the hot stove is humming now!