Revisiting Doug Fister
A year ago, I did a Not-A-Rookie piece on Seattle Mariners right-hander Doug Fister, who was leading the American League in ERA last May. He is having another good spring for the Mariners, currently with a 2.70 ERA in six starts with a 26/12 K/BB and a 140 ERA+. A reader requested that we take another look at him, so here goes.
First, what I wrote last May:
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 would have given him a Grade C if I had. Baseball America didn't put him in their Mariners Top 30 either.
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 theirs.
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 very hittable with 155 hits given up. Again, reports indicated a guy who threw strikes with so-so stuff, and there was nothing in the numbers to indicate a breakout ahead. Once again, he was left out of my book and BA's book.
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. 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.
Promoted to the majors when the Mariners needed a starter last summer, 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+ this year, saying that under the right conditions 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.
2010 has been great so far: 1.29 ERA, 16/5 K/BB in 35 innings, but just 23 hits allowed. You probably know where I'm going with this: even for a finesse pitcher, his strikeout rate is much too low for sustained success, and so far he's benefited greatly from good defensive teammates and good luck. David Golebiewski at Fangraphs weighed in on Fister last weekend with this piece,and I agree with his conclusions. It won't last.
That said, while Fister is unlikely to be this good for a sustained period of time, if he maintains this kind of control, he could end up having a really nice year that won't fall apart immediately. Back in the late 1980s, the Twins had a pitcher named Allan Anderson, a 5-11, 180 pound left-handed starter with weaker stuff than Fister. Anderson went 16-9 with an American League-leading 2.45 ERA in '88, then won 17 games in 1989. He couldn't sustain it and was out of baseball by 1992. There are many other examples, of course.
I think what throws people off about Fister is his size: he's a huge right-hander, not a classical "sneaky lefty." But if you approach Fister like you would approach a mediocre-stuff southpaw you'll have a good image of what his future should be like. He has lightning in the bottle right now, but he might be able to keep it there for a year or two.
Fister finished 6-14, 4.11 in 28 starts, with a 93/32 K/BB in 171 innings, 187 hits allowed, 96 ERA+, 3.65 FIP, WAR 2.9. Basically, my May analysis held up fairly well: he couldn't sustain his early year performance, but ended up having a pretty decent season. My guess is that he'll repeat the same pattern this year, cooling off after the hot start but ending up with similar numbers.
His strikeout rate is actually considerably higher this year (6.4 K/9 compared to 4.9 K/9), but his walk rate is also higher (2.9 compared to 1.7), and given the sample sizes over six starts, I wouldn't make too much of the strikeouts just yet. His ground ball percentages and BABIP haven't changed a bit, literally the same as last year. His FIP is better (3.13 compared to 3.65) but his xFIP is actually a little worse (4.16 compared to 4.10). There has been no change in his velocity or stuff.
By Sim Score, the Most Comparable Pitchers through age 26: Pat Rapp, Mike Scott, Bob Tewksbury, Nick Blackburn, Jimmy Zinn (1920s guy, not really a good comp), Fernando Arroyo, Frank Woodward (similar to Zinn, not a good comp), Jim Winford (1930s guy who had one good year for the Cardinals), Bill Phyle (turn of the century guy, not a good comp), and Emil Frisk (same as Phyle). The first four comps make some sense, but the scores break down after that, which tends to happen with small sample sizes.
Mike Scott stands out as an oddity. He was a very mediocre pitcher through age 29, when he suddenly developed a new "split-finger" pitch in 1985, won 18 games at age 30, then somehow struck out 306 men and led the league in ERA at age 31. That seems an unlikely outcome for Fister.
Baseball Prospectus comps are more instructive than the Sim Scores: Armando Galarraga-2010, Tim Stauffer-2010, Brad Thompson-2010, Nick Blackburn-2010, Brad Hennessey-2008, Jason Marquis-2007, Kyle Lohse-2007, Brian Bannister-2009, Joel Pineiro-2007. Of course the trouble here is that we don't know exactly how these guys who are still active are going to turn out. It IS interesting that Blackburn shows up under both methods.
Basically, I think Fister is the same guy he was last year. Just flip him around in your mind and treat him as you would a finesse lefty. Put a competent defense behind him in a pitcher's park, score some runs, and he'll keep you in the game. If everything works perfectly, he could turn into another Tewksbury, but his margin for error is quite thin.