In July of 2011, the Detroit Tigers were seeking to make small improvements to a club already in contention. Behind superstar performances by their superstars, Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander, the team was in first in the AL Central a day before the trade deadline, 1.5 games ahead of the Cleveland Indians. But what the team lacked, more than anything else, was a strong 5th starter. To that point, the Tigers had given a total of 35 starts to the likes of Phil Coke and Brad Penny, who had punched up ERAs of 4.82 and 4.89 respectively in those starts. They needed someone to eat innings and keep the team in games, so they went out and made a trade. On July 30, the Tigers sent reliever Charlie Furbush, along with minor leaguers Chance Ruffin and Francisco Martinez to the Seattle Mariners, for reliever David Pauley and the starter they were looking for, Doug Fister. To that point in the season, Fister had posted solid if unspectacular career numbers; a 3.81 ERA and nearly league-average 103 ERA+ in 60 games with Seattle. It looked to the baseball world as if the Tigers had acquired the fifth starter they needed. But Doug Fister turned out to be so much more.
Fister had never been much of a prospect. Coming out of California State University-Fresno in 2006, Fister wasn’t even listed among Baseball-America’s top 30 prospects in his own state. Drafted by the Mariners in the 7th round, Fister put up middling numbers in the minor leagues — his career minor league 4.34 ERA was adequate, but certainly not eye-popping. His stuff he featured was unexceptional; a fastball that rarely touched 90 and a curve seen as below-average. But he kept rising through the system, and on August 8th of 2009, the then-25 year old Fister made his major league debut, pitching a scoreless 9th inning in a blowout loss. Fister got 10 starts in 2009, and pitched well enough to earn himself a job in the rotation for 2010. In 2010, his first full season in the big leagues, Fister posted a strikeout rate that was far below average (4.9 K/9), but despite this, proved to be an average major league performer. But in 2011, Fister began to turn a corner. His 3-12 win-loss record belied his marked improvement; his 3.33 ERA at the time of the trade was nearly a run better than the previous year.
But when Fister got to Detroit, he almost immediately transformed from solid major leaguer to staff ace. In 70.1 innings with Detroit in 2011, Fister’s strikeout rate jumped from 5.49 K/9 to 7.29, his already impressive walk rate dropped to a minuscule 0.64 BB/9 (he only walked 5 batters in a Tigers uniform that year, and his ERA stood at 2.83 for the year, and 1.79 as a Tiger. Fister’s performance raised eyebrows, but it also raised questions. Was Fister really a top-flight starter, or was his performance down the stretch merely an aberration?
In both 2012 and 2013, Fister proved definitely that his ascendence was no mirage. In 370.1 innings over those two years, Fister’s strikeout rate stabilized at 7.2 K/9, his walk rate remained very low (1.97 BB/9, in the top 15 among all major league starters), and his ERA, while not the 2.83 it was in 2011, stayed at a strong 3.57. Over the last three years, Fister has been one of the most valuable starting pitchers in baseball; his 13.3 fWAR ranks ninth among all major league starters, only one-tenth of a win below David Price. Over this time, he has become even more of a groundball pitcher; he throws a sharp two-seamer, a hard-breaking curveball, and with the help of a cutter he implemented this year, he posted a 54.3% groundball rate this year, highest of his career. And yet, Fister remained underrated, even by his own team, who had managed to compile three of the eight starters (in Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Anibal Sanchez) that had been more valuable than Fister over the last three years. The Tigers felt he was expendable, and moved him to Washington, trading him to the Nationals for the team’s number-5 prospect, Robbie Ray, a lefty reliever, Ian Krol, and a utility player worth -0.7 fWAR last year, Steve Lombardozzi, Jr.
So just how little did the Tigers get for Fister? Compare their haul with what the Rays received for James Shields last year. Shields, who, like Fister, was going into his age-30 season with two years left of team control, posted a 3.76 ERA and 10.0 fWAR from 2010-12, compared with Fister’s 3.30 and 13.3. But somehow, the Rays packaged Shields and swingman Wade Davis for 4 players, including Jake Odrizzi (rated as the #92 prospect in baseball by Baseball-America) and future Rookie of the Year Wil Myers, rated then as the 4th-best prospect in the sport. Or compare with the haul the Rays received in 2011 from the Cubs for two years of Matt Garza, whose 3.86 ERA and 7.8 fWAR make him scarcely half as valuable as Fister has been. But in the Garza deal, the Rays received the number 1 (Chris Archer), 4 (Hak-Ju Lee), and 10 (Brandon Guyer) prospects in the Cubs system. Meanwhile, all the Tigers manage to get out of Fister is two spare parts and one prospect who, according to Keith Law, profiles as a back-end starter. Even if you think Ray has more potential than that, and I do — he has a sharp changeup and an improving curveball, and can allegedly hit 97 with his fastball — Fister is already a proven major league starter whose production in the next two years, in all probability, will be greater than anything Ray contributes in his career.
Over the past several years, Doug Fister has proven that, despite his limited stuff, he has the skill to sit atop nearly any rotation in the major leagues. While lacking the pure stuff of an ace, he has been among the most valuable pitchers in baseball. With him, the Nationals have a rotation with four pitchers who can match up against nearly anyone. It’s only November, but by adding Fister, the Nats have put themselves in position to have a very strong 2014.