Injuries have run rampant throughout Major League Baseball this season, and one of the teams most decimated by injuries has been the Milwaukee Brewers. The club has six players on the disabled list, including pitchers Chris Narveson and Marco Estrada, which forced the organization to dip into the minor league system for a spot starter on Tuesday evening against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
That spot starter was right-hander Michael Fiers.
The 27-year-old Fiers earned Pitcher of the Year honors in the Brewers’ farm system in 2011, compiling a 1.86 ERA between Double-A Huntsville and Triple-A Nashville. He struck out more than a batter per inning over 126 innings of work and displayed an ability to throw four pitches — fastball, cutter, curveball, changeup — for strikes in any count. He eventually pushed his way into top prospect lists, with our own Marc Hulet ranking him as the 15th-best prospect in the Brewers’ system coming into the season.
On Tuesday night, Dodgers hitters simply could not decipher the former 22nd-round pick in his big league debut as a starting pitcher, only managing five hits through seven innings. Fiers threw strikes and challenged hitters on both the inside and outside portion of the plate, jamming hitters and keeping the baseball off the barrel of the bat. He did not walk a single batter and only faced a three-ball count in three at-bats all night, twice against James Loney and once against pitcher Nathan Eovaldi, and none of those at-bats resulted in a baserunner for the Dodgers.
Fiers can attribute the vast majority of his success to his fastball. He heavily featured the pitch on Tuesday evening, throwing it 70.8% of the time. Amongst qualified starting pitchers this season, Fiers would rank near the top for fastball usage. Only five starting pitchers feature their fastball more frequently than Michael Fiers did on Tuesday against the Dodgers in his debut as a starter.
The interesting aspect about Fiers throwing his fastball so often lies in the fact that it does not overwhelm opposing hitters with plus velocity. He averaged 88 MPH with his fastball on Tuesday, which would be the slowest average fastball velocity off the eight pitchers listed above. In fact, of those pitchers, Joe Saunders is the only other pitcher who has an average fastball velocity under 90 MPH.
Further evidence that his fastball does not overwhelm hitters can be seen by the fact that Fiers only generated two swings-and-misses on the pitch all night. Its effectiveness relies on location and missing the barrel of the bat. He generates an extreme vertical break on his fastball, causing the pitch to “rise,” or perhaps more accurately, not drop as much as expected due to gravity. Fiers’ fastball had an average 12.1 vertical break last night. Only three qualifying starters have greater vertical break on their fastball.
That significant rise on his fastball generated a plethora of easy fly balls, infield pop ups, and foul balls to the back screen. Dodgers hitters could simply not put the barrel of the bat on the baseball with any consistency, with the hardest hit ball of the night coming on a hanging changeup to James Loney in the second inning that Loney drove to right field wall. Fortunately for the Brewers, Loney was out on his front foot, which helped keep the baseball in the ballpark and in the air long enough to allow Corey Hart to run under it at the base of the wall.
A fastball with that much vertical break will naturally lead to a vast majority of the balls put in play being fly balls. His ground ball percentage on Tuesday night was 27.3%, though on Tuesday, this extreme fly ball tendency did not affect his success due to his above-average command and the fact that Dodger Stadium significantly limits home runs (.750 HR factor in 2012).
Going forward, however, Fiers will have to limit the home runs to remain successful at the big league level. His career home run rate in the minors is 0.8 HR/9, which indicates some ability in that regard. The most home runs he has allowed in a single minor league season has been 11, which occurred last year. Still, the gap between minor league hitters and major league hitters is significant, so we should expect the home run rate to jump for Fiers with Milwaukee, especially given the fact that his fastball lends itself to fly balls. The key to his future success will be how much the home run rate jumps against major league hitters.