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Here’s why Mike Fiers deserves a chance in the rotation

Fiers will make his season debut for the Tigers on Sunday.

MLB: Spring Training-Detroit Tigers at Toronto Blue Jays Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Fiers was awful in 2017. He was also awful in spring training this year. But after missing the first week of the season with a back injury, Fiers will start for the Tigers on Sunday against the Chicago White Sox. The move displaces Daniel Norris, who many have expected (and wanted) to stick in the rotation for most of 2018.

Norris was also awful in 2017. However, the difference is that Norris is eight years younger, had success as recently as 2016, and was not awful during Spring Training. It does not make much sense to skip Norris’ first start of the year in favor of Fiers, who is coming back from a back injury. This is supposed to be a year in which the Tigers figure out which of their younger players will contribute to their next contender. Norris is still young enough to have massive potential, while Fiers is past his prime, and not likely not to improve much going forward.

In 2017, Mike Fiers had a 5.22 ERA, 146 strikeouts, and 62 walks in 153 13 innings. He posted a 5.43 FIP, so there does not seem to be any bad luck going on here. However, Fiers made an adjustment during the middle of the season last year. On May 14, Fiers started to throw a sinker, and on June 10 he completely abandoned his slider for 12 starts. The results were good. Really good. At least for a couple months.

Mike Fiers 2017 stats by month

Time Frame Innings Pitched ERA K/9 BB/9 HR/9
Time Frame Innings Pitched ERA K/9 BB/9 HR/9
April - May 52 2/3 4.96 7.9 3.4 3.1
June - July 59 2.59 10.4 3.2 0.6
August - September 41 2/3 9.29 6.9 4.5 2.2

During the months of June/July when he made his adjustments, Mike Fiers had a 2.59 ERA, a strikeout per nine of over ten and he was able to minimize the amount of home runs. He was pitching at an ace-level. Then it all fell apart in the remaining two months.

For the record, opposing batters hit .333 against Fier’s slider in 2017, not his worst pitch (.367 batting against his cutter) but the fact he saw initial success after he stopped throwing it is noteworthy. It likely was not as good of a set up pitch as the sinker ultimately became.

Now if this was such a significant adjustment that supposedly made Fiers a better pitcher, why did he struggle so much in the last two months of the year? One major reason was his four-seam fastball. While his sinker served as a set up pitch, Fiers still got a majority of his strikeouts from the four-seamer. During the months of June and July, opponents had a batting average against Fiers’ four-seam fastball at .116. In August and September, opponents batted .447 against this pitch. The main reason was pitch location.

Mike Fiers fastball in June/July
Mike Fiers fastball in August/September

When Fiers’ fastball is humming, it’s up in the zone and hitters swing through it, anticipating the sinker. However, late in the season, Fiers’ fastball sat closer to the middle of the plate, right in a hitter’s happy zone. Fiers allowed 32 home runs last year, the most of his career and ninth-most in all of baseball. But only four of those home runs were hit during June and July. As for what happened, fatigue is my best guess.

If Fiers is truly healthy, he deserves a chance in the Tigers’ starting rotation to try to recapture the magic he had in the middle of the 2017 season. While it is a time of rebuilding and seeing what the young players like Norris have to offer, it is also a time to flip veteran players for future prospects. If Fiers pitches well enough for the Tigers so they can get a decent return, it only benefits them. If he tires out at the end of the year again, well, who cares? The Tigers hopefully will have traded him before that happens.

As for Norris, it is unfortunate that there is not room for him at the moment. The Tigers have the option to send him to the bullpen and hopefully watch him pull a 2013 Drew Smyly before returning to the rotation. With a 5.31 ERA in 2017 and command issues ever present, a little more seasoning might be exactly what he needs to take the next step.