SAN FRANCISCO -- One of the reasons I like Detroit manager Jim Leyland is he doesn't always automatically nod his head at conventional wisdom. Asked after the Game 1 loss about the Giants' momentum, he said, "I'm a guy that doesn't believe in momentum in baseball. I think momentum is your next day's pitcher."
OK, maybe he answered conventional wisdom with a cliché, but at least it's a good cliché.
He's right, of course. There is no such thing as momentum in baseball. And with Doug Fister starting Game 2, Leyland should still feel good about the Tigers' chances.
The basic analysis is that Fister is a very good pitcher, perhaps the most underrated starter in baseball, although with his second straight postseason appearance he's finally getting more recognition. His 2012 base numbers don't jump out at you -- 10-10 record, 3.45 ERA -- but he also spent time on the DL with a left-side strain and later missed a start with a groin injury.
Over his past 17 starts, including two in the postseason, he's posted a 2.52 ERA. There's nothing fluky about that ERA. In that span, Fister owns a 102-to-28 strikeout-walk ratio in 114 1/3 innings and has held opponents to a .224 average. In fact, going back a year-plus to last August -- the Tigers acquired him from the Mariners on July 30, 2011 -- only seven starters have a better ERA than Fister's 2.95 … a few guys named Clayton Kershaw, Cliff Lee, R.A. Dickey, David Price, Justin Verlander, Matt Cain and Johnny Cueto. In other words, pitching's elite.
During Fister's media session on Wednesday before Game 1, he talked about his start. "I think the biggest thing for us is we play to our strengths," he said. "Yes, we're aware of what the other team does and their tendencies, but at the same time we don't want to work away from our strengths. We want to go at people with our best stuff, whether a pitcher or hitter, and don't waver from it."
For Fister, that stuff is better than you may think if you focus only on his fastball velocity, which averaged less than 90 mph this season. He throws a four-seam fastball and two-seam fastball, along with a curveball, changeup and slider. His fastball gets excellent movement, and as you can see from the heat map, he's very effective at getting it inside to right-handed batters. ESPN Stats & Info reports that his fastball has been much better in the second half. In his first 15 starts, opponents hit .316 in at-bats ending with a fastball; in his next 13 starts, they've hit just .216. When he's commanding his fastball, it sets up his off-speed pitches.
This start is particularly special for Fister because he grew up in Merced, Calif., about 110 miles southeast of San Francisco in the San Joaquin Valley. "Growing up, don't tell anybody, I was a Giants fan, and being able to come to a couple games when I was little, it's always been a dream and a goal for me, and now it's happening," he said. Fister has never pitched at AT&T Park before. "It holds a little bit more special place in my heart, I would say, but it doesn't change what we do on the field."
Fister attended Fresno State and was a seventh-round pick by the Mariners, but he was never much of a prospect coming through their system. He didn't throw hard, of course. After compiling a 4.11 ERA with the Mariners in 2009 and 2010 -- but averaging just 5.0 strikeouts per nine innings -- the Mariners undoubtedly thought they were selling high on Fister when he had a 3.33 ERA through 21 starts in 2011. The trade has turned out to be a heist for Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski, who acquired a pitcher with a salary of just $507,000 this season (and Fister isn't eligible for free agency until after the 2015 season).
"Fister doesn't have a great win-loss record, but that's misleading," Dombrowski said at the time of the trade. "He has the worst run support in the majors, and one of the best WHIPs. We definitely think that he makes us a better team, and that is important, because we feel like this is a team that can win something this season."
It was a deal that flew under the radar at the time but paid immediate dividends for the Tigers. Fister suddenly ramped up his strikeout rate after the trade and went 8-1 for the Tigers down the stretch in 2011.
Dombrowski may not have realized that he was getting anything more than a solid No. 4 or 5 starter. What he has is a guy who can pitch the Tigers back into this World Series.