Doug Fister might be the hole card that gives the Washington Nationals four of a kind

Doug Fister joined the Washington Nationals this winter after a trade with the Detroit Tigers. A left-handed batter and right-handed thrower, Fister will be an asset to this season’s starting pitcher lineup. (Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)
Thomas Boswell
Columnist February 21

If the Washington Nationals had acquired a glamorous pitcher such as David Price, Cole Hamels or Zack Greinke for a net cost of a utility infielder and two pitchers who didn’t figure in their 2014 plans, every baseball fan in Washington would be doing handstands this spring, making predictions very similar to the ones that proved so wrong a year ago.

Luckily, for the equilibrium of both the team and its followers, the Nats stole Doug Fister instead. By most pertinent measures, he is comparable to those star pitchers. If the Nats actually do go to a World Series this season or next, my bet is the “key move” will be Fister.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

Instead of a flashy strikeout machine with a $150 million contract, the Nats got a friendly, quiet fellow for a likely cost of $18 million over two years who doesn’t make pulses jump. Yet in the past three years, he has the 20th-best ERA in baseball. That gives the Nats four top-20 ERA men in their rotation. No other team has more than two.

The Moneyball world is over the moon for Fister. He’s almost a test case for a total Hidden Star. FanGraphs considered the trade the No.1 move of the offseason.

In the past three years, Fister ranks ninth among starting pitchers in WAR (Wins Above Replacement). That puts him right between Price and Hamels, and ahead of any Nats starter. In Fielder Independent Pitching, Price, Hamels, Chris Sale and Fister rank 11th through 14th.

So, the advanced stat crowd thinks the Nats are the only team with four of the top 20 starters of the past three years, edging the Dodgers with three. “Having four pitchers like that is a huge advantage,” Adam LaRoche said.

If this is even roughly correct, how can the 6-foot-8 Fister, who has never won more than 14 games and was obscured in Detroit by Cy Young winners Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, remain so little known or loved?

Fister is a baseball unicorn — a creature never seen, only rumored. The sport has seen many pitching prototypes from burly right-handed fireballers to compact crafty southpaws. But as far as I can research, there’s never been an extremely tall pitcher who found top-20-type success despite one of the sport’s slowest fastballs. Those such as 6-foot-8 J.R. Richard or 6-10 Randy Johnson won with power pitching. A low-mph Jered Weaver (6-7) is the exception that proves the rule.

Preconceptions die hard. So even in a Moneyball era that claims to ignore a player’s appearance and focus on his actual performance, Fister defies the norms. He can’t be; therefore he isn’t.

But he is. Why could the Nats get him for Steve Lombardozzi, Ian Krol and lefty prospect Robbie Ray? I’m convinced that, more than anything, it’s because Fister’s fastball ranked 585th in velocity in the majors last year. Throwing 88.8 mph, and just 51 percent fastballs, he embarrassed convention.

But those who do not take the time to analyze Fister should be embarrassed. Fister can throw harder. He chooses not to and, in the process, proves that movement and command can be as effective as huge speed.

Advanced stats can now “value” a pitch by its actual effectiveness. Over the past three years, Verlander, who had more 100-mph pitches than any starter, had the game’s 11th-most valuable fastball (which means “runs above average per 100 fastballs”). Cliff Lee and Clayton Kershaw ranked Nos. 1 and 2. Who was No. 12? Fister.

The Nationals' pitcher Stephen Strasburg discussed the state of his arm, lessons learned from last season and what's to come for the Washington team during a break from spring training in Viera, Florida. (Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)

Fister is also the only National with three high-ranked pitches. His curveball is 15th, right behind Felix Hernandez, and his change-up is 23rd.

Fister doesn’t just throw a ton of strikes (66 percent) with every type of pitch. He also has a master’s knack of getting strikes without actually throwing strikes. Every year, he gets hitters to chase. Only 45.5 percent of his pitches actually cross the plate. Yet he ranks ninth, one notch ahead of Verlander, at getting batters swing at balls outside the zone (34 percent).

For the fifth year in a row, Fister has improved his groundball percentage (.543) — now it’s the fourth-best in baseball. As a Tiger, he was 32-20 in 68 starts — roughly two full seasons of starts — with an ERA+ (ERA adjusted for league and home park) of 128 that is a Cooperstown level. That ERA+ is so good, just 18 starters since 1900 can match it, that I’ll pretend it’s a fluke.

As a final bonus, Fister, 30, just escaped one of the least mobile defenses in baseball. Here’s a sinkerballer who had to watch Prince Fielder, Miguel Cabrera and Jhonny Peralta field grounders by toppling over. As a result, he had the fourth-worst “batting average on balls in play” last season: a .332 outlier that may improve a lot.

“How much will our defensive range help Fister,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. And a switch to the NL often cuts ERAs by 25 points, too.

How’d the Nats get this guy so cheaply? We can wait for the memoirs of Rizzo and Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski or we can guesstimate. The Nats apparently showed interest in Scherzer first, then Rick Porcello and then they only brought up Fister at the end as a “well, what would you want for Fister” gambit. The Tigers named four Nats, including pitcher Taylor Jordan in addition to the three they got. Baseball translation: The Tigers wanted Ray or Jordan.

The Nats were shocked — with delight. But not as shocked as when the Lerners balked, just as they had on the Gio Gonzalez trade. Once again, giving up lots of controllable youth for one proven player was a tough theoretical swallow. It’s a fair debate. Some of the worst trades in history are the three-for-ones when the obscure three grow up to be Curt Schilling, Steve Finley and Pete Harnisch and the “one” gets hurt. But few Rays ever actually become Fisters. After several nervous days, the deal got done.

Okay, time for a cold shower. True, Fister can field his position, bunt and hold runners so well that he has allowed just 15 steals in his career. He also hit his way into the Fresno State lineup at several positions — first base, outfield and third base — on days he wasn’t pitching. And he’s humble.

But of the 10 pitchers who most resemble his career stats at 30, only one, Shane Reynolds, did much of anything after that age. It’s a bleak list of “comparables.” Maybe the Tigers think they sold Fister high and project a quick fade. Could happen. Rizzo disagrees: “Pitchers who don’t depend on velocity, but use sink and command, tend to age well.”

If this same rotation made its home in Arizona, Cleveland or anywhere else, I know what I’d think. Any club that finagled Fister to join Stephen Strasburg, Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann would look like it was on the verge of winning something pretty big this season or next.

What does it take to beat four of a kind? Is anyone in baseball holding a straight flush? Just checking. They may need it.

For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.

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