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Dissecting Astros RHP Doug Fister

The Astros newest rotation piece, Doug Fister's performance has dropped off rather sharply in the last two seasons. Many have harped on his declining velocity, but there may be other issues at play that the Astros' staff can potentially remedy to help facilitate a return to form.

Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Doug Fister is one of the more unlikely success stories of Major League Baseball in the 2010s, rising from total obscurity as an amateur and minor leaguer to become an extremely dependable rotation fixture, peaking from 2010-2014 with three different clubs, in both leagues. A savvy command pitcher with heavy stuff, Fister comes to Houston at age 32, and coming off of his worst season as a professional. During his prime, the 6’8" righty worked in the upper 80s with his sinker, averaging between 88.3 and 89.6 MPH on it from 2009 until 2014, peaking in the 92-94 range at times. Not a one trick pony, Fister has always used his secondary stuff liberally, working with three different off-speed pitches in his slider, curve and change. He also employs a straight four seam fastball and a cutter at times in addition to his money-making sinker.

Early in Fister’s career, he used his changeup as his most prominent secondary offering. He uses a split change grip, gets good fade on the pitch and throws it with 8-10 MPH separation from his sinker. During his prime years, his curveball also featured prominently in his repertoire. His is a very classical interpretation of the pitch, with clean 12-6 movement. The tall righty’s slider is a smaller part of his repertoire, and keeps hitters expecting his curve off-balance to produce weak flyball contact.

From a mechanical standpoint, Fister looks similar to most pitchers of his stature. He uses a 3/4 arm slot and relies on leverage to generate his power. He does a great job repeating his arm action and release point, regardless of pitch type- a big part of his success. He has a lean frame and is a more fluid athlete than most pitchers of his height.

Fister’s pitching style in general is based on fundamental pitching-to-contact. None of his pitches produce swings-and-misses at an above average rate, but his sharp command, which seemingly spontaneously jumped a full grade late in his minor league career, and wide arsenal of offerings has allowed him to turn balls-in-play into outs at a higher rate than his peers. With shrewd pitch sequencing Fister induces ground balls at a high rate while, at least during his prime, keeping the ball in the park by creating routine flys with his offspeed stuff.

While Fister’s brand of pitching is extremely effective when he’s right and has never relied on raw power, which is typically the first thing pitchers lose with age, his PITCH f/x data shows a clear, and concerning, downward trend in the quality of his stuff. Fister has never had a dominating out pitch or even league-average velocity, so the across the board reductions in velocity and movement on his pitches, even though they aren’t especially precipitous, have brought with them a sharp downturn in performance over the last two seasons.

Despite his pretty 2.41 ERA in 2014, he produced 5.4% less ground balls and was benefitted by a low .263 BABIP against and a very high 83.1% strand rate- his FIP was only 3.93, his highest since his 61 innings as a rookie in 2009. The average velocity on his sinker in 2014 was 87.8, a full 1 MPH reduction from the 88.8s he posted consecutively in 2012 and 2013. While 2014 was a shaky campaign for Fister, 2015 brought further regression for the aging hurler. Again, PITCH f/x data show an harsh drop in velocity on Fister’s hard pitches, as evidenced by the below graph, pulled from BrooksBaseball’s database.

As evidenced above, Fister once possessed the ability to reach back for low-90s heat when necessary and lived around 89 MPH on average with his trademark sinker. In his time on the Nationals, he has lost significant top-end velocity, and now sits closer to the mid-80s. Velocity has never been a big part of Fister's game, and teammate Mike Fiers tops out in the same range, but he is able to generate swinging strikes at a much higher rate. Fister's stuff profile has never offered him much room for error, but during his peak seasons he compensated by making very few errors, thanks to his elite command.

Some pitchers are able to compensate for diminishing velocity through greater use of offspeed stuff, and 2015 might have been such a disaster for Fister not just because he was delivering the ball at a slower speed, but also because his arsenal was narrowed during his time in Washington. Fister's greatest levels of success were achieved when his curveball and changeup (classified as a splitter on BrooksBaseball) were his featured secondaries. Whether due to a differing organizational attitude in Washington or Fister no longer trusting his offspeed stuff to the same degree that he did in his late twenties, in the last two seasons Fister has started leaning on his sinker more than ever before. For most of his career, sinkers have represented just under 50% of Fister's total pitches, with curveballs and splitters making up just over 30% of the remaining pitches. The graph below demonstrates the immediate shift in the proportionality of Fister's pitch usage upon his arrival in Washington.

As seen above, Nationals-Fister used his sinker over 60% of the time, completely axed the cutter from his arsenal, and relegated his curveball to fringe pitch status. These changes coinciding with a move from the AL to the NL, and more specifically a dominant pitching club (at the time) in the Tigers to the very dysfunctional Nationals, give credence to the idea that Fister's downturn in the last two seasons could have significant contributing factors other than his age.

Fister now joins a Houston club with a coaching staff renowned for squeezing maximum value out of polished, less-than-overpowering pitchers, most famously eighth-round draft pick Dallas Keuchel. Fister, a former seventh round draft pick who had an extremely nondescript amateur and early pro career-- as detailed expertly here by John Sickels a few years ago-- fits the mold as the type of pitcher that Brent Strom and company work their best magic with.

While the 32-year old hurler likely has his best days behind him, and his top-end velocity of the past is likely gone for good, the Astros coaching staff should be able to get Fister's pitch selection and sequencing back to the healthy equilibrium that he had struck during the high points of his career. The marriage between Fister and the Astros is one that makes a lot of sense, and he has the potential to be a solid bridge to the next prospect to stake their claim to an Astros rotation role by providing cheap, number 4 starter quality innings should his secondary stuff return to form.