From 2011 to 2014, Doug Fister may have been the most underrated pitcher in the majors. Pitching in the shadow of Justin Verlander with the Detroit Tigers and then Stephen Strasburg and others with the Washington Nationals, Fister posted a 3.11 ERA in those four seasons -- lower than Verlander's mark and nearly equal to Strasburg's 3.03 mark. The Tigers stole him from the Seattle Mariners, and the Nationals stole him from the Tigers.
Now the Houston Astros may have picked up a steal in signing Fister to a one-year deal, the kind of low-risk signing that has big upside if it works out.
Fister didn't have a good 2015, missing time with a flexor strain and making just 15 starts while finishing the season out of the bullpen. He finished with a 4.19 ERA and allowed 14 home runs in 103 innings -- the same total he gave up in 2013, when he pitched 208.2 innings. Most alarming was the decline in his fastball velocity, probably related to the injury, but maybe not. His velocity has been in steady decline for several years:
2011: 89.8 mph
2012: 88.8 mph
2013: 88.7 mph
2014: 87.8 mph
2015: 86.1 mph
Obviously, he always has been a pitcher who relies on command, movement and a five-pitch arsenal. But you're not going to throw too many 86 mph fastballs past big league hitters, and Fister's strikeout rate has declined from 20.4 percent in 2012 to 14.0 percent last year. It wasn't much higher in 2014 at 14.8 percent, but his hit prevention was low thanks to a .265 BABIP (his career mark is right around the major league average at .296).
Batters hit .233/.271/.367 against his fastball in 2014 but .300/.344/.461 in 2015. Because he pitches up in the zone with his fastball, that led to a lot more home runs allowed.
What we don't know is what the medical reports say about Fister's elbow. The Astros weren't scared off enough and maybe Fister was just looking for a one-year deal, hoping to have a better season and cash in with a longer-term contract next offseason. Or maybe he was seeking a multiyear deal and the medicals did report some issues.
In Houston's case, it's all about just adding another insurance policy to the rotation that now lines up likes this:
That's six guys plus deep options such as Dan Straily, Brad Peacock and Asher Wojciechowski. If there's an advantage the Astros have over their AL West rivals, it's that their rotation options past the top five projected starters look much better, and we know a team rarely gets through a season with just five or six starters. The bullpen also has been lengthened with the addition of Ken Giles, even if he was acquired at the steep price of Vincent Velasquez and Mark Appel (and others).
It's a good team with youth, stars and depth. They're my AL West favorite.