It’s barely exists, but writers still write and talkers still talk as though there’s a battle-line-drawn war between two sides of baseball fans, let’s call them the seamheads and the old schoolers. In our simplified dichotomy, the seamheads want to use nothing other than their mathematical analytics to understand baseball, while the old schoolers use observations and a selection of largely meaningless numbers to support narratives they’ve already constructed in their minds.
There are probably extremes that actually exist on other side of this divide, but the majority of educated baseball fans likely find themselves somewhere in the middle, aware that both statistical analysis and baseball dynamics should inform one’s understanding of the game. Despite this happily comprised positioning, there exists an incorrect notion that those who tend to favor analytics to predict outcomes despise when the actual outcome doesn’t match their numbers based prediction.
Of course, nothing can be further from the truth. The very first thing that statistical analysis shows us is there is a whole lot of randomness involved in every single baseball outcome. Predictions based on statistics are merely suggesting the most likely outcome. Not even Colin Wyers of Baseball Prospectus is so soulless as to not appreciate when something unlikely and random occurs during baseball. If anything, a basic understanding of statistical likelihood, enhances one’s enjoyment of short hops, fielding flubs and unexpected performances.
And this is why Mike Fiers is the most enjoyable story in baseball right now.
For those not in the know, Fiers is a starter for the Milwaukee Brewers, whose 1.80 ERA and and 2.20 FIP currently lead all Major League pitchers with at least 80 innings pitched. His 5.00 strikeout to walk ratio, ranks him fifth in the league between Cliff Lee of the Philadelphia Phillies and Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals. He’s currently striking out more than a quarter of the batters he faces, while walking only 5%.
Dominating performances by rookies is nothing new to this season. See Trout, Mike for an example. However, what makes Fiers’ pitching so noteworthy is its complete unexpectedness. The 27-year-old right-hander was drafted in the 22nd round of the 2009 Rule IV Draft. He’s at least partially repeated almost every level in the Brewers system on his way to the Majors, and has never put up the numbers that he’s currently sporting in Milwaukee.
Making matters even more head-scratchingly difficult to accept is that he’s dominating batters with the most pedestrian stuff imaginable: a fastball that averages 88-89 miles per hour, an 85 miles per hour cutter that has no discernibly crazy movement to it, a change up that’s about nine miles per hour slower than his fastball with twice the movement and an admittedly good curve ball that likely causes batters to second guess their instincts coming from Fiers’ exaggerated overhand arm slot.
Despite the relative anonymity that the best pitcher in baseball (at this moment in time) is currently enjoying, there have been a surprisingly large number of articles written about him, most notably our friend Sam Miller’s piece for Baseball Prospectus and a fantastic breakdown of Fiers’ mechanics, location and numbers by Nathaniel Stoltz for Beyond The Box Score. Those aren’t necessarily the most mainstream of sources, but it does show that people are beginning to take note of Fiers, and here is what they’re finding.
The pitcher with the “meh” stuff isn’t pitching like a typical Major League Baseball pitcher. He seems rather unconcerned with such things as establishing his fastball in individual plate appearances, instead focusing on getting strikes. This is normally referred to as pitching backwards, when a pitcher throws breaking stuff early in the count, and then uses his fastball once he’s already ahead. However, Fiers isn’t pitching backwards in the traditional sense. Instead, he’s throwing non-fastballs early in the plate appearance, and continuing with his cutter, change and curve ball even after he gets ahead, reserving his fastball most often for when he falls behind in the count to the batter.
How does he get away with consistently doing something that other pitchers get punished for trying all the time? It might just have something to do with this:
Combined with this:
Every pitch is coming at the batter from an overhand arm slot with an uncannily similar release point, and batters are rendered completely helpless.
Certainly helping Fiers is that he’s currently an unknown entity to the batters of the league. However, there’s a pitcher on the Brewers right now that isn’t entirely dissimilar from Fiers with his underwhelming stuff, consistent release point and a high arm slot (although not as pronounced with the head motion) that has made a career for himself, and a very good one at that, through essentially tricking batters by not being like every other pitcher: Shaun Marcum.
Look at that pitcher’s release point from April to the end of August, when he was at his most effective, during the 2010 season:
While columnists in Milwaukee are claiming that the emergence of Fiers allows the team to get over the departure of Zack Greinke in an easier manner, I’d suggest that Fiers coming out of the relative wilderness to become the Brewers’ best pitcher this season is truly helping to replace the production lost with Marcum on the Disabled List. The question now is whether or not Fiers can remain a mystery to batters and also replace the production lost when Marcum hits free agency this coming winter.
I don’t think I’m assuming too much when I say that both seamheads and old schoolers hope so.