Can Mike Fiers Stay a Cut Above in 2013? | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

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

In Monday’s article, I drew attention to Prediction Machine’s forecast of the Brewers’ 2013 season. After running 50,000 season simulations, the site predicted a record of 78-84 for the Crew and only gave them a 16% chance of making the playoffs. They also picked the two most important players for the Brewers’ 2013 season. Monday’s article looked at the most important position player – Rickie Weeks.  Today we’ll focus on their choice for the most important pitcher — Mike Fiers.

Mike Fiers began the 2012 season in Triple-A. He was 1-3 with a 4.42 ERA and 1.218 WHIP over 55.0 IP before being called up. When he arrived in LA on May 29th, he had quite the task at hand. He was set to start against the Dodgers, who at the time were 32-16 and had the best record in baseball. Seven innings later, Fiers walked off the field after allowing one earned run, scattering five hits, striking out three, walking none, and leading 2-1. Following the loss of both Chris Narveson and Marco Estrada to injury, Fiers had been given an opportunity to prove himself and seized it wholeheartedly.

Fiers’ next two starts were less impressive. He gave up 4 ER to Pittsburgh over 5 IP and 4 ER to San Diego over 6 IP. Then Fiers went on a two-month tear that put his numbers alongside the best starters in the game.  From June 16th to August 7th, Fiers’ numbers looked like this –

9 GS 5-2 9 QS 62 IP 7 ER 1 HR 14 BB 63 K 1.02 ERA 0.903 WHIP

On August 13th, Fiers stepped onto the rubber at Coors Field and, like many before him, was KOed quickly — 8 ER over 2 IP. Counting from the game in Colorado until the end of the season, Fiers’ numbers looked like this –

10 GS 3-6 2 QS 47.2 IP 39 ER 9 HR 20 BB 55 K 7.36 ERA 1.678 WHIP

Based on these splits, it’s easy to see why Prediction Machine picked Fiers as the most important pitcher to the Brewers’ 2013 success. While even the most optimistic Brewers fan couldn’t expect Fiers to pitch as brilliantly over an entire season as he did in the above nine game stretch, we can’t also expect him to pitch as poorly as he did over that last 10 games… right???

A look at Fiers’ 2012 numbers through advanced metrics seems promising —

3.09 FIP / 3.47 xFIP / 3.37 SIERA

Amongst pitchers with 100 IP in 2012, Fiers’ FIP was ninth best in the league, sandwiched between David Price and Adam Wainwright and two spots ahead of Zack Greinke. Fiers’ xFIP was 24th best — one spot ahead of Marco Estrada and five spots before Gallardo. Finally, Fiers’ SIERA was 17th best in the league and landed him one spot below Adam Wainwright. Now, being Adam Wainwright’s statistical neighbor in these categories bodes well for Fiers. Especially when considering that, in the extremely difficult field of predicting future pitching performance, xFIP and SIERA can be two of the better barometers.

Of course, the argument could be made that Fiers late June to mid-August, nine-game pitching clinic skewed his season numbers. So I looked at Fiers’ monthly splits to see how he performed in August. With two starts prior to his August 13th pounding by the Rockies and three starts after, how did his numbers look during the month that bridged the gap between his season’s two extremes?

On first blush, Fiers’ August 4.89 ERA stands out but the rest of his numbers don’t look that bad. His 3.27 FIP / 3.25 xFIP would be considering well above league average. In fact, Fiers’ xFIP for August was down from a 3.86 xFIP in July, when he went 4-0 and only allowed 3 ER over 26 2/3 IP. In August, Fiers struck out 24.1% of batters and walked only 4.8% for a solid 5.00 K/BB.  In fact, if he got a mulligan and the Colorado game was removed from his stats, Fiers August ERA would drop to 3.00. Of course, that’s just wishful thinking. The Colorado game became emblematic of the problems that would plague Fiers for the rest of the season and become statistically significant in late August and September.

The first danger zone was Fiers’ sudden drop in LOB%. From May through July, Fiers consistently stranded over 80% of runners. In August, it plummeted to 63.2% and stayed at 64.9% for September. Fiers’ BABIP ticked up slightly to 3.06, in August, only to explode to 4.03 in September. After posting an above average BB% from May to August, suddenly, Fiers was walking 10.1% of batters, 4.39 BB/9, during September. Most strikingly, Fiers’ LD% reached 32.1% for September. The league average LD% is 20%. Fiers’ season LD% was 28.2% – the highest in the league, by more than 2%, amongst SP who threw 100 IP or more. This is worrisome because line drives more often become hits compared to ground balls or fly balls. Yet, through all the troubles, Fiers’ still fanned a ton of batters. In September, he stuck out 25.6% of the batters he faced for an 11.14 K/9, a ratio more often seen by RP than SP.

As the 2012 season came to a close, it felt like Fiers was either missing bats or getting crushed by them. It would appear that one of the main reasons behind this was in his pitch selection. Fellow DoU writer Nicholas Zettel wrote a fantastic article about this called “Fastballs to Curves: Fiers’ Releases”. In the article, Nicholas describes how Fiers pounded the strike zone with fastballs for the first few months of the season. Using a four-seam fastball as his main pitch and mixing in a cut fastball, moving away from RHB and in on LHB, to keep batters honest. While batters waited to see which of the two fastballs was coming, Fiers would drop a curveball on them or, if a left handed batter, sometimes a change-up. As the season wore on, Fiers switched from throwing mainly four-seam fastballs and cutters to throwing four-seam fastballs and curveballs.

Let’s look at how Fiers mixed his two fastballs against RHB during a June 30th game, against Arizona, where he fanned 10. First is a plot of all of his four-seam fastballs to RHB.

And here’s a plot of all of his cut fastballs to RHB. Note how he tried keeping this pitch away from the RHB.

Now, let’s look at how Fiers mixed his fastballs against RHB during his final start of the season, September 30th against Houston. Note how the fastballs are mainly clumped over the middle of the plate, belt-high. Fiers gave up four HRs that day.

Finally, I’d like to show you how Fiers mixed in his cut fastball compared to his four-seam fastball… but I can’t. Fiers didn’t throw a single cut fastball to a RHB through his 6 IP. Outside of one change up, which didn’t come close to the strike zone, Fiers was a strict four-seam fastball or curveball pitcher to RHB during his final start of the 2012 season. For Fiers to succeed in 2013, this has to change.

Without a third pitch that he can throw with confidence to RHB, Fiers could be in for a long 2013 season, especially now that opposing batters have seen his stuff a few times. Fiers and the Brewers coaching staff realize this too. In a recent interview with Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Fiers said he was experimenting with a two-seam fastball that would dive in on the hands of RHB and fall away from LHB. If thrown correctly, it could not only help keep RHB off-balance but result in more groundballs.

So what can Brewers fans expect from Fiers in 2013? If we’re lucky, Fiers will rebound from his September struggles for a campaign that resembles his August numbers but with a lower ERA.  All predictions aside, it’s obvious that for Fiers to succeed in 2013, he must command his cutter and/or the new two-seam fastball to keep RHB from sitting on his four-seam fastball. Without one or the other, it’s hard to see how he’ll be able to pitch deep into games.

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