The starter: Doug Fister

THE STARTER

Starting pitchers such as the Nationals' Doug Fister must mix patience with intensity, down time with diligence

Published on July 18, 2014

At 8:32 p.m. on a sweltering Wednesday night earlier this month, Doug Fister stood at the pitching rubber at Nationals Park and wound up for the 80th time. His 6-foot-8 frame unfurled as it had all evening — hands together over his head quickly, left foot striding downhill toward the plate, two-seam fastball tumbling at the hitter lower and lower and lower, constantly lower. Tyler Maztek, the opposing pitcher for the Colorado Rockies, stared at the 1-2 sinker as it went by, and when the umpire rang him up, Maztek walked to one dugout, Fister to the other, done for the day.

“A constant battle all night,” Fister sighed later, standing in front of his locker, his uniform pants replaced by checked surfer shorts, his spikes by flip-flops. After that final pitch to Maztek, Nationals Manager Matt Williams lifted Fister for a pinch hitter. His start was over, his public work complete. At 9:45 p.m., he strode through the clubhouse, shook hands with fellow right-hander Tanner Roark and walked out the doors into the stark gray concourse. A bus hummed, waiting to pick up the Rockies and take them to the airport. Fister’s brain hummed along with it. The process of forgetting everything that had just happened — seven innings, seven hits, a gut-punch of a three-run homer, a 4-3 victory — began.

“I have until the time the game is over and I walk out of the clubhouse to be mad,” Fister said. “As soon as I walk out that door, I flush whatever’s happened.”

For the 10 Nationals position players and two relievers who played that night against the Rockies, the flush is a nightly process, because another game almost always looms the next day. The potential to extend a scalding streak or a slump is rarely more than 24 hours removed.

For starting pitchers, the process is slower, mixing patience with intensity, down time with diligence. A position player’s existence is metronomic, with no one day more important than another. A starter’s is a series of crescendos, each building to a special public performance. In a 162-game season, a healthy starter will pitch only 35 times. That gives each 127 games in which they are all but guaranteed not to play. Decent work, with every weekend four days long, right?

“Four days off is not four days off,” Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty said.

So when Fister left the mound against the Rockies, he accepted his high-fives and fist bumps in the dugout, grabbed some water, then headed to the comfort of the clubhouse to try to find comfort in his mind. He had begun the game poorly, leaving too many pitches up in the strike zone, including the cutter Rockies catcher Michael McKenry deposited over the left field fence in the second for a three-run homer.

“You’re so emotional, you can’t look at the game objectively,” Fister said. “I like to be completely — and a lot of times brutally — honest with myself. And it’s hard right after the game.”

He had already been to the clubhouse between innings, filling his ears with country music, walking the line between being focused on and overcome by the game. But with the outcome still in doubt, Fister moved past his locker to the training room. The radio broadcast pumped through the speakers, the television on the wall showed Tyler Clippard coming on in relief. But in the moments after Fister’s body had exhausted itself with one start, after his mind grappled with the good and the bad, he had to get ready for the next.

“That starts the five-day process of building back up,” Fister said. “It starts right then.”

Nationals pitcher Doug Fister spends part of his first day after a start in the dugout watching his teammates play the Chicago Cubs on July 4. Even with close monitoring in the hours after the previous day's start, Fister can wake up the following day feeling sore.

 

‘What do I do with myself?’

This was not always second nature. Growing up in the central California town of Merced, Fister wasn’t programmed as a pitcher, a starter. He was an athlete — baseball, soccer, cross-country. He ran so much the neighborhood kids called him Forrest Gump. As he sprouted to 6 feet 8 inches, he played basketball. When he was originally selected in the baseball draft out of junior college, it was as a first baseman.

The life of a starter

Starting pitchers are an anomaly in the major leagues, called on only every fifth day to perform. But their entire season is  filled with work. “There are no days off,” Nationals right-hander Doug Fister said.

Wednesday, July 2
At 8:32 p.m., Fister left the Nationals Park mound after completing the top of the seventh inning against the Colorado Rockies. After drinking water on the bench, Fister retreated to the training room and went through a series of shoulder and arm exercises — using a rubber band as resistance — while his body was spent. The exercises might concentrate on the rotator cuff or the shoulder blade. “We try to vary it so it doesn’t get monotonous,” head athletic trainer Lee Kuntz said. By 9:45, Fister was out the door of the clubhouse, headed to his car and home to the northern Virginia suburbs.

Thursday, July 3
The Nationals had a rare home off day — no game, no travel — one of just three scheduled this season. Still, Fister was up early for a 7 a.m. run with his fiancee, then went  sightseeing with friends from out of town.

