As a pitcher not blessed with the high-octane fastball of some of his Nationals starting rotation cohorts, Doug Fister must do a lot of things, well, sometimes perfectly in order to succeed.
Much of this success, which he appears to have finally found as a Washington National after a brief convalescence for a back injury, lies in his ability to locate his pitches on the corners and for these pitches to have movement, not so much in order to generate swings and misses, but to generate contact. This "pitch to contact" approach is one that relies heavily upon the proper type of contact being made. For Fister, it's ground balls arising from a sinker he throws 55 percent of the time in 2014, as well as said contact being made in the general vicinity of a position player.
It's a seemingly simple plan and one that the rigt-hander has appeared to have mastered, as judged not only by his career 49 percent and 2014 51.6 percent groundball rates, but also his career 3.46 fielding independent pitching (FIP). While Fister's 4.01 FIP this year is a work in progress - skewed higher than usual due to a rough inaugural outing - his more recent starts point to him being well on track to continued success with this pitching approach.
With the sinker-heavy approach comes ground balls, naturally. At times, these grounders find their way over to the right side of the infield, pulling first basemen off of the bag, putting an impetus upon the pitcher to go become a fifth infielder and cover first base. It's one of a number of subtle, but critical pieces to being a pitcher, fielding not only your position well, but knowing when and how to cover first base, and Fister does it exceptionally well, as his five putouts over 29.2 innings pitched, or 1.54 per nine innings pitched, attest.
Comparing him to the top two National League pitching leaders in putouts, Cincinnati Reds teammates Mike Leake (16, or 1.87 putouts per nine innings pitched) and Johnny Cueto (13, 1.29), we see how effective Fister is in this oft-practiced, but rarely-perfected skill, even in his small sampling of innings pitched. Include the groundball rates of Leake (57.1 percent) and Cueto (51.8 percent) in the conversation and the tacit importance of not only allowing the defense to work for you for a groundball/sinkerball specialist, but also being capable of taking defensive matters into your own hands and making the out yourself becomes amplified.
For Fister, taking matters into your own hands with respect to getting outs on your own as a pitcher has a different twist, and has little to do with overpowering hitters with high velocity or countless repetitions of pitcher's fielding practice. That different twist extends beyond the hustle on the field and finds him sitting in on defensive meetings, n starting pitcher off-day routine that doesn't typically occur, but an effort that Fister looks to spearhead in becoming part of the preparation for a rotation member before their next start.
This tireless and paradigm-shifting approach to getting outs while maintaining focus upon what he does well despite a pedestrian fastball, velocity-wise, is not only an admirable quality to have in a player and speaks well to his dedication to being the best pitcher he can be, but one that should put Fister in position to enjoy long-term success in the face of any age- or injury-related declines. A pitcher's job doesn't always end once he releases a pitch. Much of Fister's success lies in his realization that in many situations, the job is just beginning.
Stuart Wallace blogs about the Nationals at District Sports Page. Follow him on Twitter: @TClippardsSpecs. His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.