Let's focus on Doug Fister's eight innings of work prior to the meltdown. It was classic Fister. Only 99 pitches through 8 innings of work, without many hits (3), walks (1), or strikeouts (3) to talk about. Many balls went in play, and nearly all of them were converted into outs.
The sustainability of Fister's approach has been a discussion topic ever since he cracked the majors. Can a guy so seemingly hittable really clock 200 innings year in and year out, and not have hitters figure out how to hit him hard? Fister has almost accumulated two full seasons of service time in the majors at this point, and we are still waiting for the other shoe to drop. If anything, he might be getting better.
Recently, there have been several pieces discussing the merits of pitching to contact. I'm not sure what caused the outbreak. For all I know, it's just coincidence that I happened upon these writings at about the same time.
Despite the obvious advantages that come from swings and misses (from a pitcher's perspective), pitching to contact is the bread and butter of any pitcher's game. Dirk Hayhurst put it beautifully, and while his reasoning is grounded in logic and intuition, data backs it up.
In many ways, what holds Erik Bedard back from being a workhorse is a below-average ability to pitch to contact. Typically, his frustrating starts are the high-strikeout, 5-inning performances. He is effective, but seems to be done so fast.
Over the weekend, I watched M's top pick Danny Hultzen start against California in the College World Series. While he didn't allow a run in 6.1 innings, he took well over 100 pitches to get the job done. Hultzen threw lots of unhittable pitches, and in the end too many to hang around the game longer.
From a statistical standpoint, Dave Cameron broke down BABIP in some depth the other day, mostly as a response to some pitch f/x analysis of Josh Beckett's resurgence. Comparing pitch f/x analysis with other stats, like BABIP and contact rates, brings to the surface how a pitcher induces contact. From there, it's open to debate how sustainable that approach is.
Doug Fister is not a cutter thrower, but many pitchers have turned to it in recent years with successful results. The current "it" pitch in baseball is in vogue because of how it forces weak contact. The cutter is not a swing-and-miss pitch generally. It disguises itself as a fastball, and then darts enough laterally to miss the barrel of the bat. Albert Chen wrote a great piece for SI all about the cutter, and embedded was a stunning statistic: The BABIP of all cutters thrown in the majors this year is .254, a full 40 points below the rate of all pitches combined.
Baseball is a game of skill at least as much as talent. Brains can beat braun, and often do. If it were a game more based on athletic prowess, there wouldn't be as much of a need for a farm system, and veterans wouldn't be able to fool rookies as much as they do.
Pitching to contact is a skill that often gets underrated. There are pitches and pitching patterns that tend to generate weaker contact than other ways. Some pitchers have the kind of pure stuff that allows them to mix and match more, but not every pitcher has the same innate sense for how to maximize their own talents.
Doug Fister, for whatever reason, knows how to maximize the stuff he has. Could you imagine giving Fister's stuff to a guy like Joel Zumaya, and Zumaya being able to duplicate Fister's results? Not at all, because Fister's approach is as integral to his success as anything else. While pitching to contact is challenging to quantify, it is a skill, and a valuable one.