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Fisterrific

Doug Fister
What if I told you that a Mariners starter would carry two no-hitters into the sixth inning in April? That would have been exciting. I'm sure we all would've picked the obvious candidate too.

Doug Fister.

I didn't even want Fister in the rotation until Cliff Lee got hurt, so I am shocked by the way he has started. Fister's burgeoning collection of called strikes and tappers around the diamond have added up to unlikely domination. Much like Cliff Lee, he did not allow a Texas Ranger past first base in the first seven innings of Sunday's ballgame. That is not a typical smoke-and-mirrors act from a finesse pitcher. Usually those involve jams.

However, Fister is still a smoke-and-mirrors kind of guy. He doesn't strike many guys out, and more than his fair share of his K victims are caught looking. In other words, THE FIST (as I like to call him at least) is among the least likely guys in all of baseball to punch anyone out. He doesn't miss bats. In fact, watching him pitch, it is pretty evident that he pitches to contact.

Conventional wisdom says that Mister Fister will cool off. His ERA is under 2.00, and there are the two aforementioned bids for no-hitters. He also is yet to allow a home run. No pitcher is that good.

However, how good is THE FIST? He has 15 major league starts under his belt now, and included in them are four noteworthy gems: ones against the Angels and Yankees last year, and the couple no-hit bids this April. The more he turns in these elite kind of performances, the less fluky they appear to be. Perhaps Fister, at his absolute best, is about as effective as anyone in baseball, and he can reach that level multiple times in a season.

Still, I thought Fister was lucky last year, and something had to change to make him a lock in the starting rotation this year. Obviously, he is a lock with the way he has dazzled thus far, but digging deeper into the numbers, he isn't the same pitcher he was at the end of 2009.

Doug Fister's PitchFx data starts to tell the story. The first thing that jumps off the page is something we have easily seen watching his starts: THE FIST is throwing his fastball a ton more. Combining two-seem and four-seem data, he has gone from throwing a heater 50% of the time, to throwing it 80% of the time. That's a shocking difference. Obviously, that means other pitches are not getting thrown as much. The big dip is with his change-up, which he threw about 33% of the time last year, and he throws only 6% of the time so far in 2010.

The results Fister has generated with the pitch selection change are counterintuitive. 2009 data suggests that his most effective pitch was his change-up, and both the data and naked eye also suggest that his fastball was extremely mediocre. You would think THE FIST would be worse now that he relies so heavily on one pitch, and a very blah one at that. However, early returns say that his fastball has become devastatingly effective. The difference is too drastic to ignore, even with only 10 starts last year, and 5 this year.

What on Earth happened between last September and this April?

So far, while Fister's four-seam fastball is still clocking in around 89 MPH on average, it has slightly different movement, according to PitchFx data. It is straighter, both horizontally and vertically. Along with that, Fister's curveball has exhibited a little more downward break, while maintaining a similar velocity. This seems to imply that it has "tightened," to use a more conventional scouting term. Rounding out the look at Fister's slight differences, his change-up is about a mile slower yet is straighter, which is an odd combination. The two-seamer exhibits a similar trend, with a little straighter movement at the same velocity.

Physically, what would cause this borderline phenomenon in the vertical movement is more spin on the ball. In other words, Mister Fister appears to be digging into the seems a little more. I also think he is coming slightly more over the top this year too, because more rotation from the same arm slot should cause more lateral movement, not less.

Between straighter pitches, and heavily relying on one in particular, it appears that Fister has improved on already exemplary command. His walk rate was already low (again, based on limited numbers last year), but it has cut in half in the early going this season.

Improved command not only means fewer walks; it should mean better placed strikes as well. Early returns on Fister's plate discipline data back this up. Hitters are swinging at fewer of Fister's strikes, perhaps because they are exquisitely placed. However, the change is small (only a 5% difference), so it could just be noise from limited sample sizes.

The same cannot be said about the pitches out of the zone that Fister is throwing though. Hitters are swinging at 31% of them, up from 23% a year ago. This is a small enough change to again chalk up to small sample sizes. However, then I looked at the contact rate, and that is where the numbers are astonishing. Batters are making contact a staggering 86% of the time they swing at a ball from Fister, well up from the 61% rate posted a year ago. Even more interestingly, the contact rate against strikes between this year and last are virtually identical (92% versus 91%), and the overall swing rates are even more nearly identical (43.6% this year, 43.5% last year). The overall contact rate has risen, but it is all on contact made by swinging at balls. Predominately balls low in the strike zone, I might add, at least if Fister's increased ground ball rate is any indication.

Indeed, Doug Fister is generating lots of contact, and that generally is considered a bad thing for a pitcher. However, a closer look at the numbers reveal contact on Fister's terms. He is throwing stuff close enough to the strike zone to make batters chase. The tighter spin on his pitches this year has also made the difference in movement between his fastball and curve more dramatic, which perhaps explains why the change-up has melted into the background, and maybe also why hitters don't square up the ball on Fister as much as it seems like they should.

Fister's success still baffles me, and the groove he is in is bound to end. However, if he continues to command his fastball like he has, and batters continue to beat balls into the ground against the serious defense the M's have, THE FIST is going to rack up a ton of outs more often than not. Until hitters adjust, Fister can be counted on for 6 or 7 quality innings every time his turn comes up - and I am not sure there is an effective adjustment hitters can make on the command Fister is showing right now. Taking a look at how hitters have gone after Mark Buehrle over the years, it's not wildly different from what they have done against THE FIST in 2010.