Michael Fiers’ march against history

Absent the ability to blow mid-90s heat past batters, Michael Fiers was overlooked and dismissed by scouts as a back of the rotation starter or swing man. After his first eight major league starts, however, Fiers hasn’t received the memo: He has pitched to the tune of a 2.01 ERA and a 2.26 FIP, and is piling up strikeouts.

Given that his fastball averages just 88 mph on the radar gun, it seems a bit strange that Fiers has struck out a shade over a batter per inning. The word strange is probably an understatement, as Pedro Martinez is the only starting pitcher since 2002—the first year velocity was recorded—who has maintained a strikeout rate of higher than 24 percent while averaging less than 89 mph on the fastball over a full season (minimum 50 innings pitched). Fiers (25 percent strikeout rate so far in 2012) and R.A. Dickey (26.1 percent) are looking to add their names to that list, but history isn’t on Fiers’ side.

Martinez is one of the best pitchers to ever play the game, and Dickey is a knuckleballer, so it isn’t a real surprise that either of them are outliers in terms of missing bats without elite velocity. But how does Fiers fit into all of this?

Well, his swinging strike rate is right at league average, which obviously doesn’t suggest that he has Pedro-esque stuff, but what he does have is very good control and the ability to throw swing-less strikes. Batters are currently swinging at 56.1 percent of the pitches he has thrown inside the strike zone, the fourth lowest total among starting pitchers in all of baseball.

The pitchers with a lower Z-Swing rate are Trevor Cahill, Vance Worley and Doug Fister, with Erik Bedard and C.J. Wilson coming in just above Fiers.

Aside from Cahill, the pitchers on this list have all managed solid strikeout numbers in comparison to their swinging strike rates. This is probably either through their ability to pitch near the edge of the plate more frequently than normal, or their ability to deceive hitters with late-moving pitches breaking into the strike zone. Whatever the reason, Fiers’ strikeout rate doesn’t seem as doomed as his limited fastball velocity and ordinary swinging strike percentage might suggest.

Putting history and comparisons aside, Fiers has made an adjustment in his placement on the rubber this year. The first picture is from an appearance in 2011. The second is from his start against the Twins in June.

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His right foot was almost off the rubber completely in 2011, but this year his foot is right in the middle. PITCHf/x confirms a different horizontal release point in the two graphics below.

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He went from a release point of roughly between -1.0 and -2.0 in 2011 to around -1.7 to -2.8 in 2012.

Fiers had only two appearances in 2011, so perhaps the sample seems a little thin, but here is his foot placement in college when he played for Nova Southeastern University, identical to his foot placement in 2011.

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Since horizontal release points don’t just float about the rubber from pitch to pitch, it looks a good bet that Fiers is doing something different this year.

It is difficult to find any deeper narratives here, since Fiers breezed through college and the minor leagues, striking out gobs of hitters at every stop, while posting solid ERA and very strong FIP numbers as well. But it is also difficult to envision that this change was random. Pitchers don’t usually tamper with things that are working, so the change implies strategic overtones of some sort.

Fiers has a unique, over-the-top, delivery, so maybe pitching coaches felt that pitching from the far right side of the rubber—from the catcher’s perspective—would result in some sort of major league platoon split or that the movement of his pitches would be better optimized coming from a different angle. Perhaps the introduction of a cutter into his arsenal has influenced the move. Or maybe it is something entirely different.

What we do know, though, is that Fiers scrapped something that had been working for him for years—presuming that he was throwing from the same spot on the mound in between college and 2011—and now, upon being called up, he hasn’t missed a step, something that scouts certainly did not envision.

With an unsustainable 3.2 percent HR/FB rate, we know Fiers won’t continue to post an absurdly low FIP, and with a 31.0 percent ground ball rate, the regression could hurt. But with good command and strong secondary offerings, we could find that he still outperforms the low ceiling that scouts have forecast. On the other hand, once Fiers rounds the league for a second and third time, hitters may not be deceived quite as easily, and he may slot in right where scouts thought. Either way, what he is doing is pretty rare, especially if he keeps it up.

Over the past month, Fiers has been just about the best pitcher in baseball, posting a 0.63 ERA and 1.77 FIP, while striking out over 10 batters per nine. Pitchers who aren’t very good don’t often do that. Whether or not Fiers ends up being a not very good pitcher or something more remains to be seen, but he has been outstanding in his first eight major league starts. The history of major league baseball suggests that this can’t continue, but everything in Fiers’ track record—velocity aside—suggests that maybe it can.

References & Resources
PITCHf/x data provided by TexasLeaguers

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