Tucked within numbers that offer insight into Mike Fiers pitching past is one revealing column from 2017.
He put 62 batters on base, in 153.1 innings.
“A lot last year,” said Fiers, a friendly right-handed pitcher and Florida native who grins easily, and who can laugh just as freely at a quip, which he and fellow Tigers starter Matthew Boyd were managing to do regularly last week during some Tigers caravan preliminaries at Comerica Park.
Fiers said he would be “cleaning all of that up” in 2018, which the Tigers are presuming as well. They spent $6 million on a pitcher who became a free agent last autumn after the Astros decided he had no practical slot with them in the days ahead. It’s something they had also decided heading into the 2017 playoffs, which they turned into a World Series champagne party even as Fiers was dropped from the playoff roster.
One reason all of that happened is because of the Tigers. They had traded Justin Verlander to Houston in August and thus turned Fiers into Mr. Dispensable.
Verlander all but flung the Astros to their first-ever championship by way of a remarkable postseason that saw him pitch Verlander-vintage shutdown baseball. Fiers was still with the team, in uniform but not eligible to pitch, urging on his mates, doing what he could, emotionally, to help Houston beat the Red Sox, Yankees, and then the Dodgers.
“It was tough, man, especially when I had pitched all year,” Fiers said. “But to make an addition like Verlander, you’ve got to do it. So, being a competitor, you still want to do something. Cheering in the dugout, picking guys up. I wasn’t there to pout.”
Why wasn’t he pitching?
The prosecution has its case.
Twenty nine games, 28 of which were starts, produced a 5.22 ERA. Fiers had a WHIP of 1.43. Two sets of digits, equally damning.
In those 150-plus innings he worked in 2017, Fiers was socked for 157 hits, including 32 home runs. His strikeouts were solid — 146 — but, again, those 62 walks, which were accompanied by a league-high 13 hit batters and 11 wild pitches.
The Tigers decided for two reasons Fiers was worth a shot.
He fit their 2018 budget, which remains on a strict diet. They also believed he might, at 32, summon skills more reminiscent of his 2015 season, when he pitched for the Brewers and Astros and rolled up a 3.69 ERA and 1.25 WHIP in 180.1 innings.
Anyone is forgiven for thinking there’s more hope than realism in the Tigers’ thoughts.
Fiers’ repertoire is broad but nothing fancy. Fastball that runs 88 to 91, with a two-seamer that doesn’t draw as many ground balls as might be expected. He has a second-pitch curveball, a change-up, and a cutter/slider combo that amounts to a window-sticker accessory.
What he must show is that old word, command, which was clearly missing last season.
Ron Gardenhire talks about selling first ticket at TigerFest. Chris McCosky, Detroit News
One way in which some old polish might return is tied to a newcomer to the Tigers staff.
Pitching coach Chris Bosio.
Bosio was Fiers’ pitching guru at Triple-A Nashville in 2013 when Fiers had a 2.20 ERA ahead of his big-league call-up by the Brewers. Bosio now is in Detroit as new manager Ron Gardenhire’s pitching tutor. At the very least, he and Fiers understand what once worked and what must come together in 2018 if Fiers is to last.
“Nothing but helpful,” Fiers remembers of his days with Bosio. “He’s just got this touch. Good person, overall. Straight shooter.”
Whether he can improve Fiers’ ball-strikes ratio is the heavy question. Fiers is the classic case of a pitcher who must use all strike-zone quadrants and elevations.
If he’s off, he can get pounded. Too many walks. Too many pitches in hitters’ counts. It’s one way in which you get socked for those 32 home runs in 2017.
But if motivation is any factor in these missions, Fiers is flush with it. He has a one-year deal with the Tigers. What happens this season determines how much baseball future remains for a man who in June turns 33.
He and Bosio will be huddling in two weeks at Lakeland, Fla. Spring training is where fixes are made and new — or, perhaps in this case, old — habits are forged.
The Tigers have no illusions and neither does Fiers. He needs to be one of a team’s 2018 plus-side surprises for this experiment to work for two parties.