Friday, July 4
On what is really Day 1 of his normal cycle, with his next scheduled start four days off, Fister arrives at the ballpark early to lift weights. The holiday creates an odd schedule with an 11 a.m. start against the Chicago Cubs; Fister’s normal routine, with a 7 p.m. start, is to come in between noon and 1 and then spend an hour and a half to two hours in the weight room working on his upper body and core. Fister also plays catch on the first day of his cycle, getting blood flowing to his arm again and working out any stiffness. “There’s no time limit, no number of throws,” he said. “It’s a feel thing.” During batting practice, he shags balls — not haphazardly, but with an intent, running in short bursts and getting his legs back under him. After batting practice, his day is pretty much done.“I can shower up and turn into a cheerleader,” he said.

Saturday, July 5
For most pitchers, Day 2 includes a bullpen session, but Fister usually chooses to throw from flat ground instead. He throws mostly fastballs, but will work in a couple of breaking pitches as well. Because he is throwing on this day, Fister gives his upper body and core a day off in the weight room but spends an hour to 90 minutes on his lower body.

Sunday, July 6
On Day 3, Fister looks at any video of his last start that he finds pertinent. Against Colorado, he struggled keeping his pitches down in the strike zone, so he pulled up a better start against Atlanta for comparison. He discovered what he had suspected: Against Colorado, he was working too slowly, and that loss of rhythm caused a mechanical flaw. Fister then returned to the weight room, where he worked on his core. He also used rubber bands again to continue to strengthen his shoulder. “It’s a season-long maintenance program,” he said. “It doesn’t stop.” His final workout: running during batting practice, which he calls “power-shagging,” chasing after fly balls and line drives to get his legs some short bursts of work.

Monday, July 7
This is the day before Fister’s start, and when he walked through the clubhouse just after 3:30 p.m., he had both a bottle of water in one hand, a bottle of Gatorade in the other. Hydrating, he said, is key throughout the week, but particularly in the summer, and particularly the day before and the day of his start.“I’ve been chugging water like crazy,” he said. “As soon as you’re thirsty, it’s too late.”This is largely a day of physical rest. But because it’s the first day of a new series — the Baltimore Orioles are in Washington — Fister sits in on the defensive meeting and offers insights on how he’ll attack different Baltimore hitters so Washington’s position players can better know where to play. (Most starters don’t do this.)The extent of Fister’s physical activity is shagging balls during batting practice. “If it’s 30-foot sprints, if I take just a good five steps, that’s enough,” he said. “I just need that burst.

Tuesday, July 8
Fister’s start is rained out. Since he never even got to the bullpen for a pregame warmup session, there’s nothing to do but wash away the day, then repeat it Wednesday.

Wednesday, July 9
Fister prides himself on being the same person Day 1 through Day 5, but he has a few non-negotiable routines. The most important: a pregame nap. He usually sleeps for between 30 minutes and an hour somewhere in the clubhouse — normally on a couch — roughly three hours before game time in order to calm down and visualize the game. With a 7:05 p.m. start at Camden Yards in Baltimore, Fister emerges from the dugout and heads to the bullpen a half hour before the game. After stretching in the outfield and playing catch with bullpen catcher Octavio Martinez, Fister heads to the bullpen for a 31-pitch warmup session with starting catcher Wilson Ramos. At 7, Fister walks across the outfield with pitching coach Steve McCatty and Ramos. As a line of relievers heads from the dugout to the bullpen, Fister bumps fists with each one. He takes his seat in the dugout, and when Bryce Harper strikes out to end the top of the first, he jogs to the mound. He needs just six warmup pitches before Orioles leadoff man Nick Markakis digs into the box, and at 7:24, he winds up and throws his first pitch.

barry.svrluga@washpost.com

“I try not to be a robot,” Fister said. Yet his professional existence calls for some physical and mental robotics, repetitive, regimented actions. Fister’s mind naturally scurries about; he describes his style as borderline obsessive-compulsive disorder. As he played two years in community college and later at Fresno State, he had plenty of places to put his thoughts. If he wasn’t pitching, he was hitting. If he wasn’t hitting, he was fielding. He might catch a bullpen session for another pitcher. He might take flyballs in the outfield. There was always something.

But his senior year, he decided to concentrate on pitching. He was selected in the seventh round of the draft by the Seattle Mariners, who immediately sent him to Class A Everett (Wash.). There was no batting practice to take, no classes, no first baseman’s mitt. Here, the life of a starting pitcher sank in.

“It was kind of, ‘What do I do with myself?’ ” he said.

That question has been asked for years. Only in the last decade-and-a-half has the answer become so refined.

