The flummoxing Doug Fister

Jesse Johnson-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

Doug Fister might not be the most unlikely pitcher to hold a strikeout record, but he's up there. What happened with him?

Doug Fister was a known quantity. This was back in simpler times. He pitched for the Seattle Mariners, and he had a 3.81 ERA in his 59 Mariners starts, which was kinda okay, except he pitched in Seattle. Wilson Valdez could put up a 3.81 ERA in Safeco Field. Fister was an innings eater, alright. He was labeled, categorized, and filed away like the ark in the first Indiana Jones movie. No one needed to worry about Doug Fister surprising them.

Then Doug Fister surprised everybody.

SEA (3 yrs) 3.81 378.0 79 218 103 1.9 5.2
DET (2 yrs) 2.90 220.0 40 182 143 1.6 7.4

The especially interesting column is the one on the right. For no apparent reason, Fister's strikeout rate jumped by almost two per nine innings.

Jim Leyland: Say, Doug, have you thought about putting your cleats on the right feet when you pitch?

Doug Fister: Sounds weird, skip, but I'll try anything once!

It seems that easy. His strikeout rate jumped immediately when he was on the Tigers. Well, not immediately. He didn't strike a hitter out in his first two starts for Detroit. Since then, he's been a league-average, strikeout machine. Which, combined with his preternatural command, is a very valuable thing.

That known, innings-eating quantity turned into something different. It turned into the kind of pitcher who could set the American League record for consecutive strikeouts, which Fister did on Thursday.

So what's different?

I thought I was so clever because I figured it was something with the Comerica batting eye compared to Safeco, similar to what Jeff Sullivan explored with Jered Weaver and the rock pile in Anaheim. But that wasn't it; the strikeout rate is identical home and away.

Increased fastball? Not really. He threw an average fastball of 88.3 m.p.h. in his last full season in Seattle, and his fastball averages 89.1 in Detroit.

If I had to make an educated guess, it's his curveball. He's throwing more of them, and he's throwing it almost 20 percent of the time now, compared to just under 10 percent of the time in Seattle. And according to FanGraphs' pitch values, it's his best pitch for two years running.

It's a different curve, too, breaking more than an inch more in 2012 than it did in 2010. He's also using it almost twice as much in two-strike counts against left-handed batters, and more than three times as much in two-strike counts against right-handed batters. In 2010, his curve made hitters whiff 27 percent of the time. In 2012, that's up to 42 percent.

So, of course, of those nine consecutive strikeouts, none of them came on a curveball, blowing this theory straight to hell. At least, when it comes to anecdotal evidence.

But something changed when Fister got to Detroit, and it really could have been something as simple as Jeff Jones helping him tweak his curve when he arrived. Or maybe it was a pitching philosophy that helped -- a shift toward the curveball that wasn't emphasized in Seattle. Maybe it's a combination of both.

Whatever it was, Doug Fister isn't a generic innings-eater these days. He has four pitches he can work with, and one of them is a swing-and-miss beauty. Doug Fister is the proud owner of a strikeout-related record. That reads weird. But we can get used to it.

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