On July 30, 2011, Doug Fister was 3-12 with a 3.30 ERA with the Seattle Mariners. To that point in his major league career he was 12-30 with a 3.81 ERA. Never viewed as much of a prospect due to his lack of an overpowering fastball, Fister had developed into an inexpensive, solid back-of-the-rotation starter. The win-loss record was bad but that's because the Mariners were bad.
The Mariners decided to cash in, perhaps not believing in that ERA, or focusing on the low strikeout rate, or thinking Safeco Field made him better than he was. General manager Jack Zduriencik traded him and reliever David Pauley (who was having a good year) to the Detroit Tigers for Double-A third baseman Francisco Martinez, outfielder Casper Wells, pitcher Charlie Furbush and reliever Chance Ruffin.
The Mariners released Wells at the end of spring training. Ruffin appeared briefly with the Mariners in 2011, but was so bad in Tacoma last year the Mariners have sent him back to Double-A to try his luck as a starter. Martinez was supposed to be the big part of the deal but he hit an anemic .227/.315/.295 at Double-A, has been moved from third base to outfield and is back in Double-A for the third season in a row.
So that essentially leaves the deal as Fister for Furbush.
I don't have to tell you bad that looks now.
Fister, who starts tonight in Seattle, has gone 20-11 with a 2.94 ERA in 38 starts since joining the Tigers, his strikeout rate has increased, and he's become one of the better pitchers -- if underrated -- in the league.
Smart teams find guys like Fister. The Giants got Ryan Vogelsong essentially off the scrap heap. The Braves traded a prospect coming off Tommy John surgery for Paul Maholm. The Orioles dug up Miguel Gonzalez and the Rangers converted Alexi Ogando to the rotation. Zduriencik has traded away two-fifths of a pretty good rotation in Fister and Brandon Morrow, and has a couple years of Brandon League and Furbush to show for it. What makes the Fister trade even worse is that he's not eligible for free agency until after the 2015 season.
To be fair, could anyone have predicted that Fister would improve upon joining the Tigers? Maybe; maybe not. With the Mariners in 2011 he had averaged 89.6 mph on his fastball (maxed out at 94). He's not throwing any harder with Detroit -- average velocity of 89.2 on his fastball -- so let's look at results off his different pitches. These are triple-slash batting lines in plate appearances ending with each of his pitches:
Mariners, 2010-2011: .271/.320/.384
Tigers, 2011-2013: .257/.310/.394
Mariners, 2010-2011: .225/.255/.331
Tigers, 2011-2013: .225/.251/.354
Mariners, 2010-2011: .266/.286/.324
Tigers, 2011-2013: .273/.273/.367
Not much difference in any of those results. (Even considering that Fister's fastball isn't "one" fastball as he changes speeds, cuts it and sinks it.)
Mariners, 2010-2011: .287/.317/.465
Tigers, 2011-2013: .157/.224/.229
There we go. Almost all his improvement has come off better results on his curveball. And Fister's confidence in the pitch has grown -- in that period with the Mariners, he threw it 562 times in 49 games (11 times per game); with the Tigers, he's thrown it 685 times in 39 games (18 times per game). With the Mariners, batters swung and missed on a curve 27 percent of the time; with the Tigers, it's been 40 percent swing-and-miss.
Here's the thing the Mariners might have missed, however: Fister's curveball was already much better in 2011 than it had been in 2010. In 2010, he allowed a .937 OPS off the curveball (and was throwing it fewer than 10 times per game). Through his 21 starts with Seattle in 2011, that OPS allowed had shrunk to .690.
After looking up those numbers, I came across this passage in a notebook from last August on MLB.com by Jason Beck and Anthony Odoardi:
One of the major reasons behind Doug Fister's dominant run of pitching down the stretch last year after his trade to the Tigers was pitching coach Jeff Jones' encouragement to have him throw more curveballs.
Then there is this quote from catcher Alex Avila in September of 2011: "One thing that I think we are doing a little more than we were before is using his curveball, mixing that in more with his cutter and slider and his changeup. I mean, he's got great command with all of his pitches, and he throws them in any count. That's really tough when you've got a guy who can sink the ball, who's got a good four-seamer, throws anywhere from 90-91 (mph), has an over-the-top curveball, a cut slider and he has a good changeup to go with that."
Give credit to Fister for improving the curve and to Jones for suggesting he throw it more often (and to Tigers catchers for calling it). And give credit to Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski for acquiring a good pitcher for next to nothing.
That's one way to build a winning team.