Milwaukee Brewers starting pitcher Mike Fiers was in the news for all the wrong reasons last month after he sent Giancarlo Stanton of the Miami Marlins to the hospital. That incident might overshadow what Fiers did the rest of the season, but that would be a mistake. The fact is that he pitched excellently: 2.13 ERA in 72 innings, 76/17 K/BB, 46 hits, 2.99 FIP. He ran up 1.6 fWAR in 10 starts and four relief appearances. Included in that was his 14-strikeout destruction of the Cubs on August 14th, but he wasn't a one-start phenom.
Fiers allowed three earned runs or less in every one of his 10 starts. Only once did he fail to go at least five innings, and only once did he allow four runs. And never did he allow five or more.
Fiers pitched well in 2012 too; the only time he hasn't pitched well was in 2013 when he was injured. Fiers now has 224 major league innings to his credit, with a 3.54 ERA, 3.49 FIP, 113 ERA+, 228/62 K/BB, 201 hits allowed, and 4.1 fWAR. In 162-game notation, that would be a 182/50 K/BB in 179 innings. 3.3 fWAR.
That's very good, yet Fiers was never considered a top prospect. Some people never considered him a prospect at all. He is the ultimate Sleeper who Woke Up and here is how it happened.
Fiers pitched college baseball at Nova Southeastern University in Florida. He had a marvelous season in 2009, posting a 2.65 ERA in 109 innings with a spectacular 145/19 K/BB ratio and just 87 hits allowed. He led NCAA Division II in strikeouts. However, he was already 24 years old, his college career having been slowed by injuries, and he didn't throw hard. He got drafted though, in the 22nd round by the Milwaukee Brewers, earning a tiny $2,500 bonus due to his complete lack of leverage.
He had leverage over hitters however, posting a 35/1 K/BB and a 1.29 ERA in 21 innings in his pro debut for Helena in the Pioneer League. He moved back into starting in 2010, posting a 3.53 ERA with a 130/32 K/BB in 125 innings combined between High-A Brevard County and Double-A Huntsville. Scouts were skeptical, but here's the report I filed for 2011:
Mike Fiers was a nice surprise for the Brewers last year. Drafted in the 22nd round out of Nova Southeastern University in 2009, Fiers was old when drafted at 24. He pitched very well last year in the Florida State League, and continued to pitch well after moving up to Double-A. His component ratios were strong across the board…everything was above average. He also posted a 17/3 K/BB in 19 innings in the Arizona Fall League. As you probably expect, Fiers doesn’t have a hot fastball at just 88 MPH, but he throws strikes, changes speeds with his breaking ball like a master, and can start or relieve. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him reach the majors in 2011 as either a fifth starter or a relief option. Grade C, but a sleeper.
Fiers took a gigantic leap forward in 2011, posting a 2.64 ERA with a 63/14 K/BB in 61 innings for Huntsville, an even better 1.11 ERA with a 69/22 K/BB in 65 innings for Triple-A Nashville, and finishing the season with two shutout relief innings for the Brewers. I saw one of his starts for Nashville and despite putting lots of "86s" and "87s" on the radar gun, the hitters looked helpless against him, completely fooled by his delivery and overmatched by a quality curveball and change-up. The report entering 2012:
That turned out better than I could have possibly hoped, since Fiers had a tremendous season in the upper minors and reached the majors in September. As written last year, his velocity is nothing special, but his breaking ball and changeup are quite effective and he knows how to pitch. He has an over-the-top delivery that reminds some observers of Josh Collmenter’s, and we know what Collmenter did last year in Arizona. Fiers delivers all of his pitches with exactly the same release point; he doesn’t telegraph anything. He turns 27 in June and isn’t a typical prospect, but there are no holes in his statistics, and if he maintains this sort of command he should continue to succeed. Grade C+.
Fiers spent most of 2012 with the Brewers and pitched well, posting a 3.74 ERA in 128 innings with a 135/36 K/BB. Hampered by injuries in 2013, he was much less effective (7.25 ERA in 22 innings for the Brewers, giving up 28 hits although with a 15/6 K/BB). He was something of a forgotten man entering 2014, written off by many people as a fluke who got lucky in '12. However, he returned to health this year, was completely dominant in Triple-A (2.55 ERA, 129/17 K/BB in 102 innings for Nashville, just 80 hits) and did the best pitching of his life after being promoted to the majors again this summer.
Facts and thoughts about Fiers:
***His fastball tops out at 92 and is usually in the 87-89 range, sometimes as low as 85-86. Despite the lack of classic velocity, hitters don't read the fastball well due to his over-the-top delivery and the contrast of the heat with his secondary pitches.
***Said secondary pitches are diverse: he has a slow curve in the 68-75 range, a change-up in 77-84 territory, and a cuttery sliderish thingie that can hit any spot in the 80s. The quality of his secondary pitches seems to improve from year to year. He can locate his pitches to any spot in the strike zone, isn't afraid to work hitters high, and excels at disrupting hitters' timing.
***Despite his finesse arsenal, his component ratios (strikeout rate, hit rate) are those of a power pitcher. They always have been. In college, A-ball, Double-A, Triple-A, and the majors, Fiers has seldom been hit hard. When healthy, he has always been effective, even against top competition.
Since he doesn't throw 97 MPH, Fiers will fight skeptics. But in this case, I think you have to throw the radar guns away. Fiers has proven what he can do and it is up to the hitters now to prove that they can handle him. So far, they haven't.
Looking forward, I wouldn't expect a 2.13 ERA in a full season. But Fiers' overall career numbers (3.54 ERA, 113 ERA+) don't seem like a fluke to me. I think he's a legitimately above-average starting pitcher and a gigantic bargain as a $2,500 late-round draft pick.
Here's the 14 strikeouts against the Cubs. Note how the hitters are unable to unlock the secret of Fiers' 88 MPH fastball.