A piece written by ESPN’s David Schoenfield asked a question that inspired this post. Both the Chicago White Sox Jeff Samardzija and the Washington Nationals’ Doug Fister will be free agents after the 2015 season.
He asked who was the better pitcher – or more like who would you rather have if your team was looking for a starting pitcher next year? Of course guys like Johnny Cueto of the Cincinnati Reds and Jordan Zimmermann of the Nationals will also be free agents next season but between Samardzija and Fister was the question posed.
Gut reaction on my part? Fister easy. How can I say that as an Oakland Athletics fan who became a big supporter of the “Shark” (Samardzija) during his short stint with Oakland?
Well, because personally, I’ve always thought that Fister was extremely underrated.
Fister’s sinking two-seam fastball lacks the velocity of a guy like Samardzija, topping out at 91 mph and last season averaging 87.8 mph. The thing with Fister is he’s not a huge strikeout pitcher but more of a finesse pitcher, which Schoenfield also notes.
He also throws a splitter, cutter, curveball and change up. Still, his “slow” sinker is his main pitch. He throws it 50 percent of the time. It is the pitch that sets everything up. The sinker plus Fister’s unusual release point, being that he’s so tall, gives him a unique advantage over hitters.
“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,” writes Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post.
Former Major Leaguer turned MLB Network analyst Mark DeRosa faced Fister in 2013 when he was still with the Toronto Blue Jays and Fister was with the Detroit Tigers,
“He’s got one of those sinkers that obliterates the inner half of the plate,” said DeRosa. “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.”
Fister induces ground balls. Meaning he does needs a strong defensive team to back him up. However, when he does need a strikeout his 12-6 curveball comes in handy. It’s his best strikeout pitch.
With so many ground ball outs, Fister gives up very few walks and doesn’t let many batters reach base. He talked about his pitching philosophy in an interview with Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post last offseason,
“It’s definitely a bullet point in my pitching perspective,” Fister said. “I’m going out there trying to induce ground balls, 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 ground balls. 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 journey to the majors was an unusual one. He was drafted in 2003 by the San Francisco Giants and again in 2005 by the New York Yankees, each time not signing to remain in school at California State Fresno. In 2006, he was drafted by the Seattle Mariners in the seventh round. This time he signed with the ballclub.
Fister made his Major League debut on August 8, 2009 for the Mariners. Two years later the Mariners traded Fister, along with David Pauley, to the Tigers for Charlie Furbush, Casper Wells, Francisco Martinez and Chance Ruffin.
In his first two Major League seasons in Seattle Fister averaged a 4.11 ERA but had an ERA of 2.83 when he was traded in 2011. He went on to go 8-1 for Detroit with a 1.79 ERA in 70.1 innings, allowing just five walks.
In the following two seasons in Detroit Fister was easily overshadowed by Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer but still managed to go 24-19 with a 3.57 ERA allowing just two walks per nine innings pitched.
Keep in mind also that Detroit was not a strong defensive team meaning Fister’s groundballs were not always easy outs. Plus, he put up quality starts in all of his playoff appearances for the TIgers. What’s strange is why trade him to the Nationals? He was a solid number four starter.
In 2014 the tall right-hander quietly went 16-6 with a 2.41 ERA. He threw his second career complete game shutout and allowed just 1.3 walks per nine innings pitched. He finished eighth in the National League Cy Young Award voting but when compared to other top 10 Cy Young pitchers he is as good or better.
Take Jon Lester for example, sure he pitched in a different league, is shorter and throws left-handed but does all that really matter when it comes down to wins/losses, ERA etc.
Lester and Fister are both 30 years of age, born almost exactly one month apart, so at least we have age here. In 2014 with the Boston Red Sox and the A’s, Lester went 16-11with a 2.46 ERA and finished fourth in the American League Cy Young Award voting.
It’s true that Fister isn’t the workhorse that Lester is. Lester pitched 219.2 innings while Fister pitched just 164.0, but Fister is not considered a top three starter while Lester is. This could be part of the reason but still. Lester may have had a higher strikeout rate but he also had a higher walk ratio than Fister.
Schoenfield compares Fister to Samardzija and his determination is that Fister is the superior pitcher, despite Samardzija’s much more powerful fastball and higher strikeout rate.
Samardzija also isn’t a ground ball inducing pitcher and gives up many more homers than Fister, which should be interesting to watch moving to a more hitter-friendly park on the south side of Chicago. Fister on the other hand allows very few homers, in fact he led the league in 2011 giving up just 0.5 home runs per nine innings pitched.
So why is it that he is so undervalued? Samardzija will likely be much more coveted as a free agent next year and get a much larger contract.
Why did the Mariners and Tigers trade Fister for so little in return? It doesn’t make all that much sense except the fact that Fister does his thing differently and more quietly than power pitchers, he’s effective in a different way that isn’t as noticeable until you look closely – like when your team loses twice (one was a no-decision but he put up a quality start) to him in the playoffs.
Being an A’s fan and losing to the Detroit Tigers twice, both times in a full five-game series, if there is one thing you know it’s quite a bit more about their players than fans of other teams.
Having watched Fister up-close and personal on several occasions, he’s always been dominant and I could never figure out why he was so overshadowed by the others.
Being part of the rotation with Scherzer, Verlander and Sanchez, it is easy to get overlooked by the public but I don’t see how so by the organization.
All I know is that Fister is underrated and he can and likely will (assuming he remains healthy) be a huge asset to whatever team sees in him what a lot of us who have watched him closely see.
Whereever he ends up after free-agency, he should (at least in my mind) be given a competitive salary and not sold off later for parts that won’t pan out.