If you were to ask me in the offseason what my thoughts on Milwaukee Brewers right-handed pitcher Mike Fiers were I would likely have told you he barely has a shot at cracking a Major League rotation. In fact, I ranked him the Brewers 14th best prospect in the offseason and this is what I had to say about him:
Always put up numbers that were better than his natural stuff. He projects as a 5th/6th starter or could be a solid pen guy who learns how to pitch backwards. Turns 27 next season so he is what he is.
Now, when you look at his current stats, even in a small sample size, you would think that he belongs at the top of a team’s rotation. He has been on fie sporting a 1.88 ERA and 2.30 FIP. He has 73 strikeouts in 72 innings pitched and has only allowed 16 walks. All he does is strike batters out without walking any, the same thing he did throughout his minor league career.
After you look at his 9.13 K/9 you would think he has to be throwing in the low-90s, if not the mid-90s, but his fastball has averaged a mere 88 mph this season. Yes, 88 mph, and he throws the pitch 54.9% of the time. The pitch has been worth 12.4 runs already this season which is 6th best in the National League behind Clayton Kershaw, Ryan Vogelsong, Aroldis Chapman, Jordan Zimmermann, and Johnny Cueto.
Fiers’ change-up comes in only 7.5 mph less at 81.5 mph but has yielded positive results with a +1.3 wCH. His curveball has been even better at +2.8 wCB and registers at a Zito-esque 71.2 mph. The only pitch he has had negative results on is his cutter that averages 84.5 mph and he uses it 16.6% of the time and has been worth -1.0 runs.
His BABIP of .298 would suggest that very little luck has been at play since the league average is only slightly below that at .293. His first-strike percentage is 0.2% below league average at 59.5% and his swinging-strike rate surprisingly is 8.7%, below the league average of 9.0%.
Fiers is also right around league average in getting hitters to make contact on out-of-zone pitches with an O-Contact rate of 67.7%, only 0.5% above league average and his ground ball rate of only 31.1% is the worst mark among pitchers with at least 70 innings pitched. Fiers has also allowed 27% line-drives and hitters are hitting .700 on those line-drives.
Fiers has been worth +2.4 fWAR in only 72 innings despite having slightly below-average velocity and being pretty much an average pitcher across the board including getting ahead of hitters, getting them to swing for strikes, allowing hits on balls in play, and rarely inducing a ground ball. How is this possible? Can it last?
There are a few rate stats that Fiers is posting that should see some change once we get a better sample-size. His HR/FB rate is very low at 3.7% and as a fly ball pitcher who averages 88 mph with his fastball I find it hard to maintain such a low rate.
Also, the league average zone-swing rate is 64.4% but Fiers only has a 58.4% zone-swing rate. This simply means hitters are letting more strikes go than the average pitcher. This may be why he has a great strikeout rate and low walk rate despite a slightly below league average swinging-strike rate. Hitters will adjust. When they do swing, Fiers has allowed a contact rate of 80.0%, only 0.1% above the league average of 79.9%.
Lastly, when Fiers does allow base runners, he leaves them stranded on the base paths. His LOB% sits at a remarkably high 84.2% compared to the league average of 72.5%. This is due for some major regression.
Fiers throws 88 mph with a league average BABIP despite a very high line-drive rate. He is the worst pitcher in the Majors at inducing ground balls yet rarely any of his fly balls go over the fence. He is league average at getting ahead of hitters on the first pitch, contact percentage, and at getting swinging strikes yet he ranks 10th in the Majors in K/9 with a minimum of 70 innings pitched. He defies scouting reports and numbers.
Fiers has worn the disguise of an ace so far this season while being pretty much a league-average pitcher behind the scenes. And while I may have been a bit bullish on him he should come back to Earth once big league hitters adjust. It has been a joy seeing him succeed so far but I cannot see the success lasting much longer. He may not be the swingman starter I had him pegged out to be but he could be a league-average pitcher, not an ace.
-Jonathan C. Mitchell can be found writing about the Tampa Bay Rays at DRaysBay and the Florida Marlins at ESPN’s SweetSpot site Marlins Daily. You can follow him on twitter at @FigureFilbert. Be sure to follow MLBdirt at @MLBdirt