Can Mike Fiers Keep Cutting up the Competition? | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

The Brewers needed a strong showing from Mike Fiers on Sunday and they got one. In his fourth start since Matt Garza’s DL stint propelled him into the starting rotation, Fiers pitched seven strong innings. He struck out seven, walked one, and allowed only two hits – one of which was a two-run home run by Starling Marte.

Mike Fiers has now made four quality starts in Garza’s absence. Fiers may have only pitched 35.0 innings this season, but they have been dominant innings. Across four starts and four relief appearances, which includes a 4.0 IP stint in extras against the Nationals, Fiers has compiled a 1.54 ERA / 2.74 FIP / 2.91 xFIP. Giving further credence to Fiers’ credibility is his 2.63 SIERA and 24.0% K-BB%. Incredibly, both Fangraphs (0.9 fWAR) and Baseball-Reference (1.6 bWAR) rank Fiers as one of the top five Brewers’ pitcher by WAR this season. This is no statistical smoke-and-mirror being pulled by Fiers. He’s the real deal, right now.

Yet, I can’t blame Brewers fans for waiting for the other shoe to drop. Fiers’ 2012 campaign started similarly strong only to finished poorly. Between May 29 and July 27, 2012, Fiers pitched 66 strong innings across ten starts and one inning of relief. His starts in August and September were a different story though.

Here’s what went wrong –

2012 May – July Aug – Sept
GS/IP 10/66.0 12/61.2
HR 2 10
ERA 1.77 5.84
FIP 2.23 4.02
xFIP 3.53 3.41
SIERA 3.40 3.51
LOB% 83.6% 64.1%
HR/FB 2.6% 15.9%

Hitters went home run happy against Fiers, which bloated his ERA, FIP, and HR/FB while plummeting his LOB%. Most importantly, nine out of the ten home runs hit off Fiers in August and September were on his four-seam fastball – the pitch most vital to his success.

Yet, the two metrics that best correlate with future performance (SIERA and xFIP) held relatively steady. They still predicted a promising future. In fact, Fiers’ xFIP, which normalizes home runs rates, actually improved. This suggested that even though Fiers had issues at the end of 2012, they were not irreversible. What went wrong in 2012? And, more importantly, could it to happen again this year?

I scoured the data looking for an explanation. There were no dramatic shifts in Fiers’ 2012 batted ball data over those periods. Players made contact, swung-and-missed, etc. around similar rates. So what changed? For one, his pitch usage. Here’s how often he used each pitch (FB – fastball, FC – cutter, CU – curve, CH – change-up) during each stretch –

2012 May – July Aug – Sept
FA 42.5% 52.6%
FC 28.3% 14.0%
CU 17.4% 24.9%
CH 11.3% 8.4%

Notice the steep drop in use of the cutter. The last two months of 2012, hitters slaughtered Fiers’ cutter to the tune of a .857 SLUG. Fiers’ struggles correspond to his inability to keep hitters off either of his fastballs.

Fiers stopped using his cutter because he couldn’t keep it down. To start 2012, Fiers consistently placed his cutter low and away from RHP. It was a hard pitch used to change the hitter’s eye level and keep them off the 88 MPH, high fastball.

Now look at Fiers’ cutter control during his rough August and September of 2012.

The cutter crept higher into the strike zone. Once hitters only saw hard stuff up in the zone, they looked for it then started to drive it.

Like Marco Estrada, Mike Fiers lives and dies by his high fastball. When the high fastball is effective they rack up strikeouts and harmless pop flies. When it’s not, it becomes batting practice.  But there are strong indications that Fiers might be able to avoid Estrada’s fate. Fiers’ four-seam fastball has been more effective than ever. Keeping it that way will be key to his success.

During Fiers’ strong stretch in 2012, he used his cutter 28.3% of the time. He then struggled when he stopped locating it. Yet, during Fiers’ dominant 2014, he has reduced the use of his cutter and leaned on his four-seam fastball (63.7% FB%), more and for good reason.

