The idea that starting pitching depth wins championships should surprise no one. While the front of the Brewers’ rotation appears capable of matching up with any team in the National League, it remains to be seen whether the back of the staff can hold suit. To that end, Milwaukee recently returned Mike Fiers to the big-league rotation. The right-hander has impressed so far, posting an 0.64 ERA and 0.57 WHIP in his two dominating starts over the Dodgers and Cubs. Given the roller coaster nature of his Brewers career, many fans may remain skeptical. While Fiers seems unlikely to maintain this level of success, he can certainly serve as a solid back-end starter down the stretch.
Some of Fiers recent success has been due to flukes. We would reach this conclusion no matter what the statistics say, for his two-start sample size remains too small to become overly optimistic. Even so, Fiers’ peripheral stats support the idea that he will not sustain his recent performance. Counting his bullpen work in June, Fiers’ 2.80 FIP stands a full run above his 1.29 ERA. While Brewers fans would certainly accept a 2.80 FIP from Fiers, the fact remains that he appears due for some drop down. More interestingly, the Floridian has stranded 98.6% of his base runners this year. This ability to escape jams would lead the league by a wide margin (Masahiro Tanaka leads all qualifiers, having stranded 83.9% of runners), and seems quite unsustainable. Additionally, Fiers has compiled a .217 BABIP, well below his previous norm of .303. Overall, Fiers cannot continue to pitch as well as he has so far.
However, Fiers’ raw “stuff” appears better this year than ever before. Although Fiers is not a flamethrower, his fastball velocity has risen to 89.3 MPH, the highest of his career. While he has used his curveball (thrown 16.7% of the time) and changeup (thrown 9.1% of the time) less frequently than in the past, each of these off-speed pitches have offered success. Batters have flailed to a meager 70 wRC+ against his curve and just a 50 wRC+ against the changeup. Hitters swing and miss at 10.3% of Fiers’ offerings, another career high that stands a notch better than Oakland’s Jeff Samardzija (10.1%). Further, opponents have made weaker contact off of Fiers this season. His 37.5% ground-ball rate and 20.8% line-drive rate would both represent career bests. In 2014, Fiers’ technical pitching ability has reached its all-time high.
Fiers’ minor league performance this year offers further reason for optimism. Of course, AAA statistics do not necessarily translate into big-league success, but Fiers’ accomplishments down in Nashville seem encouraging. His 0.95 WHIP ranks second in the Pacific Coast League, trailing only our very own Jimmy Nelson. Further, Fiers had impeccable command, compiling a phenomenal 7.59 K/BB ratio. By comparison, a 7.59 K/BB ratio in the majors would stand fourth best. Fiers also kept the ball in the yard, conceding just 0.70 HR/9IP. This success has repeated itself in the bigs, where he has yielded only 0.86 HR/9IP. Encouragingly, Fiers’ minor league success does not seem fluky. He posted a 2.87 FIP and a reasonable .289 BABIP, revealing that Fiers’ AAA accomplishments appear sustainable.
Despite his successes, the Brewers should not hope to rely on Fiers during a deep October run. At 29 years old, Fiers seems like a classic “4A” player: too good for AAA but not a long-term option in the big leagues. Fortunately, Milwaukee does not demand Ace level performance from Fiers. Fiers does not need to beat Adam Wainwright; he just needs to beat Shelby Miller. He does not need to beat Clayton Kershaw, he just needs to beat Kevin Correia. Pitching the best baseball of his career, Fiers appears more than capable of matching up with these aforementioned fifth starters. Further, if the Brewers can maneuver their way into the postseason, Ron Roenicke would likely shift Fiers to the bullpen. Such a change would allow Fiers to spend October used only in favorable matchups. With the bar set low, any contribution from Fiers could provide Milwaukee with a spark they need during the pennant race.