Fastballs to Curves: Fiers’s Releases | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

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More than half of Fastballer Mike Fiers‘s second half runs allowed occurred during fewer than 10% of his opponents’ plate appearances. To be specific, 54.5% of his second half runs allowed occurred during 6.8% of his opponents’ plate appearances. (To be even more specific, even if you note that Fiers’s first five starts of the second half were very good, we can isolate more than half of his second half runs allowed to merely 10% of his batters faced between August 13 and September 30).

Why does any of this matter? Well, since the Brewers dropped out of the Ryan Dempster sweepstakes last week, a season of questioning the Brewers’ gang of young arms officially opened. That’s right, gang, it looks like the Brewers’ front office is going to depend on a ragamuffin team of guys who don’t crack 90 MPH, ex-swingmen, a southpaw with a bum shoulder, and prospects (or ex-prospects) of varying degrees of merits. Okay, that’s being overly negative, but, I think it captures the general sentiment of Brewers’ fans: who is going to be in our rotation?

One of the biggest questions about Fiers is his second-half collapse. Since Fiers turned out to be one of the most promising of the Brewers’ replacement pitchers in 2012, his second half collapse is doubly important. After all, if Fiers cannot be depended on for an entire season, or if there is any reason to question his ability to pitch a full year, people will immediately look to his poor stretch, weighing it heavier than his great stretch.

Diving into the stats, really, Fiers looks remarkably consistent. The huge red flag in his final 10 starts is his 9 home runs allowed (compared to 3 prior to that point). Otherwise, Fiers remained a strong strike out machine, with respectable-to-good walk rates throughout the season:

May 29 to August 7: 318 BF, 80 K / 16 BB / 3 HR
August 13 to September 30: 221 BF, 55 K / 20 BB / 9 HR

First Half: 187 BF, 50 K / 9 BB / 2 HR
Second Half: 352 BF, 85 K / 27 BB / 10 HR

Within that second half stretch, beginning with Fiers’s now-infamous start at Coors Field, Fiers’s total runs allowed dwarf his actual peripheral performance. Even if we note that an increased walk rate and a higher home run rate should result in more runs allowed, Fiers’s actual runs allowed move beyond that ratio. During that rough stretch in August and September, Fiers allowed 30 hits on batted balls in play, walked 20 batters, allowed 9 home runs, and hit a batter to boot. Even if we project a below average ability to strand baserunners to Fiers — let’s say 35% of his non-HR, 51 baserunners score — and allow each of Fiers’s homers to be worth 2 runs, we don’t reach 39 runs allowed; given an average baserunners scored percentage, and less potent timing with the homers, and we might reasonably expect Fiers to allow between 24 and 28 runs during his rough stretch (his FIP during that stretch suggested approximately 26 runs allowed). That Fiers actually allowed 39 runs begs the question, what on earth happened?

Rough, Rough Patches
Working through his rough stretch starts, here are approximately 24 plays that resulted in 24 runs scored (if you scrutinized the game logs, there are probably a handful of plays I left out that lead up to these events, bringing us closer to 30 total plays):

August 13, 2012: 3 R scored on outs (2 groundouts, 1 flyout); 2 R scored on inherited runners
August 18, 2012: 3 R scored on back-to-back home runs
August 24, 2012: 3 consecutive line drives score 2 runs
September 3, 2012: 1 R scored on out (1 flyout); 4th inning: 3 consecutive singles, 1 E1, walk, and 2 consecutive singles score 5 runs
September 14, 2012: 1 R scored on out (1 groundout); 1 R scored on home run
September 20, 2012: 3 R scored on home run
September 30, 2012: 4 R score on 4 home runs (including 2 back-to-back)

Here’s what sticks out:
(1) This series includes at least two back-to-back home runs, and three other “consecutive” scoring sequences — two strings of singles, and a string of line drives. What this suggests is that Fiers’s ineffectiveness was compounded into short bursts of consecutive plays.
(2) Included in some of the sequences leading up to these plays (and mentioned during the September 3 sequence) are errors on Fiers himself. In total, my count showed at least 3 runs (or more) that resulted in series of errors by Fiers (including two botched pick-offs, and one botched fielding attempt on a bunt).

