Everything Doug Fister does, from 60 feet, 6 inches away, serves to deceive. His towering height makes you think power, but then he throws a fastball that may not get pulled over in some states. With his long arms, if you are a right-handed hitter, the ball looks like it was released from somewhere behind his ear. When you start to swing, the ball careers from your hips to your ankles, just enough movement for you to drive it into the ground.
When the Nationals acquired Doug Fister this week from the Tigers, they added a starter who in the past three seasons has been perhaps one of the 10 best in baseball. Last year, he won 14 games and punched up a 3.67 ERA. He defies the current standards of dominance – big strikeout totals and high-90s heat – and still manages to excel.
How? With the help of Harry Pavlidis’s breakdown of Fister’s repertoire, we can see how one of the slowest-throwing starters in baseball can also be one of the best.
The disparity between Fister and the typical elite starter can be seen even within his own staff. Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and, to a lesser degree, Jordan Zimmermann are all strikeout artists, power pitchers who miss bats with big velocity and vicious movement. Fister relies on his 6-foot-8 frame, a sinking fastball that rarely cracks 90 miles per hour and bushels of groundballs.
The key to his success comes from a style he has honed to suit his strengths. Everything starts with his fastball, a sinker that averaged 88.8 miles per hour last season. The pitch barrels at the hitter at and dives as it reaches the plate. It looks hittable until a hitter swings and mashes it into the ground.
“It’s definitely a bullet point in my pitching perspective,” Fister said. “I’m going out there trying to induce groundballs, induce bad contact as early in the count as possible. My job is to get through seven innings and keep zeroes on the board for our offense to get out there and swing it. If I can get that done, that’s my main focus. If I can get past that, that’s icing on the cake and I’m excited about it. But it’s one of those things, I want to get groundballs. I want to use our defense, utilize the talent that we have out there. That’s always been one of my main goals. For me, I’d be foolish not to attack that way. My main pitching sequence is a sinker. I try to attack with that.”
Fister’s height gives him a unique and puzzling look for batters. He throws from a three-quarters delivery, but at 6-foot-8 he can still throw on a downward plane. He has the best of both worlds: his arm slot allows for wicked movement, and the angle he gets forces hitters to drive the ball into the ground.
It also explains how he thrives with a fastball that average 88.8 miles per hour last year, 115th out of 128 starters who threw at least 120 innings. His three-quarters delivery helps hide the ball, and his extended reach gives hitters less time to react. His long arms effectively tack on extra velocity, no matter what the radar gun reads.
“He’s got one of those sinkers that obliterates the inner half of the plate,” said Mark DeRosa, a now-retired right-handed batter who faced Fister last year with the Blue Jays. “It’s got so much movement on it that half the time to three-quarters of the time the ball, if you take, it ends up being a ball but it looks so appetizing for 55 feet that you go after it. I would assume that Ryan Zimmerman is going to be getting a heck of a lot of groundballs when he’s on the mound.”
Fister’s sinker may be his calling card, but it overshadows an excellent 12-to-6 curveball. Fister is not a strikeout pitcher by choice, but when he needs a whiff, he can often get it with his curve.
Last season, opposing hitters missed 43 percent of the time they swung at Fister’s curve, which ranked sixth in the majors. You know how nasty Stephen Strasburg’s curveball can be? Batters whiffed 40 percent of the time against it, just behind Fister’s.
Fister will throw his curve about 20 percent of the time, and it is his main offspeed weapon against right-handed batters. Against left-handed hitters, Fister also uses a cutter and a changeup that behaves like a slower split-fingered fastball. Those pitches, like the sinker, are intended to induce grounders and not necessarily miss bats. He rarely uses them against right-handed hitters, but they act as equalizer against lefties, who have an easier time picking up his sinker.
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Fister also excels at the margins. A former college basketball player, Fister has the athleticism to field his position well. He also focuses on holding runners and has, incredibly, allowed only 16 stolen bases in his entire career.
He squeezes value out of the things a pitcher does when he isn’t firing the ball to the plate. It can be difficult to figure exactly how Fister stacks up so many outs, but then making things hard on you is how Fister operates.