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Preparing For Another Year Of Doug Fister

One of the downsides of blogging about a single baseball team every day is that every so often you feel like you run out of things to talk about. One of the upsides of blogging about a single baseball team every day is that every so often you can talk about something you've already talked about because no one remembers. That's what this is.

The Mariners head into 2011 with three certainties in their rotation. Bedard and Pineda - they've got a lot of potential, but they're question marks. Felix, Vargas, and Fister are the locks. And while Doug Fister is the least interesting of the bunch, he's also the one that many might have the most trouble predicting. Is Fister going to be the guy we saw in the early part of last season, or is he going to be the guy that struggled after coming back from June shoulder fatigue?

The narrative writes itself. Over Fister's first ten starts, he had a 2.45 ERA. Then he went on the DL with shoulder fatigue, and after missing four weeks, he came back to start 18 games with a 5.24 ERA (ed. note: "5.24" contains the same three digits as "2.45". oooohhh). Guy's good, then he gets hurt, then he comes back and he's worse. The natural conclusion, then, is that everything depends on the state of his shoulder, right?

Well technically yes, everything does depend on the state of Doug Fister's shoulder, since without it he wouldn't be pitching at all. But more important is understanding that, while Fister's ERA shot through the roof, he wasn't actually very different before and after the DL stint. Again, we've covered this before, but just to review, here are Fister's pre- and post-DL splits:

pre-DL 2.45 3.61 0.236 12% 3% 53%
post-DL 5.24 3.73 0.345 14% 5% 44%

I know that's a lot of information, but focus on the third and fourth columns. You should recognize these stats. Fister's FIP went nearly unchanged. The big contributor to his ERA spike was that his batting average on balls in play shot up by 46%, from an unsustainably low level to an unsustainably high level. Yes, there were some changes to his peripherals. No, he wasn't exactly the same guy before and after. But the takeaway point is that Fister simply wasn't as good as he looked early on, and he wasn't as bad as he looked down the stretch. He was pretty much right in the middle.

Now, I don't mean to suggest that Fister didn't in some way deserve the low early BABIP or the high late BABIP. He may have been pitching away from solid contact in the first few months, and then allowing more solid contact after returning. But in terms of looking ahead to the future, we only care about what a pitcher can sustain. And with that in mind, it doesn't much matter whether Fister shows up as his pre-DL self, his post-DL self, or somewhere in between. There just isn't a whole lot of difference. Certainly not as great as ERA would suggest.

What I find more interesting than Fister's perceived change in performance after his DL visit is his actual change in approach. I'll break this down by handedness just for the sake of being thorough. Fister's fastball percentage:

pre-DL post-DL
vs. RHP 82% 70%
vs. LHB 74% 61%

Before visiting the disabled list, Fister was all fastballs, all the time. After coming off, he still threw a lot of fastballs, but at a much more normal rate. Righties and lefties alike started seeing more of all of his other pitches, with lefties in particular getting a lot more changeups. I'm inclined to think this probably explains the changes in his peripherals. More offspeed stuff means more strikeouts, but it also means deeper counts, which means more walks. I can't explain the reduced groundball rate so easily, but if Fister's main groundball weapon is his heavy fastball, then it stands to reason that fewer of those leads to more balls in the air.

So, Fister. If you're wondering what to expect from Doug Fister in 2011, I think the best answer is "Doug Fister". Forget all about his ERA. Just think about what a guy like Doug Fister offers as a skillset, and translate that to a performance on the field. There, now you have a reasonable projection. It'll be interesting to see whether he comes out all fastball-heavy again or if he opts for more of a mix, since that kind of changes the profile a little bit, but no matter what he does, Fister's thrown 232 innings in the big leagues, now, and he's established himself as a guy who rarely walks anyone, generates a decent amount of groundballs, and occasionally misses a bat. It's a simple skillset, but it's a skillset that works, as evidenced by Fister's career 4.11 ERA and 4.33 xFIP. As weird as it is to say, I think it's safe to call him a suitable, dependable back-of-the-rotation starter. He's a guy who's vulnerable to some wild swings of luck, but as long as you don't let yourself get thrown off, he shouldn't disappoint.