“We didn’t have video,” said McCatty, whose career with the Oakland Athletics spanned from 1977 to 1985. “We didn’t have weights. There’s a lot more breaking down first-pitch swings, what they hit in what count, what they hit off what pitch. The numbers are all there for pretty much anything you want to find.”

But before you can find that, you have to find yourself. Fister struggled with that in those early days of the minors, and it affected his preparation. He made just four starts for Everett before concerns about a high pitch count over the entirety of the college and pro seasons sent him to the bullpen. He returned to the rotation the next year, but posted a 5.02 ERA over two full seasons at Class AA. His struggles infuriated him, and for two or three days after starts, he would fume. There was a new weight program, a new running program, shoulder maintenance, a throwing program.

“Especially at the lower levels of the minor leagues,” Fister said, “you’re really trying to learn how to get through each five-day rotation.”

Even when he got to the majors with the Mariners, in 2009, he had to figure out those four days. What to do with my brain? What to do with my body? For generations, there has been no uniform response. Steve Carlton turned to martial arts. Roger Clemens ran. Randy Johnson became a weight-room resident. Curt Schilling developed into a bookworm, knowing hitters better than they knew themselves.

“To each his own,” Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg said. “Some guys don’t like to do that much, just recover. Some guys like to train really hard. At first, I probably over-trained a little bit, and it kind of just caught up to me as the season went on.”

Doug Fister signs autographs for fans during an off day, at least for him, as the Nationals host the Cubs. In a 162-game season, a healthy starter will pitch only 35 times. That gives each 127 games in which they are all but guaranteed not to play.

However it’s handled, it must be productive. “It’s not a vacation,” Strasburg said. And so it is that while his teammates continued their tussle with the Rockies, Fister grabbed a large rubber band and began working the same right shoulder that had just unloaded 80 pitches.

‘Clear my mind and enjoy nature’

For Nationals starters, there is no chiseled-in-stone routine in those moments after they leave the mound, but head athletic trainer Lee Kuntz is adamant that they work their throwing arms. This is done in March or May with September and October in mind, and it is often done when the game is still going on. A pitcher’s long-term health is more important than whether he sees his teammates record the final out.

Against the Rockies, Fister immediately went to work with the set of rubber bands, providing resistance for his arm, putting further workload on an already tired shoulder.

“A lot of people will say, ‘You’re beating a dead issue; he’s tired,’ ” Kuntz said. “Yes. But if they had a huge workload, we can drastically reduce what they do in the training room, and they still get their routine and the discipline of having to do it when they’re tired. It’s a little nugget for me. The idea is to get the monkey to jump through the hoop and think it’s his idea.”
For Fister, this isn’t a problem. The OCD part of him dictates that he relishes the work immediately after he pitches; he understands its importance over the next five days, over the rest of the season. Kuntz and the training staff frequently have pitchers submerge in a cool tub after pitching and work their arms using the water as resistance. They ice their arms because that can calm swelling. And if Kuntz is able to diagnose real fatigue, he can suggest to McCatty that the workload in coming days be reduced.

But even with that close monitoring, both by himself and the Nationals’ staff, Fister woke up the day after his start against Colorado feeling sore. “Just mentally, physically exhausted,” he said. It is like this for most every major league starter after most every major league start. “You can feel it,” Roark said.

Fister’s response, at 7 a.m.: A 41/2-mile run with his fiancee. This is nothing more than cleansing. They are training for a half marathon together, so they took to the hills in northern Virginia. Even as a kid, only two things could truly wipe Fister’s brain clean: mowing the lawn and running.

“It’s a mental and physical break for me,” Fister said. “I use the mental side of things just to clear my mind and enjoy nature.”
The Nationals had a scheduled off day, the last before the all-star break, so he, his fiancee and friends from out of town toured the monuments and the National Mall that morning. When the Chicago Cubs arrived for a weekend series beginning on the Fourth of July, Fister began his typical, at-the-ballpark day-after routine: an hour-and-a-half to two hours in the weight room, training his upper body and his core, a light game of catch out to maybe 100 or 120 feet to get blood flowing in his arm, then shagging balls during batting practice, reminding himself that “if it’s the 17th inning, and we’re out of players, ‘Skip’ might need someone to run out there.”

For most starters, the second day of work after pitching is reserved for a bullpen session. Strasburg, in his early days, would fire 50 or 60 pitches, trying to refine each and every little thing. He has since toned them down, and each of the Nationals’ starters has settled into a comfort zone of somewhere between 20 and 35 pitches, give or take. Each starter, except Fister.
“I’m so particular in my pitching style and my bullpens that if it’s not where I want it to be, either one, I’m not happy with it, or two, I’m going to continue to throw until I get it,” he said. “And a lot of times, I don’t get it that day. So I’m just continually pounding my head against a wall.”

