Mike Fiers is my dark horse for the Cy Young award, and while I don’t necessarily think he’ll win it, I very much believe he’ll garner at least a few votes. I might be the only one who thinks he’ll be that good in 2015, but I’m not alone when I say he’s the best pitcher the Brewers’ rotation has to offer. You may find that hard to believe with arms like Yovani Gallardo, Kyle Lohse and Matt Garza stuck in there, but Steamer is projecting Fiers to be worth the most wins among Milwaukee pitchers with a 2.0 WAR, and Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs says he “might be the best one” among them. It’s crazy to think Fiers won’t be dominant in ’15, as he is ready to build on his last two seasons as a starter (2012 and 2014) and become the ace of the Brewers.
Since 2011, Fiers has made 50 appearances (35 starts) as a major leaguer; he became a full-fledged starter in 2012. In that 2012 season, he was worth 3.1 WAR in 22 starts. Yeah, he was that good. Only Zack Greinke and Marco Estrada were more valuable to the Brewers’ pitching staff that year. Gallardo, who made 11 more starts than Fiers, was only worth 2.5 wins.
But then 2013 rolled around, Fiers’ toughest year not only as a baseball player but as a human being. He lost his mother after a long battle with a chronic disease, and the pain in his heart was evident on the field. When it was all said and done, Fiers made 11 appearances with the Brewers, finishing with a 7.25 ERA and 7.17 FIP. His season ended after being struck in the right forearm by a line drive while he was pitching for Triple-A Nashville. After throwing lights-out ball in 2012, Fiers’ future with the Brewers was thrown into jeopardy.
Fiers had to work his way back to respect in 2014 and force the Brewers to take notice of him. He accumulated a 2.55 ERA in 17 starts in Triple-A and struck out 129 batters in 102 innings. Unable to ignore those numbers, the Brewers made the call, and Fiers became Milwaukee’s best pitcher during the last three months of the season. As a starter, he led the rotation in ERA (2.09), FIP (2.79), xFIP (2.94) and LOB% (81.8%) in his 10 starts.
And that brings us to now. He’s cemented himself into Milwaukee’s rotation, but can he continue rolling over hitters with such ease? I believe so.
There are two key reasons why I’m a big believer in Fiers. 1. He’s a strikeout pitcher and 2. he does a nice job limiting walks. That combination is why Fiers has been so successful in his short career, and why a lot of pitchers have success in MLB. In the two seasons in which he made at least 10 starts, his strikeout rate was never below 25%. Last season he struck out 29% of batters he faced, and aside from Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale and Yu Darvish, no starter had a higher strikeout rate (min. 60 innings). That’s pretty impressive company. Additionally, his K-BB% was third-best in baseball among starters with the same inning requirements. Since he strikes out more than his fair share, he induces weak contact as is evidenced by his .221 BABIP and low 19.2% line drive rate. And because balls hit off him aren’t hit that hard, he can get away with a high fly ball rate despite his below league average ground ball rate.
His sample size is small; 223 innings isn’t much to hang your hat on. But he’s also had an extremely high K/9 down in the minors as it never dipped below 8 K/9. He’s shown he can strike out the big boys at an even higher rate than he did in the minors which leads me to believe his success is sustainable.
Even though Fiers is strikeout guy, he doesn’t throw hard. FanGraphs says none of his pitches average over 90 mph, while Brooks Baseball claims his fourseamer barely touches it. (see graph below).
But no matter which website you read, one thing is clear; he’s not a blow-it-by-you pitcher. And yet, he makes it work. He relies very heavily on his fourseam fastball (62.8%), but it saved 16.5 runs according to wFB and caused 73 swings-and-misses. Fiers does a nice job switching up his locations, and his elevator-drop of a curveball complements it nicely. He also hides the ball well and it’s difficult for hitters to pick up on it. Fiers’ 89 mph fastball looks more like 95 mph because it creeps up on hitters so quickly.
Since 2012, only one pitcher on the Milwaukee Brewers has been worth more in terms of wins than Fiers — Yovani Gallardo. That includes Wily Peralta; he has racked up over 200 more innings than Fiers, and yet Fiers is worth almost an entire win more. I don’t think many people realize how valuable Fiers has been to the Brewers, and with his non-existent year in ’13, that’s understandable. Fiers will be 30 in June, so his window for success is small, but whenever he’s started on a consistent basis, he’s been not only was he the best pitcher in Milwaukee but one of the best hurlers in all of baseball.
Before I wrap this up, I’ll leave you with one more eye-opening statistic. Since 2012, Fiers has the 38th-lowest FIP (3.47) among pitchers with at least 220 innings. But if you take away his traumatizing 2013 season and combine his stats from 2012 and 2014, Fiers owns a 3.04 FIP. He’s good, ladies and gentlemen, and in 2015 he’ll be very, very good.