Prospect Retrospective: Doug Fister, RHP, Detroit Tigers
Per reader request, here is a Prospect Retrospective and Career Profile on Doug Fister. From now on with these Prospect Retros, I'm going to include a "Lesson Learned."
Doug Fister was a solid (though not outstanding) starting pitcher for Fresno State in 2005, going 7-6, 4.32 with a 77/27 K/BB in 94 innings with 90 hits allowed as a junior. He was drafted by the Yankees in the sixth round, but wasn't happy with the offered bonus and went back to college for his senior year. This produced similar numbers: 8-6, 4.10 with a 108/47 K/BB in 116 innings, 118 hits allowed. The decision to return to college likely cost him money: the Mariners picked him in the seventh round of the '06 draft, but as a senior he had no leverage and got just a $50,000 bonus.
Scouts were intrigued with his 6-8, 185 pound frame, but his stuff was considered just average with an 88-90 MPH fastball and an okay slider. He was used as a reliever in the Northwest League after signing, with a 2.25 ERA and a 35/11 K/BB in 40 innings, but as a senior with average stuff pitching against younger competition, he didn't show up on prospect lists. I did not put him in the 2007 book, but I didn't have great reports on him despite his numbers, and would have given him a Grade C if I had put him in the book. Baseball America didn't put him in their Mariners Top 30 either, so I wasn't alone.
Fister jumped all the way to Double-A in his first pro season, going 7-8, 4.60 with a 85/32 K/BB in 131 innings for West Tennessee, allowing 156 hits. He showed sharp control, but his K/IP ratio was below average and he gave up a ton of hits. Scouting reports were the same as before: mediocre fastball, okay slider, okay changeup, but nothing that stood out about him. Certainly the numbers weren't that impressive, and to me he looked like a Double-A inning-eater. I didn't put him in the '08 book, and Baseball America made the same decision for their handbook. He still looked like a marginal Grade C guy to me.
Returning to West Tennessee for '08, Fister's ERA rose to 5.43 and he went 6-14. He did strike out more people, with a 104/45 K/BB in 134 innings, but remained extremely hittable with 155 hits given up. Again, reports indicated a guy who threw strikes with mediocre stuff, and there was nothing in the numbers or the scouting reports to indicate a breakout ahead. Once again, he was left out of both my book and BA's book entering 2009.
Fister began '09 with West Tennessee, but was promoted to Triple-A after pitching 5.2 scoreless innings in relief. With Tacoma, he went 6-4, 3.81 with a 79/11 K/BB in 106 innings, with 132 hits given up. Again, that's a lot of hits. But his control went from good to excellent, his BB/9 dropping from 3.0 in '08 to a mere 0.9 in '09. The K/IP and H/IP remained unimpressive, but the sharp reduction in walks boosted his performance and got him noticed.
Promoted to the majors when Seattle needed a starter during the summer of ‘09, he went 3-4, 4.13 with a 36/15 K/BB in 61 innings for the Mariners, with 63 hits allowed. Pitching in front of major league defenses seemed to help him, and he continued to throw strikes with aplomb.
He exceeded rookie innings limits, but I would have given him a Grade C or C+ entering 2010 due to his low strikeout rate. I would probably have written something along the lines that he could contribute as a fourth/fifth starter and inning-eater if you put a good defense behind him, but that he had no potential to dominate. That would have been a pretty accurate take for '10: he went 6-14, 4.11 in 28 starts with a 93/32 K/BB, 187 hits in 171 innings, and a 96 ERA+.
2011 showed him with a 3-12 record in 21 starts for the Mariners due to poor run support, but with a 3.33 ERA and a 113 ERA+ in 146 innings. Traded to the Tigers in July for the stretch run, he went on an 8-1, 1.79 run in 70 innings for an ERA+ of 231, helping push Detroit to the post-season. Overall he posted a 5.4 WAR in '11.
He was solid enough in 2012: 10-10, 3.45, 137/37 K/BB in 162 innings, 122 ERA+, 3.6 WAR. Overall, in 610 major league innings, Fister is 30-41, 3.48 with a 412/121 K/BB, 599 hits allowed, 116 ERA+, 12.1 WAR. His career FIP is almost identical to his ERA at 3.51.
Up until mid-season 2009, there was nothing in Fister's scouting reports, college record, or minor league sabermetric profile to predict the successful major league career he's had so far. Velocity was never his forte and still isn't, but his fastball sinks well and his slider, cutter, curveball, and changeup give him a diverse arsenal. He always threw strikes reasonably well, but the big change was a sharp decline in his walk rate that began in ‘09.
Sharpening his command from decent to excellent took him to the top and has kept him successful. Fister never showed up highly on prospect lists because the command improvement happened so fast that he lost rookie eligibility before most analysts could conclude that the changes were real.
Lesson Learned: Rapid improvements aren't always illusionary and can make a big difference. If a pitcher throws strikes and gets grounders, he has something to build on.