Being Doug Fister is the most thankless job in baseball. He's the ultimate butt of some cosmic joke, or at least the poster boy for the idea that in a world of random luck, there has to be at least one guy who gets none. OK, maybe "none" is going too far — he plays professional baseball and makes more money than I could ever imagine. And I mean that literally; I actually can't picture what $507,500 looks like. My imagination gets cloudy around $120,000, and by $200,000 I pass out.
Still, within the context of the pleasant world in which he lives, Fister is a very, very unlucky man. Consider his year to date. He has made eight starts (he's been sidelined twice already with a "left condochostral strain") and is 1-4. That's one win, four losses, despite the fact that his ERA is 2.72 (ninth among AL starters with at least 40 IP), his FIP is 3.29 (seventh), and his xFIP, which predicts future ERA after normalizing the home run component, is fourth in the league at 3.19. He also has the 19th-lowest home run rate, induces ground balls at a very good rate, and is among the best in walk rate.
You get the point; other than the fact that he doesn't strike out many batters, Fister is a top-10 American League pitcher this season. So why the 1-4 record? Because despite allowing an average of two runs per start, the guy can't get any support from his offense. Look at the scores of Fister's games so far this season, aside from the 10-0 win against the Red Sox in April, when he was pulled due to injury in the fourth inning: 3-2, 3-1, 4-3, 4-2, 7-4, 4-1, 4-1. That bold score is the only game he won among the seven, even though he's yet to allow more than three earned runs in any start! The odds against those negative results are long, especially when you consider that Detroit is sixth of 14 AL teams in run production.
A quick look at the ESPN run support stats (an average, per nine innings pitched) shows that Fister gets just 5.24 runs, 28th-lowest in the league among starters. But that counts a 10-run effort against Boston, which didn't benefit him due to the side strain and the early exit. Removing that from the equation, Fister's support in his seven latest starts is 3.59. That puts him lowest in MLB, just under Edinson Volquez's 3.63 RSA.
You might be thinking that we're dealing with a small sample size, and that while Fister's luck is bad, it's not too crazy that a very good pitcher should have very bad run support, especially over seven starts. But this isn't a passing trend; Fister has been unlucky since he came up in 2009 with the Seattle Mariners. Let's go year by year:
2009: Fister started 10 games for the Mariners, and his run support was 4.35, which would place him third-lowest among qualified pitchers.
2010: In his first full season in the pros, Fister had the eighth-lowest run support, getting just 4.53 per start.
2011: Between Seattle and Detroit, Fister's run support was 4.13, fifth-lowest in baseball.
To punctuate the point, here's what the Elias Sports Bureau had to say about his entire career with Seattle: "His teammates averaged only 2.78 runs per game in Fister's 59 starts with Seattle — the lowest run support afforded by any American League team to any pitcher who started his career in the so-called 'live-ball era' (dating from when Babe Ruth joined the Yankees in 1920) and made at least 50 starts with that team."
Additionally, the folks at Elias told me that since 2009, Doug Fister has had the worst run support of any pitcher in baseball, minimum 50 games. Here's the bottom five:
1. Doug Fister — 3.12
2. Charlie Morton — 3.14
3. Tim Stauffer — 3.28
4. Felipe Paulino — 3.36
5. Johan Santana — 3.43
Not bad, Seattle! The upshot is that Fister has a career 3.42 ERA and a 3.52 FIP, both solid numbers. But his record? An ugly-looking 21-35. For comparison's sake, consider the Yankees' Ivan Nova, one of the most fortunate players in baseball. With 48 starts under his belt (29 fewer than Fister), he's 26-8. But his ERA is 3.98 and his FIP is 4.19, well north of Fister.
The next question is, does it even matter? Baseball people have mostly evolved to the point where we understand that wins are very poor representations of a pitcher's skill. Hell, it's even reached the mainstream; Felix Hernandez won the 2010 Cy Young with a 13-12 record, though David Price and CC Sabathia racked up more impressive win totals. We exist in a world where the truly important stats are appreciated. But there are a couple reasons why I think a lack of run support is still important.
1. It's easy to see beyond wins and losses with a pitcher like Hernandez, whose other numbers jumped out in 2010 to the point that they jarred us all loose from preconceptions. But what about Fister, who doesn't strike a lot of people out and is a good-but-not-great talent? Well, let's look at the list of the top 10 AL pitchers in FIP from 2011: Brandon McCarthy, Sabathia, Dan Haren, Justin Verlander, Fister, Hernandez, Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Justin Masterson, David Price. Which of those 10 aren't household names among casual baseball fans? The two that jump out immediately are McCarthy and Fister, and the reason is obvious: McCarthy was 9-9 for the A's, and Fister was 11-13 for the Mariners and Tigers. The third name is Masterson, who went just 12-10 for the Indians. Perception still counts, and that extends to salary — why is Nova making $20,000 more this year than Fister, even though both were not yet eligible for arbitration, and had their values assessed by the team?
2. There might be a psychological benefit, at least for Fister, to having some offensive backup. After the Mariners gave him the worst run support in the game last season, leading to a 3-12 start, Fister was dealt to the Tigers. There, in 11 starts, his run support average went up to 7.04 runs per game. And Fister was spectacular; he went 8-1 with a 1.79 ERA, by far the most effective stretch of his career. This year, with the run support issue returning, Fister is talking the talk — "I can control what I can control" — but it's hard not to imagine that his strong performance with Detroit had at least a small "relief factor" that came with leaving the barren offensive wasteland of Seattle. And it seems only natural that a pitcher would be more confident and effective with a perceived safety net.
So Fister struggles on, taking the mound tonight against Roy Oswalt and the Rangers. At least with Detroit, there's a good statistical chance that the meager run support will correct itself soon. Until then, he remains the Sisyphus of Major League Baseball, pushing his heavy burden up the mountain just to watch it roll back down.