Now, Fiers isn’t a great fielder in his professional career — he has approximately 12 errors in approximately 119 total career chances, including 10 in approximately 82 chances from 2011-2012 — but those three errors in two of his worst starts (Coors and Marlins) corresponded with (and compounded) two of his roughest batted-ball-in-play stretches of the season. Even with a generally below average fielding pitcher, to isolate three errors in the course of two starts with 14 total runs allowed signal Murphy’s Law more than anything else.

All things considered, even isolating the 221 batters faced during Fiers’s August and September stretch, this series of 24 plays cited above don’t even comprise 15% of his total batters faced during that poor stretch. This might seem like wishful thinking when presented with a series of unfavorable outings, but Fiers’s August and September stretch looks like an isolated series of poor sequences and everything-going-wrong than a systematic problem.

During Fiers’s starts from May, through his July 5th outing, Fiers selected his fastball and cutter more than 71% of his offerings (specifically, he relied on his primary fastball more than 46% of the time, while his cutter received more than 24% of his selections); this meant that Fiers’s curve and change received approximately 13% to 15% selections (each).

Although Fiers’s first five starts after the break featured strong performances, they also indicate the beginning of one problem that might have spurred his season-ending troubles: in his first five starts after the All-Star game, Fiers dramatically decreased his respective selections of his cutter and change, selecting his cutter only 14% of his total pitches, while slicing the use of his change in half. These percentages mimic his August and September pitch selection, where his cutter remained below 15% of his selections, and his change did not crack 9% of his pitches. Basically, Fiers swapped out his fastball/cutter combination that brought success early in the season, and became a fastball/curveball kind-of-guy.

This switch to the curveball slowly resulted in higher release points for Fiers’s breaking ball, which effectively separated his fastball release point from his curve release point. Not surprisingly, along with the frequent selections and changing release point, Fiers’s curveball became less effective:

May to All-Star Game (14.7% curve): 56.6% strike, 38.7% swings, 14.2% whiffs, 15.1% foul; 9.4% in-play

All-Star Game to early August (24.7% curve): 57.7% strike, 39.2% swing, 12.3% whiffs, 13.1% foul; 13.8% in-play

Coors Field through September (24.6% curve): 58.6% strike, 41.9% swing, 10.8% whiff, 11.7% foul; 19.4% in-play

One might protest that these release point changes I emphasize are minute, but remember that Fiers is facing professional hitters. These batters look for any type of change in a pitcher’s habits or release points, and while a few inches shift in a release point might seem small to fans, that might mean all the difference between a pitcher hiding his curveball and fooling a batter into a foul ball, and a pitcher showing his curveball and that batter knocking the pitch into play. As Fiers selected his curve more frequently, his release point slightly shifted, and what formerly served as a pitch that earned a bunch of fouls and few batted balls in play became regularly smacked into play.

Fastballer Mike Fiers
I affectionately called Mike Fiers “Fastballer” early in the season, because there’s something extremely endearing about a guy that might not break 88 MPH mowing down MLB batters with a primary fastball and cutter. Fiers gained notoriety by selecting his fastballs more than just about any starting pitcher in the National League, even though you’d have trouble finding a handful of pitchers that threw slower than him. This success showed that if a pitcher pounds the strike zone and locates his fastball, he can dominate with that fastball — triple digits or not. I cannot say why Fiers abandoned his cutter in favor of his curve, but I can suggest that perhaps the key to Fiers’s success is hammering the strike zone with those two fastballs.

Overall, Fiers projects to be a strong strike out pitcher that generally limits the damage. While Brewers fans have every right to ask questions about what to expect from the righty after his rough August and September, one should look for answers within his pitching approach, release point, and sequences of consecutive scoring plays. After all, it is not as though Fiers was scattering runs allowed here and there throughout his rough starts; he was getting hammered in brief sequences that resulted in serious runs allowed. That paints a different picture than what one might expect; one might expect an argument that Fiers simply lost his effectiveness in the second half. Yet, I’m not sure that tells the whole story — Fiers lost his effectiveness in fits, a small percentage of even his August and September batters faced. That should not be an indictment against Fiers to form our 2013 expectations for the fastballer.

Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC., 2000-2012.
TexasLeaguers. Trip Somers, 2009-2012.

Strike Zones are the work of Trip Somers from TexasLeaguers.
Fiers (pitching):

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