Early in his career, these bullpen sessions became completely counterproductive. After as many as 75 pitches, he was physically spent and mentally frayed. So now, he is the rarest of major league starters: He doesn’t throw a bullpen between starts. Rather, two days after he pitches, he plays a hard game of catch from about 60 feet away, but not from a mound, to a squatting catcher.
“They don’t have to do anything they don’t want to,” McCatty said. “I can suggest things, but it’s up to them.”

So on the morning of the second day of the series against the Cubs, after he had worked on his legs in the weight room, Fister retreated to the grass in right field and began his most strenuous on-field activity between starts. Like everything in his routine, it is perfectly dissected. He does not wear spikes, because that forces him to keep his weight on his back foot; otherwise, he might slip on the grass. If he stays back, he can properly separate his lower body from his upper body, getting the former in proper position so he can follow through with the latter, perfectly timed.

But in the course of the session, Fister also threw balls from all angles — sidearm, 45 degrees, a bit on the run. Again, this is by design.

“I want to do it all as a shortstop,” Fister said. “On the mound, the arm slightly changes its arm slot due to timing issues of where your body is, where your feet are, fatigue. There’s a lot of outside influences that have their effect on me on the mound, so I’m trying to be more athletic.”

This throwing session serves another purpose: the aches from the previous start are fully expunged. The next start is just two days away.

“Now,” he said, “I have a new target.”

‘I’m a terrible dancer’

When Fister got to the ballpark for his third day of work following his start against Colorado, there was still a bit of research to be tackled. The Rockies scalded several balls over the course of those seven innings, but Fister also fixed the problem, eventually. He retired 11 of the final 12 men he faced, and McKenry’s homer provided Colorado its only runs.
“I didn’t make [an adjustment] in one pitch, and I didn’t make it right out of the gates,” Fister said. “But I finally made it, and it was enough to get the team the win.”

So when he arrived on that Sunday, he turned to video. For such a tall pitcher, Fister’s windup is remarkably compact: hands rapidly and tightly over his head, stride not particularly long, ball on top of the hitter before he knows it. The entire operation is efficient by design, so much so that opposing base runners have attempted just one steal against him all season — and that runner was thrown out.

When Fister arrived following an offseason trade from Detroit, he told McCatty one key to his success is that he must work quickly. He needs his rhythm. It’s why he listens to music before, and even during, his starts.

“I’m a terrible dancer,” Fister said. “I don’t have any rhythm. But that’s how I kind of keep a pace on the mound.”

Against the Rockies, he lost his rhythm. He slowed down. “Hurry it up,” McCatty told him between innings. And when he sat in front of two television images — one showing slices of his eight scoreless innings against Atlanta in June, the other his seven spotty innings against Colorado — he could see the difference. In two days, he was due to start against Baltimore. If he expected to succeed, the video would have to look more like the confident, eager pitcher against the Braves, not the timid, lagging pitcher from the first few innings of the Rockies game.

“If my tempo’s too slow, my upper body starts floating forward, my ball gets up,” he said, “and it starts getting out of whack.”
He left the park that day feeling better about his prospects. “He’s so cerebral in his approach,” said Williams, the first-year manager. When he arrived the next day, the Orioles were in town, and Fister’s preparation took another step. In spring training, as he learned about Fister the pitcher and the person, Williams thought he might be a good fit in the Nationals’ defensive meetings, which take place on the first day of each new series. There, Mark Weidemaier, the Nationals’ defensive coordinator and advance coach, lays out the tendencies of each opposing hitter and how each player should position himself. Because Fister doesn’t overwhelm hitters, relying on a steady 88-mph sinker, Williams thought he might bring a more holistic approach to defense.

Doug Fister fields a ball in the outfield during Nationals batting practice before a recent game against the Orioles. Part of Fister's day-after routine is an hour-and-a-half to two hours in the weight room, a light game of catch to get blood flowing in his arm, then shagging balls during batting practice.

“He’s going to make the opposing team put the ball in play, so he wants us to understand what his plan is so we can develop our own plan to defend it,” Williams said. “Pretty simple stuff, but it oftentimes goes unnoticed or un-talked about.”

So Fister and the position players discussed how to pitch Nelson Cruz, Adam Jones, Chris Davis. An American Leaguer his whole career, Fister had faced the Orioles six times, three at Camden Yards. His presence in the meeting meant the defense would be coordinated, more like football, instead of having the middle linebacker calling one play and the defenders around him running another.

