Mike Fiers is one of the best surprises of the Brewers’ 2012 season. As J.P. Breen stated yesterday, Fiers has yet to look back since the Brewers inserted him into their injury-depleted rotation. Even though Fiers has yet to reach his 50th inning pitched in the 2012 NL, he already provides extreme value to the Milwaukee Brewers’ rotation. In terms of replacement pitching, Fiers’s 12 runs allowed in 46.7 IP are approximately 12 runs better than the 2012 NL / Miller Park environment (which is shockingly near a 4.57 runs average (9R/IP)). To place that performance in perspective, of the 66 National League replacement pitchers that failed to work 100 innings last year, only 23 managed to even post an average performance (in terms of runs average); if the season ended today, Fiers would undoubtedly place among the top replacement starters in the National League.
Beyond replacement starting, Fiers may have an opportunity to work deeper into the season as a starter. Although one might expect his future performance to waiver from his exceptional 2.31 runs average, Fiers is poised to serve as one of the Brewers’ best starters even if he produces at an average level in the second half.
Zack Greinke: +14 runs prevented / 111 IP / 42 R (~56 expected)
Yovani Gallardo: +8 runs prevented / 108.3 IP / 47 R (~55 expected)
Shaun Marcum: +9 runs prevented / 82.3 IP / 33 R (~42 expected)
Mike Fiers: +12 runs prevented / 46.7 IP / 12 R (~24 expected)
Marco Estrada: +2 runs prevented / 51 IP / 24 R (~26 expected)
Randy Wolf: -18 runs prevented / 99.3 IP / 68 R (~50 expected)
While Zack Greinke is on the fast track to complete a Top 10 National League season, Fiers has already shouldered the production of Shaun Marcum, maintaining a reliable, above average arm during his first trips through the rotation. Fiers and his swingman counterpart Marco Estrada are pitching well enough that one has to wonder if Randy Wolf will be sent to the bullpen if Greinke remains on the club and Marcum returns from his injury.
Perhaps the best part about Fiers’s performance is that he is accomplishing his strong strike out rate and excellent control by favoring his fastball. Fiers’s 88.0-to-88.8 MPH offering is among the slowest for National League right handers (including bizarre deliveries from reliever extraordinaire Tim Dillard and the Freddy Fitzsimmons knuckleballer, R.A. Dickey).
Make no mistakes about it, although Fiers throws slow, he’s no junkballer. Rather, the righty selects his fastball(s) and cutter in more than 70% of his offerings. BrooksBaseball classifies 50% of Fiers’ selections as “four-seam” or rising fastballs, with 20% of his offerings as cutters and another 2% as “two-seam” fastballs. TexasLeaguers doesn’t attribute a two-seamer to Fiers, and their classification system calls 24% of Fiers’ offerings cutters. (Apparently Fiers has also thrown between 2 and 6 sliders, although given their velocity and similar movement to the cutter, I’d question whether those are true sliders or just cutters with an extra “wrinkle”).
Despite boasting one of the slowest fastballs in the National League, Fiers throws his primary fastball and cutter more frequently than most NL starters. Drew Pomeranz and Chris Young rely solely on one primary fastball more than 70% of the time, while Nathan Eovaldi, James McDonald, and Chad Billingsley combine their primary fastball with another cutter or moving fastball to comprise more than 70% of their selections. (There is another group of pitchers that might better be classified as “moving fastball” specialists, and this group of pitchers throws a combination of three fastballs (or moving fastballs) more than 70% of the time: Lucas Harrell, Wade Miley, Gio Gonzalez, Travis Wood, Jeff Samardzija, Josh Collmenter, Wandy Rodriguez, Cliff Lee, Jeff Suppan, and Jonathon Niese. That’s a gang I wouldn’t want to run into in a dark alley. Joe Saunders, Kyle Kendrick, Mike Leake, and Tim Hudson form another group of primarily sinkerball pitchers that throw a collection of fastballs more than 70% of the time, but by this point it’s debatable about whether they’re throwing fastballs in the same way that Fiers throws a “fastball”). Fiers’s aggressiveness with his fastball compares favorably to just about every example in this group.
