Meet the ace of the Nationals

Doug Fister has shown himself to be up to the challenge in 2014 with a 2.38 ERA. AP Images/Alex Brandon

It was a little more than nine months ago in this space that we made a bold prediction that new Washington Nationals pitcher Doug Fister would be a good sleeper choice for the NL Cy Young Award.

Fister doesn't have the dominance of Clayton Kershaw or the numbers of Johnny Cueto, but you could make a case for his appearing in the No. 3, 4 or 5 spot on the ballot should he continue pitching the way he has.

Fister has been everything the Nationals could have hoped for when they obtained him in a steal of a trade from the Detroit Tigers last winter. He enters Wednesday's start against the Phillies at 12-4 with a 2.38 ERA, the latter of which would rank third in the NL, but for his being a few innings shy of qualifying for the ERA title (which should correct itself after this game).

"Efficiency, groundballs, strikes, strikes and more strikes," Baseball Tonight analyst Dallas Braden said about Fister's success. "He's like a poor man's Roy Halladay."

In between his first start of the season, which came after missing a month with a lat injury (he allowed seven runs to the Athletics), and his most recent start, which came after having a small skin cancer removed from his neck (he yielded four runs to the Giants), Fister had a 1.82 ERA over 17 starts.

Fister’s numbers are similar to those from the first time he was traded, by the Mariners to the Tigers in midseason 2011. He went 8-1 with a 1.79 ERA and five walks in 70 1/3 innings down the stretch for a team that would lose to the Texas Rangers in the ALCS.

"I don't think there's anything different about him from when he was in Detroit," said Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty.

When we made our prediction in December, we cited a few different factors as to why we liked Fister. One was that the Nationals would be a good team and would provide him the support to succeed. They've done so on both the offensive and defensive end. On offense, they've scored 88 runs for him in 19 games (4.6 per game). Defensively, they've done a much better job than the Tigers at turning batted balls into outs.

Opposing hitters had a .299 "reached-base" percentage on groundballs against Fister last season. This season, playing with an infield that rates much better defensively, that has dropped to .244. Similarly, opponents' reached-base percentage on balls hit in the air has dipped from .394 to .316.

Our other theory was that a move to the National League would help him significantly on two fronts -- through the benefit of facing lesser hitters (including the pitcher) at the bottom of the lineup and through the unfamiliarity factor that NL hitters would have with Fister's curve.

Score us partially right on this one.

The familiarity factor came into play, not with his curveball, but with his overall arsenal. Fister has actually cut back on his 12-to-6 curveball in favor of more two-seamers. Though his heater rarely exceeds 90 mph, Fister's 6-foot-8 frame and funky deliver hides the ball well.

Fister's fastball has among the most horizontal movement as any pitcher in the sport. What does that mean in practical terms? Here’s four ways of looking at it.

From McCatty: "Eighty-seven with sink and movement is harder to hit than 95 and straight."

From Braden: "Everything he throws is in, then out of the zone. He has a lot of moving parts in his delivery, but he does a great job of keeping a hitter off-balance."

From "Baseball Tonight" analyst Eduardo Perez: "He pitches to his strengths rather than the hitter's weaknesses."

From a major-league scout: "He gets great extension and finished his pitches. The closed landing makes it look like he's throwing around the corner. All his pitches look the same."

He's been able to command his fastball extremely well. The video-tracking service we use that rates batted balls as soft-hit, medium-hit, or hard-hit has Fister with an 11 percent hard-hit rate on his fastball, best of anyone with at least 100 innings pitched. His 1.1 walks per nine innings ranks best in the National League and third-best in the majors.

And those who do get on base don't go anywhere. Opposing batters are hitting .239 with men on against him. And the next stolen base he allows will be the first he's yielded.

Given that he was out for a month, Fister should be pretty fresh heading into the final month of the season and beyond. He's posted a 2.15 ERA over the last three September/Octobers. Even a bad start for him is now one in which he allows four runs, like his last one against the Giants.

Fister has shown his ace-like status in five games in which he pitched in the seventh inning or later with either the score tied or his team up by one or two runs. In those high-leverage moments against the Diamondbacks, Phillies, Giants, Braves and Rockies, he's faced 16 hitters, retired 14, and allowed no runs.

"Nothing bothers him," McCatty said. "He always seems very relaxed. When he's playing baseball, he's having fun."

And perhaps making a few Cy Young ballots to boot.