VIERA, Fla. — The only time Doug Fister does not make eye contact and point at a fielder after an out or thank a teammate with a grateful punch of his glove in his direction is when he strikes a batter out. If Fister had his way, he would not do that often. The Nationals right-hander prefers early contact that keeps defensive innings short, his pitch count low and his defense involved.
Thirty-one years old and entering free agency after this season, Fister is Washington’s fifth starter. He led the Nationals with 16 wins last season, fifth most in baseball. His 40 wins over the past three seasons are the 11th-highest total in the game. As fifth starters go, Fister is an outstanding one. As the Nationals’ starters go, Fister is the least flashy one.
“It’s because we’re on such a high-profile team with so many superstars,” Nationals reliever Jerry Blevins said. “Doug is almost the anti-superstar in that sense that he’s going to work his [butt] off.”
Fister considers himself a defensive player as well as a pitcher. As he fires down at the strike zone with a 6-foot-8 body that yields a seven-foot-high release point, he seduces batters with a sinking fastball more heavy than overpowering. He cuts it and changes speeds, creating contact that is hardly ever the kind the batter would prefer.
Fister got more than half of his outs last season with groundballs. Over the past three seasons, less than 18 percent of his outs have been strikeouts, by far the lowest percentage on the Nationals’ staff. Fister needs his defense more than his fellow pitchers do.
“I have to trust them,” Fister said. “And that is a huge part of my game. Early on in my career, it [was] tough to say, ‘Guys, here. Here’s my everything. I need you,’ because you want to take control and know as a pitcher, it’s your game.”
Meticulous in his individual preparation, Fister takes uncommon interest in defensive scheming, too. He sits in on the defensive meetings led by defensive coordinator Mark Weidemaier, talks to his infielders about where to pitch hitters, lays out a game plan and then adjusts it with them between pitches.
“We need to be on the same page. If not, I’m pitching him to hit the ball to the left side of the infield and defense is playing to the pull side. What’s the point?” Fister said. “I want to get in there and have guys ask questions for me. ‘What are you going to do to a guy in this situation? What are you going to do to big hitters?’ In making decisions like that, I want them involved.”
Fister says he wants teammates to know he has their back. He says his mentality since being traded to the Nationals before the 2014 season was “there’s 24 other guys here that I want to become close with and have that family bond with.” But pitchers are often isolated, most unable to contribute much to a team’s effort after the ball leaves their hand. Fister tries to contribute defensively, sprinting after foul popups with genuine intentions, charging in on bunts and squibbers without a typical pitcher’s deference. He is so aggressive in his efforts that the Nationals began using his defensive approach as a model for young pitchers in their system.
“This spring, I used Doug as an example because he’s such a visible figure on TV. You seem him almost overly aggressive with any ball that’s hit, like he can catch any ball,” Nationals pitching coordinator Paul Menhart said. “That’s the kind of mentality I want all of our guys in the minor leagues to have.”
Fister takes every opportunity to contribute seriously. When he failed to get a bunt down in his first at-bat of the spring, Fister called the mid-March showing “horrible” with a straight face, not a smile.
Games like Sunday’s, in which he gave up six runs and committed an error in four uncharacteristic innings, earn careful evaluation in the days that follow. He is always honing his timing and evaluating himself mechanically. Even within his compact delivery, his lanky frame can be challenging to synchronize.
“He’s a team guy for sure. He works his butt off,” said pitcher Max Scherzer, who was his teammate with the Detroit Tigers from 2011 to 2013. “You’ll always see him out there running. He’s the ultimate professional when it comes to that.”
In one season with the team, Fister has gone from Nationals newcomer to organizational model and quickly turned into a well-respected clubhouse presence, if a quiet one. He says he’s “been very happy with the trade” that brought him to the Nationals and that on a list of “wonderful” organizations he has played in, “this organization is right there at the top.”
But Fister will become a free agent after this season. He said he will worry about that when that time comes.
“I don’t think about it,” Fister said. “I completely and totally block it out. Knowing I’m wearing this jersey right now, that’s all that matters.”
So for at least one more season, Fister will wear a Nationals jersey as he pitches quickly, quietly and to contact. He will do so as the fifth starter, never as concerned with that title as he is with making sure his teammates know he appreciates their efforts and that he’s doing his best to reciprocate them.