Why I Don’t Like Doug Fister


I want to start this by apologizing to any friends or family of Doug Fister (or Doug Fister himself, God forbid) who might stumble on this on Google News. I do not mean to convey any negative impression about Fister personally, I’ve never seen or heard anything to suggest that he is anything but a great guy. What I mean to say is that I don’t like Fister’s chances of success as a Detroit Tiger.

And here’s why:

To clarify things, as I’m sure you all know Doug Fister has one major skill – he has the sterling command required to finish near the top of the league (or bottom, however you want to think of it) in walks per 9 innings. If he can be roughly average in all the other things that a starter needs to do: miss bats, keep the ball in the park and make it difficult for hitters to do what they want with a pitch, he would be an above average starter. In parts of 3 seasons with Seattle, that seemed to be the case. However, I don’t think it’s likely to continue.

Exhibit A: Fister’s minor league numbers do not correlate well with those he put up while with the Mariners.

In 100 minor league games between 2006 and 2010 Doug Fister was 23-31 with a 4.38 ERA. He displayed the same exceptional control, particularly in AAA in 2009 where he walked barely more than one batter per nine innings and struck out more batters than he has been in the bigs – as is normal. His home run rate was similar to that which he has had as a big leaguer, 0.81 per 9 versus 0.73. The reason for his vastly inflated ERA despite the competition was a much higher BABIP than Fister has had as a major leaguer, in the neighborhood of .330 as opposed to the league-average .295 he has had in the show. Fister did not really excel as a minor leaguer, and it isn’t because he was rushed – he didn’t get a cup of coffee until he was 25. He was a 7th round pick out of college, used as a swingman in the minors, who then managed to exceed all expectations in a season and a half in the majors.

So how could this be? Allow me to introduce…

Exhibit B: Fister’s record away from SafeCo Field (or whatever they call it now) is nothing like what he did at home.

It’s common for pitchers to have higher walk rates on the road than at home, and this has been the case for Fister as well – rising from 1.62 to 2.13. Sports Illustrated has made a convincing argument that this common effect is due to unconscious bias by umpires, but that’s neither here nor there and it isn’t a big enough swing to explain Fister’s jump from a 3.48 ERA at home to a 4.47 ERA on the road. I’ve mentioned before that Seattle is a very difficult place to hit. The park is big and balls don’t travel well, which cuts down on both outfield base hits and extra base hits. Part of that will show up as a lower HR/9, and Fister has allowed a smaller number of bombs when playing at home, but the difference isn’t all that enormous. But… SafeCo field also makes it less likely that balls will fall for hits resulting in a .280 BABIP at home and a .315 on the road. That might not sound huge, but it corresponds to a rise in WHIP from a perfectly acceptable 1.17 to a very marginal 1.38. But .315 is way better than .330, right?

Exhibit C: The Mariners have better defenders than our Tigers do.

I know, that isn’t a huge leap even if it’s unpleasant to think about. Too many plays being made (or not made) by guys like Magglio Ordonez, Wilson Betemit or Ryan Raburn so a lot of other teams have better defenders than Detroit. But the Mariners club, weak as it is, has been built around defense. If we use the Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency stat used to rate team defenses, in 2011 the Tigers allow 0.77% more hits on balls in play than average, while the Mariners allow 1.41% fewer than average. Combined, we get something like a 2.2% greater chance that a ball in play will land for a hit against Detroit than against Seattle, the equivalent of raising a pitcher’s BABIP allowed from .315 to .337.

You’ll often hear statistically-minded fans say that BABIP is just luck and means nothing, I’m not one of them. BABIP is a skill, both for batters and for pitchers, a point I spent days earlier this summer attempting to argue (1, 2, 3, 4). Ty Cobb is in the Hall of Fame because of his BABIP skills, someday Mariano Rivera will be too (career .264 BABIP allowed over 17 seasons). BABIP gets a bad rap from stat guys because of the high variance (which isn’t really all that much higher than something like ‘power’) that makes it difficult to say if someone actually has or actually lacks that skill until they have 17 seasons in the books to compare. If you look at Fister’s minor league career, his road numbers, and deflate his numbers with the M’s overall to reflect their great team defense what you get is a convincing story – and a track record – that suggests that Fister does not have league-average BABIP skill (in the same way that a different story suggests that AJax does have above-average BABIP skills), and quite possibly does not come close to league average BABIP skills. Think post-injury Jeremy Bonderman, but with better control.

ZiPS, one of the ‘projections’ systems used to estimate what a player is likely to do over the season, periodically releases updates projecting what that player can be expected to do over the remainder of the current season. They’ve got Fister pegged for a .332 BABIP and a 4.78 ERA over his next 7 starts – and that’s about what I expect from him too. I’ll be delighted if he pitches to his big league career averages, but also very surprised. Ubaldo Jimenez, unfortunately, is projected to give the Tribe a 3.10 ERA the rest of the way…