No One Saw Doug Fister Coming


September 26, 2012; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Doug Fister (58) pitches during the first inning against the Kansas City Royals at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE

When the Detroit Tigers acquired Doug Fister at the trade deadline a year ago, the thought was that they were getting a starter that would solidify the back end of their rotation. Here’s how Zach Sanders described Fister on FanGraphs blog post after the trade was completed (emphasis mine).

"With Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello already in place, the Tigers headed into the trade deadline looking for a back-end starter. Fister, owner of a 3.33 ERA, will slide in nicely behind Detroit’s other arms. While Fister’s ERA is certainly a result of Safeco Field and the Mariners’ defense, he is by no means a product of a great situation. Fister’s xFIP currently sits below 4.00, as does his SIERA. While his league-average numbers are all well and good, Fister’s value comes from his contract situation. The 27-year old won’t be arbitration eligible until 2013, giving the Tigers another year or two of very cheap production."

That’s a very good summary of the general consensus after the trade. The Tigers were getting a player who put up solid numbers in front of a quality defense in a pitchers’ park. He had the extra bonus of being cost controlled for a number of years. There was no mention of “stuff” or any implication that he was anything other than a league average innings eater.

This shouldn’t be an indictment on Sanders or FanGraphs for mis-anazlying Fister or anything (I simply sought this post out because I knew it was there), it’s rather a commentary on how much he has changed as a pitcher since moving from Seattle to Detroit.

Fister’s numbers as a Mariner seemingly spoke for themselves. He had a low walk rate (1.9 per nine innings), a low strikeout rate (5.2 per nine innings), and a low home run rate (0.7 per nine innings). He was exactly as described: a pitcher who allowed the ball to be put into play and relied on his defense to record a large number of outs. Simply put, he’s how we might describe Rick Porcello if his BABIP could trend back below .300; a good third or fourth starter.

But one incredible thing happened after his trade to Detroit. He began striking out more batters (a lot more!). Fister, who fanned 5.2 per nine innings for his Seattle career – and only 5.5 per nine up until the trade deadline that season – suddenly saw his K/9 rate jump to 7.3 per nine innings for the remainder of the year. And he’s been even better this season with the rate up to 7.7 per nine innings.

Whereas the Tigers (and analysts) thought they were getting a mid-to-back end of the rotation guy, they actually got a 2.89 ERA in his 35 Detroit starts to date. Here’s what Dave Cameron, also of FanGrpahs, had to say about Fister earlier this year.

"For the last year, Fister has been one of the elite pitchers in baseball. While his prior history suggests that we expect some regression, a look at Mike Mussina‘s career shows that there’s precedence for this kind of career trajectory.Through age 25, Mussina had very similar walk and strikeout rates to Fister, as he was always a pitch-to-contact strike-thrower. He had significantly more success from a results standpoint, as he was essentially the Matt Cain of his time, limiting hits on balls in play in his first five big league seasons. But, starting in his age 26 season, his strikeout rate took a big jump, just like Fister’s has."

In the span of just over a year, Fister has gone from being regarded as a soft-tossing innings eater to being dubbed “elite level” and drawing comparisons to a potential Hall of Fame pitcher in Mussina.

The Mariners certainly didn’t see this coming, they gave up Fister and reliever David Pauley for a relief pitcher (Charlie Furbush), a platoon outfielder (Casper Wells), a third base prospect (Francisco Martinez), and a relief pitching prospect (Chance Ruffin as the player to be named later). Teams will sometimes trade elite players for prospects, but neither of the two the Tigers gave up would have been considered A-listers, and even if they were, it still wouldn’t have been near the haul a pre-arbitration Cy Young candidate could have commanded.

It’s possible the Tigers had an idea of what he could have become, but even if they had hopes on him becoming a top-flight pitcher sometime in the future, there’s no way they could have known he would be this dominant right from the get-go. No one else did.