Fiers’ peripheral numbers suggest that his four-seamer is better than ever. It might only clock in at 89.2 MPH, but it’s doing a number on opponents. Look at the improvements it’s made this year –

Year K% BB% wOBA LD% Swing% Contact% SwStr%
2012 23.3% 8.3% .328 28.5% 44.6% 87.1% 5.7%
2013 15.3% 8.5% .426 34.9% 43.5% 83.9% 7.0%
2014 32.6% 4.7% .189 22.2% 47.5% 76.3% 11.3%

Simply, batters have been swinging more and making contact less against Fiers’ four-seamer this season. Those worried that Fiers might turn into Marco Estrada should consider this –

Player P K% BB% wOBA LD% Swing% Contact% SwStr%
Mike Fiers 337 32.6% 4.7% .189 22.2% 47.5% 76.3% 11.3%
Marco Estrada 1239 18.9% 9.0% .374 30.5% 46.9% 84.3% 7.3%

Fiers’ rising four-seamer has been a better pitch across the board. Of course, the statistical elephant in the room is the number of four-seamers thrown. This season, Estrada has thrown almost 900 more four-seamers than Fiers. Regression should be coming down the stretch. Once hitters adjust to Fiers’ four-seam fastballs, his cutter will be more important than ever.

So far this season, opponents have managed a .232 wOBA off Fiers’ cutter. That included Starling Marte’s home run off a Fiers’ cutter on Sunday. When hitters adjust to his four-seam fastball, Fiers’ cutter will be essential in keeping batters off balance. What once turned into Fiers’ kryptonite in 2012 might just be the additional wrinkle he needs in 2014.

Though Fiers has used his cutter less in 2014, he has located it well –

Mike Fiers needs to limit the damage to this four-seamer and cutter for his success to continue. Those are the pitches Brewers fans need to keep an eye on. Simply, if Fiers’ fastballs can continue to be effective, then so can Fiers. Keeping his cutter low and away from RHP is a key to that success.

 

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Comments

Tell us what do you think.

  1. Jason says: August 25, 2014

    I remember Fiers back in ’12. He was doing pretty much the same thing he is doing now, and that’s good. What I remember going wrong for him in September, and I don’t know if it was fatigue or cockiness, was that he would groove some pitches (I remember gasping a lot and saying, “Good thing he was taking.”). He is going to go as far as his command will take him this year, and I am on for the ride.

  2. Evan (Maryland) says: August 25, 2014

    I go back to a previous article one of you wrote a couple weeks back saying what the Brewers should do once Garza and Lohse are back. I say put Jimmy Nelson in the pen and let Fiers continue to start. Who cares about players being butt-hurt and ride the hot hand into the playoffs. If he is pitching like this you can’t keep him out of the rotation. Plus you could limit Nelson’s innings and he might be an effective 2 pitch reliever to help a recently maligned albeit getting better bullpen.

    • Evan (Maryland) says: August 25, 2014

      That’s not necessarily “my idea” I’m just reiterating a suggestion that was brought up.

    • Jason says: August 25, 2014

      Call me cynical or Machiavellian if you like, but I’d tell them we go to a 6 man rotation in September until someone plays their way out of the starting rotation.

      • Evan (Maryland) says: August 26, 2014

        I suppose that would essentially be taking the ball once a week for any of the guys and they can fill in the bullpen with guys in AAA. The issue is quality depth in the bullpen though. I’d say the Brewers can teach the Nationals something about keeping a young guy fresh and not sabotaging their season (although Nelson is not the same as Strasburg) and use him in the bullpen. Every ounce of me wants the Brewers to win the World Series but the rest of me would love to see the Nationals never win it all for their sacrilege against the game of baseball. If the Brewers ever shut a player down like that (in that sort of scenario) I’d have a hard time watching them.

        • dbug says: August 26, 2014

          Pretty different scenario, isn’t it? Strasburg was younger and coming off of Tommy John. Time will tell, but if Washington goes on to win a World Series with Strasburg, or if he has a good long career, I think it will harder to say they made a mistake. He also could have stayed in the rotation, blown out his arm again, and still missed the playoffs anyway.

        • Jason says: August 27, 2014

          I’m not uncomfortable bringing up Wooten, Blazek and Figaro to bolster the bullpen.

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