Why Doug Fister’s 2011 season has been so interesting

Jul 7, 2011, 12:59 AM | Updated: 1:16 am

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Mariners pitcher Doug Fister has avoided what some thought could be a disappointing 2011 season. (AP photo)

By Jeff Sullivan

It’s no secret that the Mariners have been carried to a near-.500 record and the fringes of contention on the collective back of an outstanding pitching staff. The rotation has been dominant from front to back, and the bullpen has done a surprisingly great job considering it hasn’t had David Aardsma, Shawn Kelley, or an effective Josh Lueke.

The Mariners have hit like a lineup of nine backup catchers, but still they matter, because while they haven’t scored runs, they haven’t allowed any, either.

Almost to a man, the pitching staff has been superb, and what’s more is that the staff includes so many interesting stories. There’s the breakout of Michael Pineda. There’s the comeback of Erik Bedard. There’s the emergence of David Pauley. There’s Jamey Wright, and Brandon League, and Aaron Laffey, and the performance of the whole staff in general, and so on and so forth. No matter where you look, there’s something fascinating to be found.

But because there are so many things to talk about and explore, some of the individual stories have kind of gotten lost in the mix. And the one I want to talk about here is Doug Fister, because the season Doug Fister has had to this point has been perhaps the most interesting of the lot. To me, anyway. And here’s my reasoning:

(1) Doug Fister has changed as a pitcher
(2) Doug Fister has not gotten any worse

It sounds so simple, but let me explain. We’ll tackle the two points in order.

Doug Fister has changed

Players don’t change, often. Their performances vary, and they vary all the time, but their skillsets and approaches usually stay pretty stable, allowing for age-related improvement and decline. However, there are exceptions, and Doug Fister is an exception.

Most visibly, Fister has been throwing harder than he used to. So far in 2011, his fastball is up by more than a full tick. The same goes for his curveball and his changeup. His slider is up more than two mph. Fister credits lifting and conditioning for the boost, and regardless of whether that’s what’s at the heart of his gain, he’s made a gain, where pitchers usually only lose velocity over time, if it changes at all.

Beyond velocity, Fister has changed his approach against righties. He’s cut down on his fastballs and changeups and increased the usage of his curveball from 6 percent to 14 percent.

He’s also changed his approach against lefties. He’s cut down on his fastballs and changeups and increased the usage of both his curve and his slider. Where he threw a breaking ball to a lefty 16 percent of the time a year ago, that’s up to 30 percent this season. And Fister has noticeably been pounding the slider inside, like a cutter.

And these changes in stuff and approach have led to corresponding changes in results. Fister’s strike rate against righties is up from 66 percent to 71 percent. His contact rate against lefties is down from 89 percent to 84 percent. His overall strikeout rate is up from 13 percent to 16 percent.

Just last season, Fister was considered more of a finesse-throwing ball-in-play sort, and now he’s no longer that guy. He’s still been close to that guy – it’s not like he’s undergone an entire identity overhaul – but now he’s actually been missing some bats. He’s been throwing harder, he’s been mixing his pitches in other ways, and he’s been different.

Doug Fister has not gotten worse

The temptation is to say that Fister has gotten better. His ERA is down. His xFIP is down. His strikeouts are up. The evidence is there. But one has to remember that batting is down league-wide. The average batter that Fister faced a season ago had a .755 OPS. The average batter that Fister has faced in 2011 has a .729 OPS. I think it’s likely that Fister has improved, but I’m just being cautious.

With that said, while I don’t know if Doug Fister has taken a significant step forward, I do know that he hasn’t taken a step back. And that’s interesting enough on its own. Before the year, on a call with Matt Pitman, we both agreed that Fister was the rotation’s best bet to get knocked around. He had such fringey stuff, and he allowed so much contact, and then he had that miserable spring.

If you told me in March that Fister would have an ERA over 5.00 come June or July, I wouldn’t have batted an eyelash. He didn’t seem like the sort that was long for a big league rotation.

And here we are, with Fister excelling in a big league rotation. He actually has a better ERA than Felix Hernandez, for whatever that’s worth. Before the year, Fister looked like a guy we’d probably point to if the season went awry, but instead he’s a guy we’re pointing to as a reason the M’s are still afloat.

Yeah – of all the interesting stories on the Mariner pitching staff, Fister’s my favorite. He was such a blah guy before. Such a Nick Blackburn. Such a guy you throw out there while hoping for three runs in six innings. Such a guy who looked like he was on the verge of destruction. Then he up and changed. Out of nowhere, he made himself different. He decided he was going to throw harder and miss more bats. He hasn’t gotten better by leaps and bounds, but what he’s done is extraordinary enough, because what he’s done is something most pitchers just don’t do.

That’s fascinating.

Jeff Sullivan of Lookout Landing writes a column every other week during the baseball season for the Brock & Salk blog on 710Sports.com.

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