A report out of Houston, where the rotation is about to be overflowing, has Astros righty Mike Fiers as the team’s only real non-tender candidate at tomorrow’s deadline to offer contracts to arbitration-eligible players. (Michael explored other non-tender possibilities here.)
Before it comes to a non-tender decision tomorrow night, though, the Houston Chronicle reports that the Astros will “surely attempt” to trade Fiers first. Perhaps there will be a team out there without as much starting depth as the Astros, which will value him at $5.7-ish million he’s projected to receive next season.
Being that the Cubs very much need back-of-the-rotation depth, it’s worth considering whether they’re a good fit for a trade.
Fiers, 32, bloomed late as a quality starter back in 2012, before settling in as an acceptable back-of-the-rotation starter for the Brewers, and later, the Astros. In 2016, he posted a 4.48 ERA over 168.2 innings with the Astros, featuring peripherals that more or less supported that ERA (which was about 10% below league average), making him about what you’d expect from a 5th starter in a good rotation. Obviously you’d love if all your starting pitchers could be better than league average, but, well, that’s the thing about the Bell Curve.
This season was a different story for Fiers, who was bit BADLY by the long ball, seeing his fly ball rate jump more than five percentage points and his HR/FB ratio spike to a whopping 19.5%. The combined effect gave him a 1.88 HR/9, which would have been third worst in baseball (one spot behind John Lackey) if he had enough innings to qualify, and ballooned his ERA to 5.22 – about 23% worse than league average.
Otherwise, Fiers had mostly league average numbers in 2017, from his 21.8% K rate to his 9.2% BB rate, to his .299 BABIP, to his 73.2% LOB rate. His low-90s velocity stayed in the same range as the last few years.
Basically, Fiers was a completely average pitcher in 2017 … who gave up WAY more than average homers. And there were some nice signals in his quality of contact, too, with a hard contact rate (30.1%) and soft contact rate (20.1%) that were both better than league average.
The real question is whether you buy that a completely average pitcher with good quality of contact metrics should have seen his home run rate spike SO MUCH MORE than the rest of the league (which, yes, obviously has undergone a homer spike in the last two years). Perhaps something about his game makes him far more susceptible to dingers in this era than other pitchers. Historically, he’s been four-seamer heavy (which often works up in the zone to induce weak fly balls, but can also yield more homers), but it looks like he has tried to reduce his reliance on the pitch in favor of a sinker … almost exactly in step with the Juiced Ball Era’s emergence:
So, perhaps the massive homer spike for him in 2017 was a fluke – which happens all the time. Or perhaps he doesn’t have a pitch available to counteract what’s happened in baseball.
There’s also the fact that he got absolutely torched in his final four appearances of the year (13.0 IP, 24(!!!) ER). That’s never a good sign, but perhaps something flukey or correctable was off in those four outings (he had a .481 BABIP against, for reference). And it’s worth pointing out that, in the 25 starts that preceded them, he was sporting a better-than-league-average 4.17 ERA (albeit with a still out-of-control 1.92 HR/9).
At a mere $5.7 million commitment for 2018, with another year of arbitration control thereafter (a nice optional bonus if he turns things around), I can see a reason to roll the dice on a guy like Fiers if the trade cost is virtually nothing (the Astros are considering non-tendering him, after all). Or, if he becomes a free agent tomorrow, he’s worth a look as a fifth starter option.
Let’s be clear about what I’m talking about: Fiers is not a guy who should light your pants on fire (not pun intended). He’s just an innings-eating depth guy whose performance suggests he could be a league-average starter in 2018. Even on a playoff-hopeful team like the Cubs, that has value. You need guys like that. This isn’t about getting Fiers instead of a sexier option. It’s just about exploring all avenues to build up the Cubs’ pitching depth.
In a lot of ways, Fiers is kinda like John Lackey was in 2017 for the Cubs, but cheaper.
Which kinda reminds me about an obligatory non-performance note: Fiers was the guy who threw over Luis Valbuena’s head because he was unhappy about a bat flip. Not cool, man.