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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