‘Deceptive pitching’ key to Fiers’ success

MILWAUKEE — When Charlie Sullivan met Michael Fiers for the first time, Fiers was too old to be a big-time prospect. He had too much of an injury history — having just recently recovered from a car accident that resulted in four fractured vertebrae. And his fastball was nothing to write home about — it hovered in the high 80’s.

But between innings at a Deerfield Beach High School baseball game, as he spoke to Fiers, the Milwaukee Brewers south Florida scout couldn’t help but be intrigued by the young pitcher. He saw something in him. What it was, he wasn’t exactly sure yet.
 
Sullivan laughs when he’s asked about it today. He saw something, but he had no idea the player he was seeing — too old, too oft-injured, with too little velocity to be a big-time prospect — would be the best pitcher in baseball three years later.
 
“To say that I predicted this kind of success,” Sullivan said, “I’d be lying to you.”
 
Now, admittedly, calling Fiers the best pitcher in baseball is a bit misleading, since he’s only been that way for 10 starts. But through those 10 starts, there’s no doubting Fiers’ output. He boasts a microscopic 1.77 ERA, the only pitcher with more than 60 innings pitched with a number even below 2.00.  His WHIP is similarly microscopic (1.061) and one of the top 15 in baseball. And his strikeout rate, along with Mets’ pitcher R.A. Dickey, is the highest for a pitcher who throws a sub-90’s fastball since Pedro Martinez.
 
There’s plenty of reason to believe that Fiers won’t sustain those numbers, plenty of blemishes that scouts all over the country may inevitably pick up and break down. But Sullivan has seen him for too long to doubt that that kind of success — All-Star caliber success — isn’t possible.
 
“At some point, we all have to say, ‘You know what, this guy is pretty darn good,'” Sullivan said. “Whether or not we’ll admit it so reluctantly along the way or not, Michael is the kind of guy that makes adjustments. He has a sixth sense for throwing pitches that guys don’t seem to be prepared for. … I think at this point, he deserves the benefit of the doubt. Quite frankly, I expect him to continue to have success for a long time.”
 
But without the benefit of excellent stuff, what is it about Fiers that makes him so effective?
 
The short answer to that question is deception, which has become somewhat of a buzzword in regards to Fiers’ performance this month. His pitch selection and ability to change speeds so effectively on those pitches have made him an accomplished strikeout pitcher, despite his lack of velocity, since his days at Nova Southeastern University, where he led collegiate baseball in strikeouts.
 
“He’s always had the deception,” Sullivan said. “It was most obvious when you see such a high percentage of strikes that he threw in college. He would even get guys to take a lot of strikes.”
 
And that pattern seems to have continued into the major leagues. Despite having a swinging strike rate that registers around league average, batters are swinging at less than 60 percent of the pitches he’s thrown inside the strike zone — one of the lowest totals among major league starting pitchers. Considering those numbers and the lack of dominating stuff, there’s reason to believe Fiers has been baseball’s most deceptive pitcher in his 10 starts this season.
 
As Milwaukee’s minor league pitcher of the year last year, this kind of development didn’t necessarily creep up on the Brewers, but to classify it as anything less than a pleasant surprise would be dishonest.
 
“Anytime someone, I don’t care who it is, comes onto the scene that quick and does some of the things he’s doing, you’re always surprised,” said Bruce Seid, the Brewers director of scouting. “We did see some good things from him in college, but not quite like this.”
 
While Fiers brought a natural ability to offset the timing and rhythm of a batter to the table, the Brewers were able to make slight adjustments in the past few years that have noticeably and drastically changed his effectiveness.
 
One change, Seid said, was the addition of a cutter — which Fiers has more frequently began to pitch since reaching the big leagues — a deceiving pitch meant to throw hitters off-balance.
 
“It made a world of difference for him,” Seid said.
 
Fiers has also changed his horizontal release point, allowing his over-the-top delivery — which also aids in his deception — to be more effective. On the surface, the two changes appear to be slight. But for Fiers, throughout his career, those kind of slight adjustments have meant the difference in slipping into obscurity and becoming one of major league baseball’s most surprising young pitchers.
 
It was that determination that interested Sullivan in the first place. As soon as Fiers enrolled at Nova Southeastern, Sullivan was there to take in as many of his starts as possible. He saw a singular-minded focus in Fiers that wasn’t easily matched, even by big-time pitching prospects. He could get over the low velocity, he thought. That year, the Brewers drafted him in the 22nd round of the MLB Draft.
 
And with injuries ravaging the Milwaukee rotation in 2012, Fiers was called up for a May 29 start. He allowed four earned runs twice in his first three starts, but since then, Fiers has allowed just four earned runs combined in his last seven starts, boasting a 0.75 ERA in that span. Opposing batters are hitting just .179 against him. But are these numbers that he can sustain? Or is there reason to believe that Michael Fiers has become the Brewers’ best pitching prospect overnight?
 
A minuscule home runs-to-fly ball rate is working against him, as his three percent rate indicates he’s been a bit lucky with so few fly balls going out of Miller Park. He also has a ridiculously low BABIP in his last seven starts (.250), indicating that more than the average amount of balls he’s allowed in play have been fielded. But there’s no denying the effect his deception has had on major league hitters.

At the very least, his performance has been enough for his manager and teammates to believe this dominance is a sign of things to come.
 
“What I see from him, I have to believe he’s going to be this way,” Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. “I don’t think it’s fair to say he’s going to continue that for years, but with the deception and the way he can change speeds, I think that this is a guy that’s going to be able to pitch in the major leagues for a while. At the beginning, I wasn’t sure. At the beginning, you look up and see 88 and you’re like, ‘They keep missing it,’ and then you’re like, ‘Is this going to keep going?’ But we’ve seen it long enough now. It’s not just one team; it’s every team he pitches against. So I think this guy is for real. I think as long as he stays confident, I think he can keep doing it.”
 
“A lot of guys talking about it are like, ‘I don’t understand it,'” added right fielder Corey Hart, “because he’s not throwing 95, but he’s deceptive. … After what he did last year, I think everyone was like, ‘Maybe this is a fluke,’ but he’s shown that he’s the real deal. And for us, he’s been very helpful. I think he’s going to be very helpful for a while.”


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