Even considering moving fastball specialists, not even 1/4 of 2012 National League starters select their fastballs in 70% of their offerings. Fiers is hardly comparable to a sinkerballer or moving fastball specialist, as his primary fastball is a traditional rising fastball. That’s what makes his combination of fastball velocity and pitch selection surprising to my mind: without any tricks or sinkers or wrinkles, Fiers is pounding batters with an 88-89 MPH traditional fastball. No gimmicks, no nothing — it’s four pitches, no waiting with Fiers.
Controlling the Future
Yesterday, J.P. mentioned that Fiers has answered a question for next year’s Brewers rotation, and this is perhaps the best part about Fiers. With a replacement assignment in 2012, Fiers forcefully threw his hat into the ring for one of the Brewers’ open rotation spots in 2013. While the Brewers might be compelled to toss some of their harder throwing pitching prospects into the rotation ahead of Fiers, the ability of Fiers to attack the strike zone and exhibit control over an extended period of time makes him an attractive candidate for the Brewers’ 2013 rotation.
Currently, Fiers boasts an exceptional 50 K / 9 BB / 2 HR ratio during his first half with the Brewers. While one might not expect the right hander to continuously strike out 50 batters per 46.7 IP, one can reasonably expect Fiers to continue to limit the walks and keep the home run damage to an acceptable level.
Fiers cut his teeth in the Pacific Coast League during the 2011 season, propelling himself to the Brewers’ minor league Pitcher of the Year award and landing himself squarely on the map of surpise prospects. That Fiers moved from the Southern League to the PCL without incident is a testament to his ability to hammer the strike zone and maintain strong control. Even in an excessive offensive environment, he can limit the damage.
Over the last three seasons, here are the basic league environments for the Brewers’ most advanced farm clubs (prorated per 100 IP, not park-adjusted).
2012 PCL: 78.6 K, 37.7 BB, 10.7 HR (59.3 R)
2011 PCL: 78.7 K, 42.2 BB, 11.7 HR (63.1 R)
2011 SOUL: 81.4 K, 39.7 BB, 8.3 HR (53.2 R)
2010 SOUL: 82.7 K, 39.1 BB, 7.4 HR (51.8 R)
2012 Nash: 89.l K, 32.7 BB, 10.9 HR (50.9 R)
2011 Nash: 106.6 K, 34.0 BB, 6.2 HR (27.8 R)
2011 Hunt: 102.8 K, 22.8 BB, 11.4 HR (34.3 R)
2010 Hunt: 113.6 K, 28.4 BB, 9.5 HR (41.0 R)
Even if we follow Fiers’s minor league home run rates, and expect his MLB home run rate to increase (especially in the home-run friendly confines of Miller Park), we can see that the righty also has a strong track record for limiting the damage. As impressive as those strike out rates appear against his AA and AAA peers, those walk rates stand out as repeatable trait. Even as batters become more familiar with Fiers’s arsenal and pitching patterns, the fastballer tends not to beat himself, which will always be a welcome trait at the big league level.
Perhaps there is a lot that is surprising about Fiers. The right-hander exploded onto the scene last year, during his age 26 season, emerging as a late prospect for the Brewers. Furthermore, the fastballer doesn’t shy away from his slow rising fastball, but instead embraces his combination of fastballs to retire batters. Perhaps it is precisely this combination of surprising elements that keeps Fiers on the mound, and keeps batters guessing at the plate. Beyond all the surprises, we have a pitcher that is seizing an MLB opportunity, a true positive during this disappointing season. Thankfully, we have another half of baseball to watch this improbable fastballer baffle National League opponents.
Jeff Gross, Getty Images: http://www.minorleagueball.com/2012/5/31/3053145/prospect-of-the-day-michael-fiers-rhp-milwaukee-brewers