Take a look at last year's WAR leaderboard for starting pitchers, and you'll notice a trend among the guys in the top 15. All of them but one fanned at least 7.3 batters per nine innings. Twelve of them got at least 8 K/9, and six had 9.5 or more. Basically, you have to strike out a lot of batters to be considered among the best pitchers in the league.
There is one guy, however, who did not rely on strikeouts to earn his place in the top 15. Doug Fister was 12th with 4.6 WAR while posting a 6.86 K/9. Moreover, it was not the first time he was in the top 15 despite non-elite strikeout numbers. In 2011, he was ninth with 5.2 WAR, but he struck out just 6.07 batters every nine innings. During a new golden age for power pitchers, Fister dominates with deception, command, control and movement. Those skills have allowed him to induce ground balls at a 50-percent rate over his entire career. In the third installment of our 2014 Burning Questions series, we ask if this is the year Fister puts it all together and gets recognized as the top-tier pitcher that he is.
Fister has been very good for each of the last three seasons, though his low strikeout totals mean he needs to have very strong rates and win a lot of games to be in the upper echelon of fantasy pitchers. He hasn't quite been able to do that. In 2011, he had a 2.83 ERA and 1.06 WHIP, but won just 11 games due largely to spending most of the season with a middling Seattle team. Two seasons ago, he had a 3.45 ERA and 1.19 WHIP, though he went 10-10. Last year, he won a career-high 14 games, but his ERA bumped up to 3.67 and his WHIP climbed to 1.31. There's good reason to believe this is the year Fister puts it all together, and it has nothing to do with him as a pitcher. It has everything to do with him getting out of Detroit and leaving behind one of the league's worst infield defenses.
Thanks primarily to one of the league's best two-seam fastballs Fister has extreme ground-ball tendencies. His ground-ball rate last year was 54.3 percent, the fourth-highest in the majors. That's generally great for pitchers, and on most teams that would result in a ton of ground-ball outs. Justin Masterson had a 58-percent ground-ball rate last year and posted a .285 BABIP and 1.20 WHIP. Andrew Cashner's 52.5-percent ground-ball rate helped him to a .269 BABIP and 1.13 WHIP. Of course, neither of them had to suffer with Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Jhonny Peralta in their infield.
According to Fangraphs, Cabrera was the second-worst defensive third baseman in the league, Fielder was the worst first baseman, and Peralta was the eighth-worst shortstop. That's a really bad formula for a pitcher who gets ground balls 55 percent of the time. Fister had a ridiculously high .332 BABIP, tied with Joe Saunders for the second-highest in the league behind Bud Norris. Not surprisingly his FIP was down at 3.26, nearly a half-run lower than his ERA and the 15th-largest positive spread between ERA and FIP in the majors. Luckily for him, he won't see any of those guys behind him in Washington.
So long as he left Detroit, Fister was going to get an upgrade in infield defense. Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche aren't going to make anyone bring up Brooks Robinson or Keith Hernandez, but they aren't the butchers that Cabrera and Fielder are. Meanwhile, Ian Desmond was the ninth-best defensive shortstop in the league last year, and Anthony Rendon put up net-positive defensive numbers in limited duty at second base. If they can simply turn 10 percent of those balls that went for hits into outs for Fister, his rates will come down accordingly. Add to that the natural ERA and WHIP bump he'll get from moving to the NL from the AL, and it's easy to craft a scenario in which Fister racks up a sub-3.00 ERA and WHIP down around 1.10. With the Nationals positioned to be a contender, 15 wins are well within reach.
Fister isn't going to strike out 200 batters, but he doesn't need to. With his new environment and teammates in Washington, Fister will likely enjoy the best year of his career. That could make him a top-15 fantasy pitcher, and it certainly will make him one of the steals of any draft this year.
MORE BURNING QUESTIONS:
• Part I: Can Starlin Castro bounce back in 2014?
• Part II: Is Masahiro Tanaka a worthwhile risk for owners?
• Part III: Should Doug Fister be considered a top pitcher?
• Part IV: Is Eric Hosmer a top-10 first baseman?
• Part V: How will Chris Davis follow up his successful 2013?
• Part VI: Will Brandon Phillips rack up 100+ RBI again?
• Part VII: What can owners expect from Josh Donaldson?
• Part VIII: Is Hanley Ramirez worth the risk of injury?
• Part IX: Can Josh Hamilton rediscover his power stroke?
• Part X: How should owners value Javier Baez, George Springer?