3/2/2014 4:15 P.M. ET
Fister due to step from shadows of rotation mates
Righty's stellar work has often gone unnoticed toiling alongside All-Stars
By Phil Rogers / MLB.com
VIERA, Fla. -- Baseball's ultimate wingman was center stage for the Nationals on Sunday, working for the first time in a Washington uniform. Doug Fister didn't seem embarrassed by the attention, but don't expect him to start his own blog or otherwise campaign for a higher profile anytime soon.
Fister knows his role as well as anyone in the Major Leagues, even if a move to the National League could help him to outgrow it.
The 30-year-old Fister is a good bet to give the Nats 30 starts and 200 quality innings, and based on his consistent work in recent years, he might be the No. 1 starter on some Major League teams. But not with the company he keeps.
It's hard to stand out when you work alongside guys like Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann, among others. Put Gio Gonzalez behind Strasburg and Zimmermann, and Fister will have shared a starting rotation with nine All-Star pitchers in his career.
That roll call includes Cliff Lee, Michael Pineda and Chris Tillman. It does not include Fresno State teammate Matt Garza or Anibal Sanchez, who have generated a combined $174 million in contracts without ever being All-Stars.
"I've been truly blessed in my career to play with some of the guys I've been able to play with -- not only pitchers, but also position players," Fister said after allowing one run over two innings against the Marlins. "My first day in the big leagues was seeing Ken Griffey Jr. in the same locker room. That's the epitome of being blessed."
Really? There's no question that playing with Junior Griffey would be a thrill. But for a pitcher, wouldn't a mid-90s fastball -- or, better yet, one that touches triple digits -- be a bigger blessing?
Fister has been in the Major Leagues since 2009, and his fastball has never averaged 90 mph. He got it up to 92 at times last season, but never more. It's the lack of that plus velocity that has contributed to Fister being traded by the Mariners (who drafted him in the seventh round) and, last December, the Tigers.
But few big leaguers throw more strikes -- especially not when their out pitch is a wicked curveball. Fister got hitters to swing and miss at 17.6 percent of the curves he threw last season, more than Clayton Kershaw and almost twice as many as the average big leaguer.
That's why Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo put together a package of prospects (headed by 22-year-old lefty Robbie Ray) to get Fister when Dave Dombrowski made it known he was available -- a development that shocked those who had watched the 6-foot-8 Fister compile a 3.29 ERA over 440 2/3 innings with the Tigers.
Fister was also pitching well when the Mariners dealt him to the Tigers during the stretch run in 2011. In fact, only eight Major League starters have had a higher WAR than Fister the last three seasons -- a list that includes five of his former teammates, but none of his current ones. The WAR metric shows he's contributed more the last three seasons than Zimmermann, Strasburg and Gonzalez.
No wonder the Fister trade is viewed as one of the most significant transactions of the offseason.
Fister threw 30 pitches in his two innings on a sensationally sunny Sunday and, not surprisingly, most of them were strikes. He did commit one of those sins he hopes to get out of his system in March, walking the leadoff man in the second inning. But he came back to get the next man to ground into a double play, so it was almost as if it hadn't happened.
"Trying to work through some midseason stuff, pitch selection," Fister said. "I goofed around and got him on base."
Fister's day started with back-to-back strikeouts of non-roster outfielder Matt Angle and shortstop Donovan Solano. He was an out away from a clean outing, but gave up back-to-back hits with two outs in the second inning.
Derek Dietrich pulled a two-out double into the right-field corner, and Reed Johnson -- like Jeff Baker, evidence of the Marlins' conspicuous effort to improve -- fought off a 1-1 pitch to drop a soft single into right-center.
Fister's bread-and-butter pitch is a two-seam fastball, and it takes repetition for him to develop the feel he wants in the regular season.
"With everything, it's just a matter of staying consistent," Fister said. "I don't want to have too many peaks and valleys -- [I] want to be consistent every day, get where I want to be."
In his first Spring Trainings in the Seattle system, Fister loved talking pitching (and life) with Tillman, who is now the Orioles' ace. He was in awe of Hernandez when he was promoted to the big leagues, and as dazzled as anyone when the Mariners traded for Cliff Lee months after the lefty had pitched the Phillies to the 2009 World Series.
Fister has tried to learn something from all of the pitchers he's been around. He thinks about those things every day.
"It's definitely been a help for me, something I cherish and really feel honored to be a part of," Fister said. "Those guys are where they are because of the hard work and the talent they've got. There's a lot of reasons I should pick their brains. That was the mentality I had, and I did."
I played word association with Fister, tossing out the names of the All-Stars he's had as teammates. Here's what he said:
Hernandez: "That guy is a huge competitor. He goes out and fights with everything he's got every outing. He doesn't want to come off the baseball field. That's his nature."
Pineda: "He's a big kid with a lot of talent. He's a hard worker, and he goes out there and busts his tail on every pitch."
Tillman: "We grew up together in the Minor Leagues. He has a lot of life. He's very athletic. He's got a great arm, and it allows him to throw some great pitches."
Lee: "His work ethic between starts and during starts was second to none. Here's a guy who goes out and works hard every day, really focuses on what he does. Picking his brain on how he approaches hitters, things he does, what he sees, how he goes about his business, says a lot about him."
Verlander: "Ver's a guy who does a lot of homework. He studies his hitters, knows what he's going to do. He's very prepared, and he's very talented, where he can go out there and just really perform well."
Scherzer: "Scherzer's a guy who studies well, does his homework, knows hitters. He knows what he does well. I think that is something that has really helped him evolve in his career."
Zimmermann: "Zim is a guy who's got an edge. He goes out there, he's got a fierce competitor feeling about him. He goes out there and says, 'This is my stuff, here it is.'"
Strasburg: "Stras is very talented. He's a guy with a live arm, goes out there and competes with everything he has and really studies his hitters."
Gonzalez: "Gio's got some great stuff. He's got that curveball [that] comes from the left side, with a good fastball, really keeps guys off balance."
I could have asked Fister about Garza and Sanchez, but stopped there. Besides, somehow those two have missed being acknowledged as All-Stars, despite being in demand.
That's true for Fister, too.
"I haven't been there yet," he said of the All-Star Game.
Don't be surprised if Fister makes it to Target Field in July. He's too skilled to remain a wingman.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.