“I wish they all did it,” Weidemaier said. “But some guys aren’t able to handle all of that information. He’s a guy that can process it.”

That afternoon, when the Nationals took batting practice, Fister ran in the outfield, chasing balls. He sprinted for 30 or 40 feet at a time, the last bit of physical work, bursts to keep his legs alive. When the game began, he climbed onto the top bench in the dugout and watched each Orioles hitter. He leaned over to catcher Jose Lobaton, sitting to his left.

“He’ll tell you,” Lobaton said, “‘If you’re playing tomorrow, this is what we’re going to do.’”

‘I need to take care of my business’

At 3:35 p.m. on July 9, Fister walked through the visitors’ clubhouse at Camden Yards still wearing shorts and sneakers. He not only didn’t pitch the previous day, as scheduled, but didn’t even warm up, because rain washed out the entire schedule at Nationals Park. As soon as the announcement of a postponement was made, Fister was in Williams’s office: “What’s the plan?”
“It can’t have any effect,” Fister said.

More photos: A starter's life

Gio Gonzalez talks to Doug Fister between innings of a recent start by Gonzalez. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)


When Fister fell asleep, the iPhone resting on his chest filling his ears with the Tim McGraw channel from Pandora, the Tigers and Dodgers played quietly on the clubhouse TVs. When he sat up 40 minutes later, Argentina and the Netherlands pushed each other in a World Cup match.

 

Some starters are notoriously cranky on the days they pitch, some downright unapproachable. Fister, serious but congenial, prefers to think of himself as the same person be it day one or day five in this cycle. Yet regardless of the pitcher and his personal approach, he is almost always playing the game in his mind before he plays it on the field.

“You’re seeing it and seeing it and seeing it and seeing it,” McCatty said. “And seeing it. I couldn’t sleep.”

Fister’s plan for visualization is the opposite. By 3:55 p.m., he had tucked a pair of yellow buds in his ears, pulled on a red sweatshirt, yanked the hood over his eyes and unfolded his frame on one of the four black couches in the center of the clubhouse. “Get comfy, Doug,” lefty Ross Detwiler said, smiling. By now they all knew what’s coming: Fister’s pregame nap. He has pulled this off on a chair in front of his locker. He has dozed under a training table. But he always sleeps. First, for rest. Second, to get his heart rate down. And third, in a subconscious way, to execute his pitches and dissect the Orioles.

“I go through all the mental points of what I do — how this foot needs to land, what I need to feel off my fingertips, how do I finish,” he said. “I’m constantly playing off what I do well.”

It wasn’t until 6:35 p.m., with the game a half hour off, that Fister arrived in the visitors’ bullpen in left-center field, pulled his glove from his belt — where he had tucked it under his sweatshirt — and placed a bottle of water on the mound. He returned to the outfield, stretched by himself, took a ball from McCatty and began playing catch. After five minutes, when he and Wilson Ramos, the starting catcher that night, returned to the bullpen, Fister bent back each of the five fingers on his right hand, then each of the five on his left.

“If you’re going to maximize your output,” Fister said, “you’ve got to take care of each individual little muscle and make sure that everything is taken care of.”

To warm up, he began with a fastball on the inside corner to a right-handed hitter, then worked the other side of the plate. After nine fastballs, he threw two curves. After 21 pitches from the windup, nine more from the stretch. He stepped back and took a drink, and there’s no telling how many gallons of water and Gatorade he takes in on the two days leading up to his start. He grabbed a towel draped over McCatty’s shoulder to wipe his face.

“If I don’t have a good bullpen session out there, I need to re-evaluate and make the adjustment,” Fister said. “It should be just a time to get loose. But if it’s not working, I need to revamp my game plan and really just make sure they start swinging the bat.”

After six more pitches, Fister was done, bumping fists with McCatty and bullpen coach Matt LeCroy. He then took the sweaty towel and folded it neatly, as if stacking shirts for a department store display, and placed it on the bench.
“He likes things just right,” Lobaton said.

By quirks of both schedule and weather, Fister hadn’t pitched in a game for a week. Nearly all the intervening time had built toward this moment.

“It doesn’t matter who’s in the box,” Fister said. “It’s a matter of: I need to take care of my business and be ready to go.”
The arm exercises, the running, the weights, the video, the treatment, the nap: They all determined whether, in fact, he would be ready. And at 7:24 p.m., Doug Fister walked up the back of the mound, kicked at the rubber, adjusted his hat, and unleashed his first pitch — everything for which he had prepared.

Doug Fister prepares to gather the ball for his start against Baltimore on July 9 at Camden Yards. Fister and the Nationals ended up 6-2 winners.

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